Loins of Punjab Presents is a mockumentary patterned after the formula of Christopher Guest - a variety of could-have-beens and wannabe butt heads in a contest of talent, but more importantly, of self-worth and vindication, in which seemingly average non-creative types pit themselves (and each other) against steep odds and go to surprising lengths to get something that most people wouldn’t even think of applying for. In this case, the object of the game is the Loins of Punjab Bollywood-style singing contest, sponsored by Mr. Bokade (Jameel Khan), who is bringing all of this to fruition courtesy of his outrageous pork fortune. As a portrait of Indian-American culture and people who aren’t as talented as they wish they were, Loins is surprisingly sharp in its politics and perspective on the difficulties of maintaining cultural identity in a rapidly shifting world. It's too bad it doesn’t work better as a film.
Even if they aren’t directly analogous to characters in previous films, it would be difficult to call any of the contestants surprising. There’s Rita Kapoor (Shabana Azmi), the woman motivated more by pettiness than any real desire to win; Turbanotorious B.D.G. (Ajay Naidu) the gangsta who’s more sensitive than he initially appears to be; Vikram Tejwani (Manish Acharya) who recently came to America to find fortune only to have his job outsourced to India; Sania Rahman (Seema Rahmani), the aspiring actress who doesn’t know a word of Hindi; Preeti Patel (Ishitta Sharma), the teenage girl who has an exceptionally supportive family with coordinated t-shirts; and Joshua Cohen (Michael Raimondi) the Jewish-American who has a greater knowledge of Bollywood and Hindi culture than perhaps anyone else in attendance. In proper mockumentary fashion, they spar, conspire, and make strange alliances in the hopes that it might get them the award (which also comes with $25,000).
The greatest central irony at the heart of Loins is Cohen, who has an Indian girlfriend (Ayesha Dharker), and can sing as well as anyone there, but has no trace of Indian heritage in his genealogy. The threat that he poses to a culture that has already ‘made it’ in America is minimal, but the subtle fear and resentment that he inspires in the rest of the contestants is revealing; as his girlfriend tells him, he’s not really Indian, no matter how much he immerses himself in the culture. But when juxtaposed against people who are only participating for personal gain or out of a sense of familial obligation, the obvious question arises: who is? This question goes, of course, unanswered, because providing one would upset the carefully maintained sense of frivolity and humor that pervades the entire film, but provides an interesting subtext that one wishes that the filmmakers had taken a stance on.
The film is obviously a low-budget one, and it manages to confirm something that I’ve always suspected, but had little proof of: that corporate is an attitude rather than a distributor. Even though the sincerity of the filmmakers is not in doubt, the humor is so calculated and bloodless that it seems that it could only have come from a studio sponsored research group. Though few of the jokes really hit, and no character could really be considered a comedic standout, the most obvious offender of the film’s comedic sensibilities is Mr. Bokade. Every inch a projection of what the writer/director (Manish Acharya) imagines someone would find funny, he evokes every impression of both Borat and Ace Ventura that you ever heard one of your annoying friends do.
Loins will probably appeal to certain populations more than others, as its sense of cross-cultural politics is both prescient and intelligently handled. It’s a shame, however, that it doesn’t have a sharper idea of what’s potentially funny about that, as its sense of humor lies elsewhere, in a place that, at least for me, wasn’t particularly funny.
DVD Bonus Features
If you do happen to find it funnier than I did, you’re in luck, because this is a pretty well-stacked two-disc set. The first disc features the film as well as two audio commentaries (one for writers and another with the director and film critics Rajeev Masand and Mayank Shekhar). The second disc features a number of deleted scenes with commentary by director Acharya , the theatrical trailer, as well as a music video for one of Turbanotorious’s songs (and its remix).
"Loins of Punjab Presents" is on sale April 6, 2010 and is not rated. Comedy. Directed by Manish Acharya. Written by Manish Acharya, Anuvab Pal. Starring Ajay Naidu, Ayesha Dharker, Jameel Khan, Manish Acharya, Shabana Azmi.