Smorgasbord of Cultures: ’Shiv Shastri Balboa’ Reflects the Real American Kahani of the Desi Community
- The film is refreshing in the originality of its voice and in the representation of a multigenerational family with each generation struggling to adjust in its own way.
Last night I watched the movie “Shiv Shastri Balboa” in a theater in New Jersey to support my school friend, fellow thespian, and cast member Anil Joseph. I walked out of the theater as an ardent supporter of the whole team.
The movie provides a unique voice to the desi American experience, a demography mostly overlooked in American cinema and grossly misrepresented in the Indian film industry (with rare exceptions like “The Namesake”).
The desi community (South Asian diaspora) makes up about two percent of the American population, with Indians making up only six percent of the total immigrant community in America. Though a small percentage, South Asians hold prominent positions in the corporate world and in many fields from academia, medical science and research, and even journalism. However, desi lives are not the ideal underdog stories that would attract the attention of writers and filmmakers, at least not on a large platform. After all, an older Indian gentleman working in a gas station does not make for a “Maid in Manhattan” kind of love story.
The unique syncretic life of the desi community is close in values to both the Indian and American social conscience. We carry in us the diligence, academic proclivities, and single-mindedness to succeed, of our parents’ generation and have also adopted the dignity of labor, entrepreneurial spirit, and perseverance of American society.
Like any other immigrant group, we have grown into our own breed of people who are closely related to our home country as well as our adopted country. We are similar to other immigrant groups in our struggle to adjust, adapt, thrive, and even succeed but our stories are unique, and our voices are unique.
The desi community itself is a smorgasbord of cultures crisscrossing a few countries, religions, castes, and languages, and buries in it multiple points of view and experiences. Most of it is not visible to the larger American society as we are mostly represented with a broad brush. The stereotyping of characters like Raj in “The Big Bang Theory” misses the nuances, sensitivities, and emotional subtleties of desi lives.
“Shiv Shastri Balboa” is refreshing in the originality of its voice and in the representation of a desi multigenerational family with each generation struggling to adjust in its own way. Haven’t you often heard older parents saying “No one has time for others in America” and your kids say “but you do not know what it is to grow up in America”? Perhaps it matters that the writer-director and much of the cast and crew are Indian American first-generation immigrants.
The diaspora adores Indian cinema and is closely connected to all the news and controversies from Indian Tinseltown. But isn’t it time we saw ourselves represented on the screen, our own unique American experience? Not an NRI story represented by unrealistically large bungalows, and bar-hopping Indian yuppies with fake accents.
Though movies with production values and spectacular sets like “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” and “Namaste London” satisfy our need to see glamor, songs, and romance on the screen, they fail to dip deep into the dual heritage and dual identity of an ordinary American desi. I have often wondered who these characters were and where they lived.
Over time, South Asian Americans have started getting in front of and behind the camera as well but not our stories, at least not enough. And that is why we need writers like Ajayan Venugopalan, the writer and director of Shiv Shastri Balboa. Hopefully, movies like this will inspire other writers to bring such stories to the fore and more production houses will pay attention to them.
So why would you watch a movie which is so relatable and looks like your life? Because it is funny, it is hopeful, has a great message, and it is inspiring. Anupam Kher and Neena Gupta have deftly portrayed characters that are ordinary profiles but extraordinary in what they overcome.
Only actors of their stature could bring out both humor and pain simultaneously while looking convincing and relatable. You will immediately fall in love with Neena Gupta’s character. And Sharib Hashmi is a treat. The plot will keep you riveted — even without a toe-tapping hip-gyrating number. There are some very funny and some very human moments that will remain with you long after the credits have rolled that you can chew upon later too. Much like the Thanksgiving leftovers of us American desis!
Priya N. Iyer is a bilingual writer, poet, and theater enthusiast. She lives in New Jersey and is a professor of economics at a state university.