American Made

My friend (and fellow Michigan Alum) Sharat Raju will have his short film American Made featured on PBS stations across the nation next week. The film, originally shown beginning in 2003 at various film festivals (including Artwallah while I was serving on the film committee), features a Sikh family on the side of a desert road trying to get their broken down car running again.

American Made began with a trip through the desert by writer/director Sharat Raju. While driving along Highway 14 north of Los Angeles, he noticed a car pulled over on the side of the desert road and began to wonder what would happen if no one stopped to help. What if there was someone who looked suspicious? What if it was a family who looked foreign, not American? What does an “American” look like? This internal debate was the seed for American Made, and Raju easily found real-world examples of the xenophobia that swept through the country in late 2001. His Indian-born parents, although having lived in the United States longer than they lived anywhere else, suddenly felt like outsiders in their own home. Although they were American, being “American” now seemed to mean something different, something less inclusive than it had been. This feeling of alienation was not exclusive to a single race or group. One community in particular felt this change in the social climate perhaps the most — the Sikh religion in America. [Link]

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p>Kal Penn (credited as Kalpen Modi for this film even though he was already going by Kal Penn) has a supporting role in the film where his character spends most of the time trying to get his cell phone to work. PBS has been good at featuring stories about South Asians on its nationwide networks. This film is being shown starting on May 9th as part of Independent Lens program. In addition, you can find a slew of South Asian related films on the PBS Frontline page. Hell, last month a PBS show even had me in it (yes, that was an absolutely shameless plug :) .

In any case, I hope SM readers get a chance to check out this film next week. Sharat is also the director and co-producer of the movie Divided We Fall which we have covered before.

67 thoughts on “American Made

  1. Tashie– It is so obvious that you are not proud to be Indian and brown and that you are attempting to imitate American culture. Your name is indicative. “Tashie”? What kind of name is that?! Are you trying to be Black or White? What are you doing with such an un-Desi and un-brown name?! Sharam,sharam, sharam!!

    Your parents should have shipped your ass to boarding school in India when you were younger so that you wouldn’t have grown up to be such an American born CONFUSED Desi. You would have learned to be proud of being Indian and Hindu, instead of trying to impersonate “Americans”.

  2. S Jain,

    Being American is a nationality, not an ethnicity. It is entirely possible for a person to simultaneously be American by citizenship and Indian by ethnicity.

    Taking this further, an Indian with US citizenship (especially one who was born in the country) IS American, first and foremost. They may have Indian ancestry but they are not “Indian” in a nationalistic sense.

    Indians living overseas are not necessarily an extension of desi society back in the subcontinent. They may have historical and (to some extent) cultural links to India, but they are actually from different countries.

  3. interesting (angry) thread…my two cents…

    The U.S. has a history of racialization in the U.S. – this idea that S. Jain refers to that people see us as brown instead of “American” — a product of the xenophobic vs. xenophilic nature of this country, or the melting pot of American Dreams of assimilation vs. fear of ethnic cultural pockets. These ideas have morphed into the sense that there is one “popular” pereception of what it means to be American, and the desi-American story is pushed to the margin of this “American” identity. But just because our desi-AMERICAN story isn’t heard by the majority of America, and our story is disavowed and pushed back, doesn’t mean that we are not just as American as the next American. i.e. How American we are is not based on the racialized perceptions and popular story of Americanism — but is based on a self-identity of being American, a self-identity that on this thread people are proud to have.

    Our history of being a South Asian American, a bicultural hyphenated identity, is just as legitimate of a history to being American as the non-hyphenated American identity. Which is wny this movie is so good, because in the 10 minute short, it addresses all these angles to being a South Asian American. I think it is amazing that with the history of being diavowed, and ashamed of our culture, our need to assimilate, that finally NOW, we are in a place in the South Asian American identity where people can be proud of our hyphenated indentity and be able to organize to make the OUR history more mainstream, document the history (with movies like these) and fight for the equality that all Americans deserve, despite this history of racialization.

    Ok, i just re-read that and realized how ivory tower that sounded. But I wrote a paper on this topic last quarter. My point is, it’s a complex issue, & there are a lot of factors that are not being considered in the thread. Go read a book. :-)

  4. Taz,

    You have an interesting view point. However, let me be concise.

    South Asian American has a long history of trying to gut their hyphen (it goes back to British Raj and brown sahib), and it is only now some are trying to bring it back (some people are asserting their distinct identity but just read comments here often, even on this thread). How much is window dressing?

    On the contrary, African-Americans went out of the way to bring their hyphen back. I personally know some mixed race African Americans who will within few minutes tell you that they have African blood in them even if you do not even ask them. Bringing back African as their distinct hyphen was big part of Black movement – Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali, Du Bios, MLK.

    No one can say it better than Muhammed Ali:

    His very first comment was “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” Subsequently he said: “Why should they [the army] ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Lousville are treated like dogs? If I thought going to war would bring freedom and equality to twenty-two million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me. I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up and following my beliefs.

    Simple acts, Muhammed Ali bonding with people of Zaire when he trained for the fight with George Foreman was not only showmanship but he reasserting his identity.

    Even people like Toni Morrison acknowldeges it fully:

    American means white, and Africanist people struggle to make the term applicable to themselves with ethnicity and hyphen after hyphen after hyphen.

    PS: To each its own. Be happy, don’t worry. I ain’t no quarrel with them Americans of South Asian decent and their angst.

  5. Even though we may think like American and try to impersonate their culture (especially the ABCDs raised here), we need to realize that we are Indian.

    Man, Is this guy (S. Jain) for real?? or just someone who is bad at being a TROLL? (as suggested by uncle_tashie)

    Hey Taz, Dont waste your time explaining!! And WTF does it mean to be Indian anyways? Someone who has Indian citizenship? Or someone who “looks” Indian?? WTF is “looking Indian” anyway. India is a vast multi-ethnic country with no single “look”. Most people who make such claim have their own prejudiced idea of what “Indian” is supposed to be.

  6. Correction: All were quotes by Muhammed Ali. No plagarism.

    His very first comment was “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” Subsequently he said: “Why should they [the army] ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Lousville are treated like dogs? If I thought going to war would bring freedom and equality to twenty-two million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me. I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up and following my beliefs.
  7. Kush(54# & 56#)

    Interesting perspective. As an Indian living in India , I have always been sure of my identity (in terms of real world). I guess it will be very difficult, if not impossible for me to think in terms of Americans of Indian (or greater Indian Sub Continent ;-) ) descent.

    PS: To each its own. Be happy, don’t worry. I ain’t no quarrel with them Americans of South Asian decent and their angst.

    Truer words were never spoken. However from

    (55#)

    Dont waste your time explaining!! And WTF does it mean to be Indian anyways? Someone who has Indian citizenship? Or someone who “looks” Indian?? WTF is “looking Indian” anyway. India is a vast multi-ethnic country with no single “look”. Most people who make such claim have their own prejudiced idea of what “Indian” is supposed to be.

    Dont waste your time explaining!! And WTF does it mean to be American anyways? Someone who has American citizenship? Or someone who “looks” American ?? WTF is “looking American ” anyway. America is a vast multi-ethnic country with no single “look”. Most people who make such claim have their own prejudiced idea of what “American ” is supposed to be.

    I think there are few people who have to knock India to assert their American identity, but I think this also is two way.

    Regards

    PS Indic civilization (which is different from Sovereign Secular Socialist Republic of India) is slightly older than American civilization. I do not think it is fair to compare the two nations.

  8. Gaurav–

    I guess it will be very difficult, if not impossible for me to think in terms of Americans of Indian (or greater Indian Sub Continent ;-) ) descent.

    If you are a Desi living in the Desh, this is completely understandable and natural. Sometimes, though, (and I am not addressing you), I think first generation Desis who come here and meet us ABD’s (note the exclusion of the “C”)do not know what to make of us 2-gers (I suspect that our friend S. Jain is a 1-ger). Example: one 1-ger asked me: “Do you like mithai?” I replied, “Yes, I LOVE barfi, shikand, gugra, ladoos.. everything except jelebi. I hate jelebi” She responded, “that’s so interesting because Americans don’t really like Indian sweets”. Deep down inside, I was secretly protesting “Hey!! I grew up eating Desi food! No McDonald’s for us! Even when mummy was claiming to make ‘spaghetti’ just to mix things up a bit, the spaghetti sauce was spiked with tons of masala. Anyway, I’m Gujarati, yaar, and sweetness is in my blood :) ”. A stupid point of contention, I know (especially when one thinks of eating Desi food as indicative of being “Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi,etc”. A problematic concept). At the other end of the spectrum, another 1-ger friend of mine stated passionately that we ABD’s should acknowledge that we come from the Desh, that we should not turn our backs on “who we are”. Huh.

    This does not mean that we ABD’s do not experience identity difficulties. We are constantly negotiating our plural identities, but this should NOT be synonymous with being “confused”. There comes a point (usually, with age) where we are confident of who we are: “Desi- American”.

    Kush: I’m glad you weren’t pulling a Kaavya.

  9. Correction in above post:

    There comes a point (usually, with age) where we are confident of who we are: “Desi- American”.

    “confident” is the wrong word. I mean, there comes a point when we are confidently settled in our multiple identities

    Now that I think about it, perhaps the fact that I corrected my previous statement may bery bell indicate that maybe I really am ‘confused” ;)

  10. I am not sure how people like SJain get the right of commenting on other peopleÂ’s sensibilities and putting each and one of a whole generation of people of Indian origin in one bucket, it is ignorant at best. I am myself a first generation Indian (before an ABCD a term I clearly despise as this a figment of someoneÂ’s futile imagination to term a whole generation or class of people confused assertion is cast on me) and no one irks me more than people like SJ who have nothing better to do than dis other people to hide their own prejudices. He or she clearly doesnÂ’t have an iota of common sense to realize that everyone who looks like me doesnÂ’t necessarily think like me. It is people like him or her who generalize and trivialize everyone elseÂ’s experience and upbringing.

  11. This aired tonight on Bay Area PBS stations and I feel lucky that I was able to catch it. I agree with Taz that the movie have the tendency to lapse momentarily into the cliche, but overall I found it honest, engaging, and deeply stirring. Watching the proud and optimistic Sikh patriarch reduced to peeling the “God Bless America” sticker off of his Jeep’s bumper and holding it up to passing motorists in a desperate attempt to flag for help is both evocative and heartbreaking, a reminder of the obstacles Sikhs face on a daily basis in America.

    On a related note, Stanford will be hosting a Sikh Film Festival this summer. (American Made will be shown.)From the website.

    The first Bay Area Spinning Wheel Film Festival will take place at the Cubberly Auditorium, School of Education, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA on Saturday June 3rd 2006 bringing together filmmakers from across the globe to discuss their work and screen their films that touched on the Sikh experience.

    Sadly, none of Waris Ahluwalia’s Wes Anderson vehicles are included.

    PS According to IMDB, Bernard White appeared in a few episodes of Days of Our Lives and one episode of Knight Rider. As exciting as the idea of a desi fighting crime along with the unstoppable Hasselhoff is, I suspect the actor may have been a different Bernard White. Any desi hipsters out there that have seen the episode in question?

  12. It was interesting to read some of the comments written about the so-called “ABCD”s experiencing an identity crisis. I’m a 1st generation Indian who has been in the US for a little over a year. First of all, I find the acronym ABCD to be kinda derogatory and I would personally never use it to refer to anybody. Secondly, saying that Indians born and raised here “impersonate Americans” is a ridiculous thing to say. Being born in this country means you are an American, whether you are white, black, brown or yellow. Ironically, despite being a first generation Indian, most of my friends are American (white, black, asian etc) , and I find them a lot easier to get along with than some 1st generation Indians that I have met (or “FOB”s as they’re sometimes called). I ESPECIALLY HATE THE JUDGEMENTAL STARE THAT A “FOB” GIVES YOU WHEN HE/SHE SEES ANOTHER INDIAN JUST BECAUSE YOU LOOK LIKE YOU ARE FROM THE SAME PART OF THE WORLD AS THEY ARE, IRRESPECTIVE OF WHETHER THEY KNOW YOU OR NOT AND WHERE YOU ARE, EVEN IF YOU ARE AT A PUBLIC PLACE.

  13. I saw American Made yesterday afternoon on PBS. I thought Bernard White’s accent was totally off, but on IMDB it says he was born in Sri Lanka. So obviously he must have some desi connection. And I thought the most convincing performance of all the actors was the younger brother — he even outshone Kal Penn.