Leela

2002, Movie, NR, 97 mins

Review

LEELA
starstarstarstar
Indian star Dimple Kapadia shines in this family melodrama that takes some surprising turns and addresses the issues of cultural assimilation and friction between immigrant parents and their American-born children more subtlety than less polished features like ABCD and AMERICAN DESI (both 2001). Shaken by her mother's death, Bombay University professor Leela (Dimple Kapadia) takes stock and finds her life wanting: Approaching 40, she's been married for two decades to Nashaad (Vinod Khanna), a famous poet and singer some years her senior, and is afraid she's accomplished nothing. She takes a job as a visiting professor of South Asian studies in California, where her students include sophomore Kris (Amol Mhatre) — Krishna to his mother and no-one else — the thoroughly Americanized son of fellow-teacher Chaitali (Deepti Nava). Chaitali is divorced from Jai (Gulshan Grover), who's now married to an American woman (Michelle Van Wagner) and is a marginal influence in his son's life. The over-protective Chaitali has a boyfriend, Summer (Brendan Hughes), but keeps the relationship secret from Krisha, who's still a virgin and takes a lot of ribbing from hot-blooded American pals JC (Kelly Gunning), Chip (Garrett Devereux) and Jamal (Kyle Erby). Kris and his friends are all smitten with Leela's beauty, grace and calm air of spirituality, and though Kris accepts an AMERICAN PIE-style bet that he can lose his virginity to Leela, he instead falls in love with her. She in turn befriends Chaitali, and reveals that her marriage to Nashaad, a habitual womanizer who calls her his muse and declares his devotion in songs and poems, is a source of emotional turmoil. As Leela grows closer to Kris, his relationship with his mother deteriorates, and Leela begins questioning the compromises she's made for her marriage. Each must make life-changing decisions above love, loyalty and family. Working primarily in English and on location in the U.S., but incorporating certain Indian stylistic conventions (notably musical numbers, here woven naturalistically into the story), first-time writer/director Samath Sen fashioned a modern version of the women's pictures that were once a Hollywood staple and are still hugely popular with Indian audiences. Though occasionally didactic (the supporting characters are especially prone to awkward exposition), the film's overall approach is deft, and Sen resists the urge to paint any of the major characters in broad strokes. Kapadia's intelligent, nuanced performance is the film's highlight, balanced by Khanna's portrayal of Nashaad, who could easily be a patronizing, chauvinist caricature. (In English and Hindi) leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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