Judge Russell Engbretson's debut review confronts the age-old question: Do punk rock and Bollywood mix?
A comedy where Bollywood meets Hollywood—head on!
West Is West is an unpretentious and pleasant take on immigration, culture shock, and interracial romance filmed in San Francisco circa the late eighties. Despite its age, this is the film's first DVD release.
Facts of the Case
Vikram (Ashutosh Gowariker, director of Lagaan) arrives at the airport in San Francisco and experiences his first American encounter of the ugly kind: The U.S. Customs Service agent slashes his visa from six months to one month. Next, he finds that his sponsor has suddenly returned to India due to a death in the family. With nowhere to stay, Vikram must spend his small allotment of cash on room and board. He learns quickly that the uptown hotels are out of his price bracket (at $175 a night for a single bed), and wends his way into environs somewhere near the Tenderloin District.
Vikram rents a room from hotel proprietor Mrs. Shah (Pearl Padamsee), loads up on sugary goodies at the local grocer's, and otherwise makes himself at home in the U.S.A. while he waits for a letter of admittance to Columbia University. He also wheedles a job as the hotel's night manager out of Mrs. Shah, which conveniently leads to his first encounter with Sue (Heidi Carpenter). Sue is the redheaded, bohemian punk rocker who provides our protagonist with his love interest. Of course, things are now getting a bit too comfortable, so along comes the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the person of Mr. Klassen (Rex Delgado), who rains all over Vikram's parade. Klassen informs Vikram that his visa has expired and he is required to provide proof of an airline ticket and departure date within 24 hours.
The story proceeds with a few episodic adventures in which Vikram attends a punk rock party, flirts with breaking the law, and tries his best to avoid the clutches of the INS. The ending was not what I expected, but it was true to the lighthearted mood of the picture. The director also includes an affectionate tribute to Bollywood movies with an East Indian song-and-dance number.
This movie appears to be director David Rathod's only feature film, and it displays some of the hallmarks you might expect from a directorial debut: The budget is minimal, and the pacing sometimes falters, but the enthusiasm of the cast and crew is almost palpable. The movie sustains a nice mix of light humor and understated drama. The protagonist's situation is not a life-and-death struggle, but the ramifications of a shortened visa or rejected college application will be life altering.
An undercurrent of hostility from authority figures is directed at Vikram. The agent at the airport truncates Vikram's U.S. visitation time with obvious relish. Beneath the agent's mask of duty is gleeful vindictiveness and blatant racism. Appropriately, a framed picture of Ronald Reagan hangs on the wall behind and just above the agent's right shoulder. In another scene, Vikram is in the hotel lobby making a call when he finds a paperback copy of The Ugly American perched atop the pay phone. The INS agent who confronts Vikram is a typical bully, rude and arrogant, who insists unctuously that he doesn't want to "get ugly."
Despite the occasional jab at bigots, however, the movie does not really come across as a political statement. Vikram's goal is to acquire a college education and make a boatload of money. He pastes empty candy wrappers on his wall as decorations, and he works two jobs. Sue, in juxtaposition to Vikram, rejects materialism (in one scene she jokingly calls Vikram a brown-skinned yuppie), and defies the wishes of her sister and parents to jettison the "starving artist" lifestyle. The hotel owner, Mrs. Shah, is a petty bourgeois with an acquisitive nature honed to a sharp point. She is shrewd and calculating, and does not allow national bonds or motherly instincts to intrude into her business affairs; nonetheless, she is a generally sympathetic character. Overall, the film introduces a disparate set of characters and lets the viewer decide who is the wheat and who is the chaff.
The extra features include two short, earlier films directed by David Rathod: Henry's River (7 minutes) and Distant Traveler (11 minutes). The former film is a quick meditation on youth and old age tied together by a visit to a river; the latter, set in India, is about a woman who wanders too far from her broken-down bus and receives a short lesson on Indian culture, as well as a helping hand from a ghostly figure. These are almost certainly student films, but I enjoyed them.
The director comments briefly in one feature on the cast and crew (mostly about Ashutosh Gowariker and Pearl Padamsee). In "San Francisco: Then and Now," David Rathod revisits the film locations 17 years later and provides an informal, amiable chat as he ambles from one site to another. As he points out, things have changed remarkably little since he filmed there. A stills gallery that runs in slideshow fashion is also included in the extras.
The DVD image was soft, marred by a very few scratches and stray hairs near the beginning. There was some digital combing that probably won't be noticeable on smaller displays. The colors were good: bright and vivid. The sound was a workmanlike Dolby mono, clear enough for a movie that is mostly dialogue. The DVD is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, so it is a genuine full frame, not a pan and scan.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The DVD should have included English subtitles, or at least closed captions for the hearing-impaired. A director's commentary would also have been nice. The cinema where Sue works as a concessionaire displays George Romero's Living Dead trilogy on the marquee, but the brief inserts of the movies are not from anything Romero ever shot. Are the Romero movies just what happened to be showing at the real theater when this picture was shot? Did the film crew whip together some silly horror footage because they couldn't obtain the rights to Romero's movies? Inquiring minds want to know. These are the kind of important questions that a director's commentary might illumine.
Clocking in at just eighty minutes, West Is West does not overstay its welcome. It walks a tightrope between the comic and the serious, and seldom falters. It is interesting to watch a movie set in a part of San Francisco that is not often filmed (around the Tenderloin and Mission districts). That it was filmed during the ascendancy of punk music is an added treat. If you enjoy light, character-driven, independent films sans car chases, gunfights, or loud banging sounds, you might find this movie to your liking.
Because this film has passed beyond the statute of limitations, nolle prosequi will be entered into the court record; however, the jury would surely have returned a verdict of not guilty had there been a trial.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Milestone Films
• Henry's River (short film)
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