What happens when a bunch of hapless Hindus from Hoboken get mixed up with an underworld don with connections to an Indian call center? And what happens when a good Jersey girl falls for a smooth operator thousands of miles away? For one thing, the phone keeps ringing.
This month Cinema Asian American on XFINITY ON DEMAND presents Sarba Das’ rollicking comedy, “Karma Calling,” an off-kilter portrait of the Raj family, a clan that finds itself haplessly entangled in the odd but endearing new/old, multi-cultural world of suburban New Jersey.
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Pater familias Ram Raj is in denial about creeping credit card debt, eldest daughter Sonal finds herself unwittingly falling for a call center operator in India, Shyam is the pot-head hip hop wannabe son who eyes are drawn to a newly arrive village girl betrothed to the local Dollar Store mogul, and teenager Jamuma is obsessed about having her own Bat Mitzvah. When the gods and fate intervene, all bets are off.
Narrated by award-winning actor Tony Sirico (aka “Paulie Walnuts” of “The Sopranos”), “Karma Calling” is a snapshot of our hyper-globalized world through the eyes of a Garden state family just trying to get by. It’s a quintessential American tale about unlikely alliances, outsourcing, and outwitting.
Director Sarba Das sat down with us to talk about the making of her first feature film.
Karma Calling is built around a neurotic, slightly odd, but totally endearing New Jersey Indian family who both affirm and upend everything we expect of them. Where did these characters come from, and how did you develop them?
My last name is Das and in our family we have a little running joke often referring to ourselves as “Das-functional.” Many of the characters in Karma Calling grew out of actual members of the Das-functional clan. For example, “Mausi” the hyper chai-caffeinated Mary Poppins from India auntie is played by my mother Sulekha Das who has many similarities with her. Like many immigrants, my Ma refers to a blackberry as a “blueberry,” an ipod as a “tripod” and so on. While my mom is much younger in real life than the character (she was not happy about me forcing her to dye her hair grey), there are undertones of her own strong cultural opinions throughout the film like staunch vegetarianism and the importance of Hindu traditions. The character of Shyam, the wannabe Dr. Dre character is based on my cousin and his friends I grew up around in New Jersey who called themselves the “Om Boys.” While they had a rap group and wanted to be the next big moguls of hip hop, there was also something very down home Indian about them and many of them even got married in partially “arranged” situations to nice girls from India like the character Radha. Most of the characters developed from observations about my own family and as they began to morph into movie personalities, I definitely took some artistic license in adding in a few extra spices for maximum movie flavor.
The film features a number of great comedic performances from a cast that comes from the stage, TV and film, including Samrat Chakrabarti, who we have seen in everything from 30 Rock to Outsourced. Tell us about the Indian comedy and acting networks you tapped into to cast this film, your thoughts on the recent rise of other South Asian comedians like Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling.
I cast out a nationwide search for all of the actors in the film. Some like my mother came from my own backyard and others like Samrat, I’d learned about through their roles in other indie features and television. I discovered Parvesh Cheena who plays the smarmy call center operator “Peter Patnick” through his improv and theater work in Chicago years before he went onto play series regular “Gupta” on Outsourced and am overjoyed to see such talent blossoming in the mainstream along folks like Danny Pudi from Community who I also directed alongside Parvesh in a staged reading of Karma Calling back when we were developing the script. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to kick back with a copy of Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? or to channel surf and come across the faces of Rizwan Manji or Aziz Ansari. The true fact is that this is my generation. While I was studying directing at NYU, these were the guys starring in our short films–at that time, all of us wondered if we could really make careers in TV and film as South Asians and so it makes me proud to be a part of a group that is not just doing it, but truly owning it and being embraced outside of the community all the while.
Your film skewers seemingly every sacred cow that might cross the path of an Indian in Jersey: call centers, off-kilter cultural hybrids (Indian hip hop and Bat Mitzvahs), arranged marriages, wide-eyed fresh-off-the-boat-straight-from-the-village immigrants and more. There is a heart and truth to the hyper-reality that you portray though; why did you use comedy to tell this story and was there anything off limits?
I choose comedy as my primary mode of storytelling simply because I myself like to laugh. While I love a good tearjerker, I have noticed that the films I watch over and over again are movies like “Napoleon Dynamite”, “Office Space” and “Sixteen Candles” –movies that make me giggle. Somehow I found that in “Karma Calling”, if I could apply a playful sensibility to an immigrant tale, I could actually get away with more if that makes sense. In the context of comedy, the “off limits” stuff becomes the center around which the humor revolves and it just seemed to fit. There really wasn’t anything off limits for us. When I cast Tony Sirico who played Paulie Walnuts on “The Sopranos”, I remember being a little worried that devout Hindus might get upset when Ganesha was going to sound like a mobster, but was pleasantly surprised to see how much people relish that kind of comedic paradox. If anything, making “Karma Calling” has shown me just how limitless filmmaking can be these days.
What are you working on now?
I divide my time between independent filmmaking and producing reality television. Currently a series I produced called Secret Millionaire is airing on ABC on Sunday nights. I’m also developing a script called Bollyhoods which is an action comedy set in the Bollywood Underworld during the 1970s. It’s sort of a Get Shorty goes to India and I’m hoping to launch production in Mumbai next year.