I waited almost a year for my chance to see this film, and the charming comedy was worth every minute of the wait. 11 months after its successful festival opening and notable 7-week run in Indian theaters, Manish Acharya's adorable and fun debut film, Loins of Punjab Presents, has finally begun a limited theatrical run in the United States.
Loins of Punjab, the largest distributor of pork loins on the east coast, is sponsoring a weekend-long talent contest called Desi Idol, and desi dreamers from all over New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut have descended on a humble New Jersey conference hotel to work their talents for a chance at the $25,000 prize. The contestants include Sania Rehman (Seema Rahmani), a mediocre New York actress with Bollywood aspirations; Vikram Tejwani (Manish Acharya), a laid-off financial analyst who breaks down everything - including romance - into probabilities and statistics; Preeti Patel (Ishitta Sharma), a high school student suffocating under the thumb of her rigid, but loving, immigrant family; A gay hip-hop Bhangra dancer calling himself the Turbanotorious B.D.G. (Ajay Naidu); and Joshua Cohen (Michael Raimondi), an American admirer of Indian culture. Joshua enters the contest at the urging of his girlfriend Opama Menon (Ayesha Dharker), who soon grows less supportive when she realizes he is the ridicule of the Indian contestants.
The film's delight is in the detail with which each of these characters, and even the many others who come and go throughout the film, are painted. Although Acharya draws on stereotypes, he does so with deep affection for the many-faceted NRI culture from which the stereotypes arise. And more importantly, he does so with great original humor; the jokes are not merely based upon the stereotypes, but are built upon them in satisfying layers. So while there are broad laughs to be had from such moments as a Gujarati uncle asking for "wedge snakes" (his mispronounced version of "vege snacks") or Sania's inability to string together a sentence in Hindi despite her Bollywood dreams, there is subtler humor as well - like a running joke of desi characters taking Joshua for a waiter, or the poignant jokes about the contestant called Saddam Hussein, a security specialist who can't get work because of his unfortunate name. This sort of joke adds a slight tinge of edginess to the humor, hinting at the darker aspects of life as a desi in America, without burdening the film with too much preachy politics.
Of course the main attraction for me is the vicious socialite, Mrs. Rrita Kapoor (Shabana Azmi), for whom no tactic is too low if it will help her win the contest. She intends to donate the prize money to her pet charity - if only to upstage a generous donation by her chief rival in her high-tone social scene - but her noble intentions can't compensate for the dirty pool she plays. Her performance is as broad and scene-chewing as any in her career, and watching it almost is almost as much fun for us as giving it seems to have been for her. But notwithstanding my own Shabana-centric reasons for awaiting this film so eagerly, no one character stole the show. They are all likeable (well, except Mrs. Kapoor), sweet, and very, very funny.
The resolution of Loins of Punjab Presents carries a warm-hearted message which, in one of the film's many clever and funny twists, is incoherently verbalized by its dumbest character. If you have the opportunity to see it, you should. It is an outstanding debut film, full of smiles and "awwww"s, and deserves to be picked up for broader distribution.