On a drive to Rockford, IL, a couple of summers ago, a blurb in the local paper caught my eye. An “Indian” film was being shot at the local airport. Curious to the max, I dug into the aforementioned film and learned that a filming crew for a project titled Legally Desi had converged to shoot a scene at the nearly-deserted Rockford airport, which would stand in for a busy terminal at Chicago’s behemoth O’Hare International. My curiosity into how this would translate onto the big screen made me anticipate Legally Desi ever since.
For us Midwesterners, seeing the Chicago skyline—the premiere urban destination for all moderns here—on a large screen English language Indian-American flick is as much a cinematic homecoming epiphany as it gets. Be it My Beautiful Greek Wedding or Legally Desi, the affect is the same. Elation. Pride. Testosterone boost. Hardcore proof to the snobs on the continental coasts that the distance between LAX and JFK is not just flat, fettered, flyover country.
Which brings us to Legally Desi, an off-center, slightly beguiling, and ambitious filmmaking debut of Chicago-based Amin Rupani. Using a local crew and cast, this Desi follows the misadventures of newly-arrived-to-America Jaspal (Ghazi) who is keenly interested in transforming his temporary student visa status into a permanent green card.
Just two things stand in his way. No. 1, to establish permanent residency, Jaspal must first 1) find and, 2) marry a suitable woman with permanent residency status. No. 2, Simran (Bhatt), the nubile ABCD princess that Jaspal gets attracted to, also embodies the same Western horrors (makeup, speech without an accent, mini-skirts and die-hard shopping) that all well-behaved desi mama’s boys are warned about before they embark on an American adventure.
With some difficulty, Jaspal reconciles his cultural training with his newfound sense of freedom. Before Jaspal and Simran can settle on the same assimilation groove, however, a school of misconceptions, preconceived notions and, yes, stereotypes have to be overcome.
While Legally Desi narrowly misses the carefree cross-cultural flair that made American Desi the darling of the 2001 film season, director Rupani and company improvise with drive and enthusiasm. A less self-conscious delivery from some first-time performers, better writing, and tighter editing (especially towards the end) could have transformed some of the crude R-rated jokes into crude R-rated zingers.
However, the inclusive Americanism that Rupani celebrates—the script makes stops of gays, lesbians, frequent masturbators, married men tempted by hookers, and heavily-accented men (seldom women) who have trouble being understood—lands Legally Desi on a terrain that is edgier than American Desi.
One of the joys of living in America is the option for anyone with a hyphenated identity to define the moment when the hyphenation gets the axe. As Legally Desi proves, for some it’s the moment you decide to throw in the towel and make a movie about the axing. That makes Legally Desi worth a look.