Punching at the Sun


Finally!   A genuinely funny and touching movie about what it’s like to be young, Indian and American, and growing up in the U.S.

But wait, that’s not what this story is primarily  about, and maybe that’s why it doesn’t suffer the same fate as earlier movies that were only about that East-Vest mix of growing up a certain four-letter acronym and  resulted in stories that were overwrought, stiff, and leaning on too many stereotypes.

The character at the heart of this film by Tanuj Chopra is Mameet, a high school boy living in Queens who’s trying to cope with the  death of a much loved  older brother, who  was killed during a robbery at the family convenience store.   It’s his and his family’s coming to terms with death, and Mameet’s acting out as a result, that is the core story for Punching at the Sun.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of indicators that the characters are South Asian, but Chopra has crafted it so that the kids  desi-ness melds – seamlessly, it would appear – with their just being teenage boys from Elmhurst.   All tricked out in oversize basketball singlet and baggy jeans, Ritesh  jokingly calls Parnav, the somewhat heftier friend, “butter chicken”, and when Mameet’s two cohorts start doing “Your Mama” lines at each other, they go like this: “Your Mama wears a snakeskin sari and a fedora” and “Your  Mama  paints on  her bindi with ketchup”.   In between the four days that the story spans, a South Asian rapper serves as a kind of Greek chorus narrating what it’s like be South Asian  in these post-9/11 days, at one point remarking to his audience “I can see my CIA file getting thicker by the minute.”

What I particularly enjoyed about the film was how it went against what you’d generally expect: yes, their Mom covers her head when she’s out and about, but she also smokes while she’s driving, and, interestingly, Mameet’s love interest, Sawni (played by the precious and charismatic Nina Edmonds) is black, but that is never made to be an issue.

Misu Khan, the young  man with almost no prior acting experience  who plays Mameet, is  natural and not at all self-conscious on camera.   He was present at tonight’s screening of the film, along with director Tanuj Chopra, and was quite shy when he found himself onstage for the Q & A at the movie’s end.   When asked for any tips for up-and-coming filmmakers, Chopra remarked  “Take your time.   And it helps  to have a good line of credit.”

This movie was screened Thursday, November 2nd, 2006 at the Indo-American Arts Council sixth film festival.

14 thoughts on “Punching at the Sun

  1. Just spent some time on the website for the film and i am even more hyped to watch it — even though there’s no trailer, the vibe from the pictures and some of the blurbs make it seem good. UK release please. Although unless it comes to a festival I doubt it.

  2. Sounds like a good movie.

    Filmiholic, I think what BS is getting at is how repetitive and cliched the depiction of desi life and desi men is in terms of diaspora cinema. It looks like this movie may well address this problem, though, and that is one reason why I’d love to watch it.

    I know where BS is coming from. Many cliched stereotypes constantly filtered through the culture can grate the nerves. Can you blame desi men or women for feeling that? Don’t African Americans have issues with their depiction? Or Asian Americans, for example? That’s what I hated about Ninas Heavenly Delights – I predicted every single scene of it from the start. The trouble is that some diaspora films pander to mainstream society’s perceptions of who we are — so throw in the exotica, the arranged marriage dilemma, the curry, the camp bollywood posturings, and depict desi men in the most cliched and demonising way (you know, emasculated, repressive) You should be grateful that people like BidiSmoker are out there chomping at the leash to question these tropes —- good art comes about when people want to challenge prejudices and dead depictions.

    I hope this movie is released in the UK. Seems like some good stuff is beginning to emanate from the brown diaspora in the USA. In the UkKwe are stuck in the rut of pandering to the white mainstream audiences desire for depictions of dysfunction and the desire to have their liberal hatreds of desi men confirmed.

  3. I am not impressed with any of the Indian-American works I have seen, to be honest. I find them mostly of low quality, and designed to either fit into the narrow, shallow Bollywood conventions (Bride and Prejudice, ABCD, American Desi) or to pander to the expectations of Western audiences with exoticism and cheesy cliches (Guru, Bollywood/Hollywood, American Chai). There are obviously not a wide range of choices, and I have yet to see Water or The Namesake (though I hated the book, so I’m sure the movie won’t be much better). As for filmmakers, there is no doubt that Nair is the most talented, Salaam Bombay is one of my favorite films. Her other movies are also mostly good, but in public she keeps up the tired refrain about fighting oppression despite her upper middle class harvard background. Likewise, I like Deepa Mehta as a filmmaker, but I would hardly call her films realistic depictions of the diaspora. The most realistic portrayals of Indian characters in my experience tend to be those where the character’s Indian background is almost incidental, such as Harold and Kumar or the low-brow comedy films of Jay Chandrsekhar. While these are hardly great cinema, they are much more reflective of the second generation types I have encountered throughout my life. Night Shayamalan is another example; again I don’t like his films but they have Indian characters in minor roles that seem perfectly believable.

    As you can see, I don’t think the Indian-American community has been well represented in any film yet. This is a sentiment shared by most Indian-American people I know. I would like to see the films you mention, but I suspect my experience of them would be very different than your own, as I would be able to tell what rings true to me. I have not read either of the authors you mention, I mostly read Modernists and I haven’t really heard of those guys, but I will check them out. As for your final question, pressed to give an answer I would say no one, but Nair has the potential to do so with the right script. I’m sure there are hundreds of others like me out there trying to produce it.

  4. BS, given that your Mom’s a mental health expert, I would imagine that you would haqve experienced a community where there was no stigma attached, but I don’t know if I’d draw that parallel out to the IA community at large. Mental illness has a stigma, to varying extents, in any community. I think their point at then end of Hiding Divya, by listing the local South Asian mental health support group contact info is so that people who might feel comfortable discussing the subject among their own community can do so.

    I have no doubt that the rate of intermarriage is higher in the Indian-American community than among 1st genners settling here, it makes complete sense, no? Out of curiosity, where do you get your figures from?

    As for parents not being thrilled about intermarriage, I never said that the number of Indian parents who react negatively is higher than any other group. Most parents, I’d guess 90%, of any nationality or ethnic group would prefer their child marry the same as they are.

    So we’re in total agreement there.

    On the 3 movies I mentioned, none of them really dwell on difficulties that any oppressed person has had to overcome. In Hiding Divya, Madhur Jaffrey’s character seems to have had a comfortable middle class life in her second marriage. My Bollywood Bride is the story of two fairly comfortably off people, so same thing there. Even “Punching at the Sun”, though the family is maybe what would be considered lower middle class, and you can see that the parents are tired from working long hours at the convenience store, the store is their own business, which is an accomplishment.

    Aside from the authors you mention, have you read Abha Dawesar or Amitava Kumar? I think they reflect a very different reality than some of the authors and filmmaker that you mention.

    Let me ask you, which writer or filmmaker do you think has accurately represented Indian-American life?

  5. My mother is Psychiatrist and active in Psychiatric Association of Indian Americans (or something like that) so no, mental health had no stigma in the community I grew up in. You misquote me, I was referring to Indian-Americans (Approx. 2 million) not “over one billion Indians”. I still maintain that most Indian-Americans are not racist. As for them not being thrilled about their children marrying out of the community, I would say it is not to any greater extent that white, black or latin communities. It is just a commonly held stereotype that Indians are somehow more racist or more against intermarriage. That statistics show that a much higher percentage of Indian Americans are of mixed race than any other group. Are you basically telling me that you know more about Indian-Americans than someone who has grown up in the community? Can you produce statistics or references that correspond your generalizations?

    As for those movies, i cannot comment on their merits, having not seen any of them. I live in Ohio, so we don’t have access to much in the way of independent cinema. Actually I think most of those people made those films to get noticed and hopefully get hired to direct a major Hollywood/Bollywood production, and all that goes with it. Addressing the similar content, they are simply following the Deepa Mehta/Arundhati Roy/Jhumpa Lahiri/Monica Ali/Kiran Desai road to success: ignore the numerous advantages and opportunities you have been given over your peers throughout your life and write a book/movie about how terrible and oppressed you are as a desi woman, especially by those evil, misogynist desi men. Then wait while prize nominations, plaudits and critical praise follow. A pretty smart plan, and us desis are nothing if not quick to adapt to market conditions.

  6. Dear , dear BS, not at all. I’m not generalizing about people.

    I did make a comment about what has been presented in a lot of Indian and Indian-American films, and that there are some generalities there, though I observe that they are shifting.

    I don’t maintain there’s any “movement” against intermarriage, just some observations from friends (Indian-born, US-born of Indian origin, African-born of Indian origin) that some families are less than thrilled at the prospect of someone from outside the community marrying in, but that too, as I mentioned, can be an attitude that changes over the years. My closest friend in the whole world is married to a white American, and her parents love him like their own kid now.

    Moreover, I think you yourself are generalizing rather broadly when you say “…There are families that hold tradition very strongly but they are mostly older and outdated and not the rule.” Can you tell me, with such a diverse nation of over 1 billion people (then factor in the numbers of the diaspora on top of that) what is “the rule”? (I don’t think there is one.)

    You obviously don’t like Gurinder Chadha or Mira Nair, which is fine, but how about you mention some Indian filmmakers that you do think represent your reality accurately?

    Going back to my original comments on the movie “Punching at the Sun”, and the whole bit about the Mom smoking, what I intended to relay is that I found it refreshing to see a film that didn’t cling to the more stereotyped behaviour that IS present in so many films about what a good mother does or doesn’t do, or rather should or shouldn’t do.

    And finally, I do take exception when you say “It seems borderline racist to me for you to make all these assumptions on our community based on pop culture references and a couple stifled female friends.” All I’ve been writing about is my observations of what I’ve seen on screen, portrayed by a variety of filmmakers. You can argue as to how relevant pop culture references are or are not, but I would ask you why is it that three of the feature films I saw last week touched on what you and I have been discussing (differences, acceptance, otherness)?

    In “Hiding Divya”, a rebellious 32-year-old woman (2nd gen desi) had a daughter out of wedlock 16 years earlier and when she and her mother run into some 1st generation women her mother’s age on Oak Tree Road, they react with shock to the fact that the woman was not married.

    In “Nina’s Heavenly Delights”, a young Scottish-Indian woman has a close friend who is also Scottish-Indian and a gay transvestite, and she herself is grappling with accepting that she is a lesbian. Her mother is totally cool about it. In fact everyone is totally cool about it. There are no shocked aunties anywhere.

    And in “My Bollywood Bride”, screenplay co-written by Kasmira Shah, who also played the lead role, she frets over choosing and marrying a white American guy (played by Jason Lewis) when her parents have already promised her to – don’t laugh – Gulshan Grover. And when Lewis asks her about never having slept with the man she’s promised to, she replies “That’s not our tradition.” And the overriding message of the film is to follow your heart.

    Are any of these accurate representations of Indian or Indian-American reality? Or are the filmmakers hoping to shape and change attitudes by what they portray on screen? I think certainly with “Hiding Divya” and “Nina’s Heavenly Delights” the latter is true. In HD, the stated intent of the filmmaker is to help shed some of the shame associated with a family member having a mental illness, and with NHD, I’m guessing that the director/producer wanted to show a family and community where it wasn’t a big deal to be gay.

    And my personal circle of experiences goes way beyond just pop culture references and “a couple of stifled female friends” (and please don’t think cos some cabbie gives out to my BFF or some woman on the street looks at her sideways for smoking that she’s going to be stifled in any way). I’ve spent almost half my life around Indians and Indian-Americans, living side-by-side in one case, and while there are some broad generalities that one can utter, what I’ve learned is that there is no hard rule about anything, and for every rule there are a dozen variety of exceptions and variations. And that’s what makes it fun and fascinating.

  7. It sounds to me like you are generalizing from a small amount of anecdotal evidence. The fact is more than 25% of Indian-Americans marry outside of their race. Obviously the movement against intermarriage cannot be that strong. There are families that hold tradition very strongly but they are mostly older and outdated and not the rule. As for the depictions of Indian filmmakers like Chadha and Nair, they are most sensationalized and over dramatized precisely to conform to the preconceived notions that westerners like yourself have about “the way Indians are” I have spent my whole life around Indian-Americans, and nothing you have highlighted above seems to be generally true for anyone but the most backwards. It seems borderline racist to me for you to make all these assumptions on our community based on pop culture references and a couple stifled female friends. Perhaps you wouldn’t like it as much if I did the same to your ethnic group, whatever that is.

  8. Bidi Smoker (love the handle!), absolutely not! I’m not saying it’s solely what I’d expect in real life.

    What I was referring to is the fact that so many prior Indian films HAVE made a big deal out of the fact that a woman smokes, or that one of the kids in a family have gotten involved with someone who is non-Indian.

    With regards to “how would you know”, I’ll tell you that aside from what I’ve seen portrayed on screen by Indian, or Indian-American, filmmakers, and which, granted, we can only say for certain reflects his or her point-of-view, in real life itself, I have a girlfriend (desi) who smokes and who has gotten lectures from desi cab drivers about it, and who I’ve also seen get disapproving looks from some aunties.

    With regards to attitudes towards people of other races, I’m sorry to say it, but it’s not always sunshine and roses, in any country, be it the U.S. or India or anywhere. I know personally of an Indian family where the son married a white Jewish girl and was disowned by his parents for several years (though things were patched up after the couple had a kid, and the girl is now held up as a wonderful daughter-in-law). And I’ve known someone who listed in order (from best to least acceptable) the choice and his parents attitude toward the girl he’d marry and it went like this:

    1. same subgroup of same caste (most preferred)
    2. same caste
    3. same religion but from a different state/community
    4. white
    5. Shudra
    6. black
    7. Muslim (least preferred)

    (Though I confess the last three categories blur in my memory as to who exactly came in a least- and second-to-least acceptable.) 

    What to do? I’ve also known white parents whose child was involved with an Indian and were not too happy either.

    Sadly, no one group on this planet has an exclusive claim on unfavorable attitudes towards others based on race…

  9. What exactly do you mean that story goes against what you’d generally expect? Are Indian people all supposed to act like we are out of a Gurinder Chadha movie? I’ve dated a few Indian girls, and they all smoked. My ex-girlfriend was black. What exactly are you trying to say? That Indian people are all racist and don’t like black people? How you would you know what it’s like to be an Indian in America anyways?

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