I get the melancholic task of laughing through my grief.
This is Sepia Tone, a column by Nadya Agrawal on growing up with films from the South Asian diaspora.
The clan is now hundreds strong across Texas. Houston is a kitchen drawer of my family members. And at the core of it, for me, is my dad, who marked the first generation of American kids in my family. The first to straddle generations and worlds. The originator of our sense of culture.
The indie slapstick comedy Where’s the Party Yaar? is a strange little send-up to where I come from but never fully grew up in. Though my father and my mom moved us to the California Bay Area when I was about six or seven, and we effectively became Christmas-Easter Houstonians, the city has always been our second home, at times feeling like our true home, the place we’d one day come back to. Yaar—shot entirely in Houston, Texas—helps me grasp at something intangible when it comes to my father. Like a portal into how he grew up. A projected history.
At age thirteen or fourteen, I remember bringing Yaar home, popping it in the player, and watching my dad and his friend, who had grown up just a few streets over from him in Southwest, point out everything they recognized: the University of Houston corridors that were the backdrop for some scenes and the Indian restaurant that served as another. They knelt in front of the TV when the credits rolled to pause and point out all the extras they knew personally and the stories they had of them—“They’re friends with my cousin . . . She used to hang out all the time in the dorms doing God knows what . . .” In a bizarre way, it was like watching a home movie. It gave me nostalgia for something I only experienced in echo, off of my dad and the cousins who never left Houston.
Three years ago, my dad passed away suddenly at the age of fifty-six in the quiet of early morning. No one else in the house was awake, and I was asleep in my apartment in Brooklyn. When I got the call, in a daze, I bought a cross-country ticket, went to the airport, and flew home. Walking through the house later that evening was a bit otherworldly—it was as though it, the rooms, the garden, the birds outside, didn’t hear what had happened. Everything continued on, undisturbed. I had the strange experience of coming across his last actions: I found his riding gloves crossed on the saddle of his motorbike, the last mug he drank out of was on the left side nightstand, his shoes were by the door still. Someone called these “moments in amber,” the last moments he spent alive preserved as he left them. But amber doesn’t suddenly break down and disintegrate. Eventually, a year later, the mug was cleaned and put back on the shelf. His gloves were removed from their perch. His shoes were shut in the closet where my mother kept all his clothes.
In a bizarre way, it was like watching a home movie.
After he passed away, it felt like the world was quickly emptying of all the things that held him to us physically. His phone number was reassigned, his social media accounts grew quiet, he was no longer on the other end, calling down the long wire of our connections. It’s been three years, and I’m only now coming out of the haze of it all. I was always scared I would not remember him as well and that, as time moved us farther away from the last times we were with him, we’d lose him completely. It’s a fear I still wake up from in the middle of the night, with my pillow soaked and my heart racing.
Everything he touched, or held in his hands briefly, has become invested with importance. Every CD he played in the car, every book on his shelf, all the movies he rewatched. These things held their shape, unlike all the others that were eventually put back where they belonged. Lucky and unlucky for me, all the films he loved were comedies, so as I work my way back through his selections, I get the melancholic task of laughing through my grief.
Where’s the Party Yaar?, or, if you prefer its anglicized name, Dude, Where’s the Party?,came out in 2003. It acknowledges this with baby-doll tees, flip phones, making fun of 9/11 paranoia-induced patriotism, and one innuendo-laden scene about cleaning the ball of a computer mouse. The premise is a simple city-mouse/country-mouse story: Hari, played by well-known voice actor Sunil Malhotra, leaves Gujarat to seek wealth and a wife in Houston, where his play-cousin Mo, portrayed by a very young Kal Penn, lives. From there it’s a push and pull between new immigrants and first-generation Americans, culminating in a college party aptly called “Desi Fever.”
It is a film preoccupied with identity. The story hinges on the concept of the “fob”—the “fresh off the boat” Indian and South Asian immigrants who come to Texas without shedding their accents, like so many of my own aunts, uncles, and cousins. As Hari comes into his own as part of a late wave of immigrants, Mo is wrestling with his embarrassment over Hari’s missteps and his genuine desire to help him acclimate. Mo is also trying to figure out what being first generation means to him, and the crux of the plot manifests in the identity crisis his thirteen-year-old brother is going through—in the background of the film, we watch Deepu try on and take off identities like b-boy, goth, and cowboy.
In the film’s C story, love-interest Janvi is making a documentary about “the Indian experience,” and we’re treated to a series of identity-essay topics in about thirty seconds: “How come when American girls wear Indian clothes it’s okay, but when Indian girls wear it we’re fobs,” “After Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out, everyone started asking me if I eat monkey brains,” “I was never picked for basketball. You got your dark chocolate and your vanilla and then I’m like milk chocolate.” It’s a bit heavy-handed, but the movie makes most of its mileage on low-hanging fruit.
Yaar was a sort of collectivizing experience—I watched it cross-legged on the couch, glancing over whenever there was a joke at where my dad sat across our small living room framed in the electric glow, watching him laugh with that uproarious, knee-slapping, hand-clapping laugh as he repeated lines right after they were said. He had a habit of guffawing theatrically through movies and then scowling if we asked him whether he liked them. “It was so bad,” he’d say. As if we didn’t see him enjoy himself immensely. I never understood if this answer was just a classic immigrant-dad response to never let people know you enjoy things on pain of death or if he reflected on the movies when they were done and decided, as an intellectual, they were actual crap. Probably both. Or maybe even some other inexplicable dad thing. I miss his snobby disdain, as much as it irritated me then.
My dad loved an irreverent comedy. The Party, Blazing Saddles, and The Birdcage were the time-passes of our Sunday afternoons. This is where I tell you that as a Boomer/Gen Xer cusp, my dad didn’t care for any of that identity shit. I watched white comedian Peter Sellers head-bobble his way through the 1968 film The Party a dozen times as a kid. Sellers wears boot-polish brownface and delivers jokes in an incomprehensible “Indian” accent. The Party set the mold for “white man does Indian impression,” like Hank Azaria’s Apu from The Simpsons. My dad loved this movie. He even showed it to my grandfather, his father-in-law, who chuckled all the way through it.
I’ve spent years working out my feelings toward the film even before a new colleague greeted me for the first time by calling me “Birdy Num Num” (I did not last long in that place). The film feels particularly dad-esque. A thing can only be softly nostalgic if you don’t think too hard about it.
Where’s the Party Yaar? showed at South by Southwest in Austin and premiered to mixed reviews. Most critics were also turned off by the pat gags (like when “Mr. Patel, your Toyota Camry lights are on” sends dozens of Indians scurrying) but applauded the effort. They all predicted Penn’s future success, of course. The only way you can watch Yaar now is by buying a copy of the DVD or with a slightly audio-unsynced YouTube playlist of ten-minute-long videos.
I find this film charming for a few reasons: It’s a slightly overworked labor of love, it has a candy-colored Y2K aesthetic, and it feels like a time capsule for the sort of life I might’ve had if my dad had decided to stay in Houston. The kitsch of it is what caught me when I first watched it and is what I recognize now. The jokes don’t have as much kick in recent go-arounds and without my dad punctuating the beats of every line with his knee-slapping crescendos. But it feels solid because it is heavy with the weight of my dad. I don’t think this is how he’d want to be remembered, with an out-of-date lowbrow comedy, but historical artifacts of a certain kind of South Asian Houston are few and far between, and we must, as always, make do. And there is still joy here.
What I do know about Houston intimately makes an appearance in the film: There’s a montage of a nameless subdivision full of McMansions (“typical filmy house,” as Hari says) and manmade lakes with their requisite central fountains. There are the looping eight-lane highways and the strip malls. In another diaspora film staple, the parents in Yaar are played by terrible actors because, of course, they are real parents and not actors. I understand my hometown as a collection of unique architecture and immigrant characters, and the film reflects it back on me.
I understand my hometown as a collection of unique architecture and immigrant characters, and the film reflects it back on me.
It’s hard to know sometimes what’s a loving, cheeky portrayal of immigrants and what is simply the old immigrants making fun of the new ones. I don’t agree with some of the reviews that consider the conflict balanced, with jokes on both sides. It feels very obviously tipped against the fob formation with only slight comeuppance at the end. The overreliance on site gags like Shyamsunder Balabhadrapatramukhi’s name being too long for his name tag, or when he steps onto the toilet seat to squat rather than sit on it, are what make the film memorable for those of us who watched it around 2003 and are also what make it impossible to live up to the rigors of 2021. In a lot of ways, it originated the jokes that would become stale in the intervening years, or it at least committed them to film for the first time. It wasn’t meant to be timeless, and it does not stand up to rewatches.
And there’s all the ways the film directly references No. 1 Problematic Dad Fave The Party. Hari’s oblivious repetition of “doggies” in place of “dawg” parallels the refrain of Sellers’s “howdy pard-a-ner.” His over-the-top accent echoes the cadences of Sellers’s caricature. The way it’s used here by Indian American director Benny Mathews is at once part of film tradition and disappointing. In a dark way, if you’re going to make a film lampooning recent immigrants, why not dredge up the brownface classic?
I understand now the disdain my dad had for some movies in the aftermath, including Yaar.There are some movies we have to just let ourselves enjoy because they’re a relief, or they’re the source, or they’re the one single movie in a century’s worth of filmmaking that scratches something close to your own life. That doesn’t mean we have to claim them or argue their case. You will never see me defend The Party, but you also won’t see me completely disavow it. This is my stupid cross to bear.
Watching Yaar again, almost two decades after seeing my dad excitedly point out all the elements that he knew and three years deep in my grief, made me realize how static the film is. How unchanging. I wasn’t surprised by it anymore. All of its jokes felt routine to me twenty years and a multitude of media on. It once again reflected back on me how I had made peace with so much. It is, in itself, a thing trapped in amber, unmoving and unperturbed by the way time has moved on around it, and that’s where it lives well.