For a film about the joy of music, and remixed rhythm, there is so little joy in the music — generic Disney stuff, I guess? There’s Indian representation here though, a big swing from the behemoth, I guess? Understandably, it pirouettes around the one representation of Indian-ness Americans are familiar with — Indian food. That’s good enough, I guess?
Written by Carley Steiner and Josh Cagan, the film is directed by Manjari Makijany, who was behind the banal but well intentioned Skater Girl. The same can be said of this film. Visually, of course they are chalk from cheese — one aestheticized in a village, and one in an American city. Here, the costumes are jazzed up, perhaps with a bit too much mirror-work. In the final climactic sequence darts of mirror reflections from the top Rhea (Avantika) is wearing can be seen on her face like blemishes. It’s also, sorry to note, a very ugly top. Americans doing Indian fashion dirty, yet again. (Not counting the Sabya x H&M disaster, because, well, that’s Swedish?)
Abhay Deol plays Aravind, a widower who owns an Indian restaurant in America. His daughter, Rhea, sincere to a fault, and his son, Rohan (Aryan Simhadri), quirky, bow-tied, and creative, help him out, taking restaurant shifts. His mother-in-law (Meera Syal) dances every Sunday for the diners, serving food in finery — embellished kurtas, jeweled ears, glittering gota dotting the edges of her pallu. (She wears an indigo blue sari, in a scene where others are draped in fiery red kurtas and deep green dresses — the costume designers were having a ball, it seems.) They are an Indian family but if you dig deeper for specifics you’ll fall short of answers — there is a Natraja statue, old Hindi songs, Holi, sorry The Festival Of Colour, mango-lassi-samosa-jalebi, there is even a Waheeda Rehman poster from a film that doesn’t have a digital footprint. (Rehman also played a small role in Skater Girl) I kept looking for clues for geographic specificity — where in India could this family be from — but I guess specificity wasn’t the point, preferring a generic, identifiable Indian aesthetic to riff off of. Fair enough.
The inconsistent accents are — thank god — not a muse for amusement. Never Have I Ever got us wiping our forehead with doubt every time someone pulled the Indian representation card. But unlike that series, this film lacks a compelling quality. Never Have I Ever had messy characters, at least. Here, they are so cloying and sincere, “focused and mature for [their] age”, that even the conflicts don’t have that quality of a conflict — they feel like inspirations.
The conflict is with Rhea — her sincerity to be a good daughter impedes the flighty, impulsive, joy-seeking tendencies of teenagehood. She suppresses the latter, but it is only a matter of time till it resurfaces in a dramatic showdown. Aravind isn’t a talon-gripped father, he is actually kind and considerate but makes the big mistake of assuming that what a teenager says is what they mean. He is a straight talker, but that doesn’t mean everyone around him is. He keeps asking if Rhea is really up for the work shifts, if she would rather be doing other things. She keeps capitulating, saying she insists on working, that it gives her joy. Aravind doesn’t pry more than this.
In between there is Max (Michael Bishop), a new British entrant into her high-school, who infuses her life with the joy of music, and the hormones of love, the oohs and aahs of life. Music is also the inheritance of her mother — also a musician, but how much and how successful is not mentioned. She becomes a generic figure of beauty and kindness, someone easy to grieve for, and memorialized in the climactic DJ contest.
DJ contest, because here music isn’t about the rhythms but the beats, the static flow of remixed scratches. But this film doesn’t even wallow in the dripping beats, not making us bob our heads, or shrink like violets when the beat drops. There is nothing moving, propulsive, or even memorable about the soundtrack, which is a damn shame. Because when movies on music don’t deliver on the music, they don’t deliver as a movie.