Like many films by modern Indian and Indian-born directors, ABCD
(an acronym for American-Born Confused Desi) dramatizes the conflicts between traditional and Western concepts of family life -- marital love in particular. Compared with others of its general type, among which Mira Nair's 1991 Mississippi Masala
is an acknowledged benchmark, Patel's rather bland and workmanlike debut feature tends to fade into the woodwork. Name a criterion -- acting, characterization, dialogue, creative use of cinematic language -- and ABCD
fails to distinguish itself in any notable way. With one major exception. Unlike most trad vs. modern culture-clash films in my memory, Patel's story offers a truly compelling argument for the Old Ways' continuing value and relevance. Patel's characters are, in the manner of an old Indian fairy tale that serves as a key plot motif, basically archetypes. The central figures are all members of a first-generation Indian-American family headed by arch-traditionalist mother, Anju (Joffrey). Daughter Nina (Sheth, who eerily suggests a DNA fusion experiment involving Jeri Ryan and former Bangle Susanna Hoffs) is mom's polar opposite: a George Will caricature of the promiscuous, self-centered feminist ballbuster. Her response to all things traditionally Indian is mindless scorched-earth hostility. Yuppie accountant brother Raj (Tahir), on the other hand, tries to straddle the fence. At the office he functions as a quintessentially regular American dewd while also proceeding with uneasy resolve toward an arranged marriage with an Indian woman whom he seems to respect but not (at least by the West's exalted lightning-bolts-and-ethereal-choirs standard) love. Both siblings experience jarring, if somewhat predictable challenges to their entrenched world-views. In the most interesting subplot Nina rekindles her affair with a rich Wasp boy who broke off their previous engagement, even as she finds herself oddly moved by the earnest courtship efforts of Ashok (Mandvi), a childhood friend from India. Each of Patel's storylines yields modest doses of insight and occasional unexpected humor, including some droll analogies between the racism Indian-Americans face in their adopted culture and the caste system they nonchalantly accept in dealing with each other. But apart from small blessings such as Madhur Joffrey's moving, consistently enjoyable performance as Anju, ABCD's
greatest achievement is its balanced, thoughtful exploration of alternate ways in which sexual pairing can be accommodated into social and family structures. Patel ultimately seems to tip his hand toward the West's more “enlightened” ideal with its greater emphasis on self-actualization and romance. However, the viewer also walks away with a greater appreciation for older traditions based on belief in obligation, self-sacrifice, and divine preordination, not serendipity. Considered strictly as a system, it's obviously hardy and enduring. It may even, in balance, result in less net heartache than our rather unforgiving all-or-nothing paradigm. Love as defined by these traditions may not ultimately be our cup of lassi.
But looking in the eyes of the emotionally destroyed Ashok in a late scene, it's clear that it's no less real for those who live within them.