Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Miss India America: Smile and Wave Everybody

Lily Prasad is deeply concerned about child poverty, in a way that is only possible for a beauty pageant contestant. It is part of her preparation for Miss India Golden State, a contest that includes all the standard pageant fundamentals, but also incorporates elements of traditional Indian culture. The ambitious type A valedictorian will have trouble with both, but she is out to prove something in Ravi Kapoor’s Miss India America (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select theaters.

Prasad’s valedictory speech basically boiled down to “so long slackers.” Unfortunately, that definitely included her football player boyfriend Karim, but Prasad has always prodded him to better himself. Unfortunately, her controlling nature will finally push Karim away from her and into the ditzy arms of an Indian American beauty queen. As part of her ill-conceived plan to win him back, Prasad enters the California pageant, intending to win her way to the national crown.

Despite her single-minded determination, the pre-med Prasad is definitely operating outside her comfort zone, so she recruits her BFF Seema as her coach and stylist. Even with her decidedly un-beauty queen-like manner, Prasad figures her bone structure will be enough to roll over most of the competition, but Sonia Nielson is a different matter entirely. She has the look and the grace. Prasad actually finds herself playing the underdog, which is not a familiar role for her. Of course, there are angles to work, like the aging Bollywood horndog serving as a judge and the equally randy but slightly less sleazy soap opera actor emcee.

Kapoor and co-writer (and co-star) Meerha Simhan nicely balance universal teen angst with specifics of the Indo-American cultural experience. Refreshingly, unlike many teen melodramas, the adults are mostly smarter and more mature than the kids. As exhausting as Prasad can be, Kapoor and Simhan clearly celebrate the success of families like the Prasads rather than apologize for it. Lily the golden daughter just needs to find a healthier balance.

Tiya Sircar is aptly manic and unfiltered as the hard-charging Prasad. Sustaining that kind of energy is just impressive. Hannah Simone offers some effective counterpoint as the cool and collected Nielsen, while nicely delivering a sly third act reversal. As her mother Divya Nielson, Anna George looks like her slightly older sister, but unfortunately does not get a lot of meaty dialogue to work with. Anushka Rani’s Nita Nanji is mostly played for broad laughs, but she pulls off the character’s moments of gravity. However, Simhan really gives the film heart and soul as Prasad’s misunderstood poet mother.

MIA is a spirited film about growing up and taking responsibility that has considerably more edge than you might expect. The ensemble is ridiculously attractive, but they are also poised and professional. Recommended as low-stress but not brainless cross-cultural comedy, Miss India American opens this Friday (3/25) at the AMC Mercado (San Jose market), AMC Rio 18 (Beltway area), and AMC Barrington (Chicagoland).