Picture this scene: An airplane junkyard somewhere in the deserts of California is a meetup joint for a gang of white "racist goons" - all very buff, mostly shaved heads, all wearing sleeveless vests. In a scene meant to show how evil these thugs really are in their blind racism against Sikhs and Muslims, they each take turns shouting and grunting in the most over-the-top theatrical way exactly how racist they are (clenched fists and punches in the air, included). And in case you didn't get by this point that they are the perpetrators of hate crime, one of them standing atop a discarded aircraft shouts something along the lines of: "Hatred is the most powerful weapon we have. We will use hate to get rid of them." They also seem to be the root cause of all the racist attacks in post-9/11 America. All over America. One local group. Simple as that.
These are the "villains" of actor-writer-director Puneet Issar's latest offering, I Am Singh, a film that leaves absolutely nothing to imagination or interpretation and insists on spelling everything out. Over and over again. The film comes with an intriguing and noble concept: a look at hate crimes against Sikhs in the aftermath of 9/11. However, the concept goes disastrously, and laughably, wrong in execution.
The film opens with a montage of harrowing images from 9/11, suggesting a taut socio-political drama to unfold. Instead, it cuts to an old, white-haired woman, sitting on a bench in the middle of a cemetery next to Ground Zero, narrating to the audience in her shrill, solemn voice what the film is about. This is where it starts - the spelling out of every point or message that Issar and his team want to get across. It's also not clear why she's sitting in the cemetery or why she's narrating directly to the camera. Or, for that matter, why she is even chosen to be the narrator.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly which element of the film goes so terribly wrong. Or perhaps it's everything. Taking a sincere concept and making it an incredibly two-dimensional, jingoistic, choppy script laden with the most artificial and simplistic dialogues was the first mistake. Take, for example, the protagonist, Ranveer Singh (Gulzar Inder Chahal in a mono-expressive debut), who drops his partying lifestyle in India to get justice for his family settled in the U.S when his one brother gets killed, the other goes missing, and father is badly injured as a result of a racist attack. Screaming and grunting his way to America, Ranveer uses any opportunity to preach about Sikh pride and glory, then yell some more Sikh pride stuff - in Hindi - at the white racist goons, and then, you guessed it, some more yelling.
In its overzealous attempt to fight discrimination and give power to wronged minorities, I Am Singh instead becomes a guidebook to stereotyped casting. Ranveer, the well-built macho Sikh hero, befriends two Pakistani brothers, who are fair-skinned, don long hair and beards, and always wear kurta pajamas. They collectively berate three Gujarati shop owners, who are darker, middle-aged, pot-bellied and are branded as cowards for witnessing the hate crime but running away from it.
The most ludicrous casting is of the white American characters. Almost all the non-Indian characters in the film's version of America are white, blonde (or bald in the case of our goons), and played by painfully wooden actors. The casting mistakes cover a whole gamut, from the model-like blonde duo of human rights lawyers that Ranveer goes to for help (Amy Rasimas and Brooke Johnston, both artificial), to the breed of wrestler-type gang of goons, to the LAPD cop who can't decide which accent to speak in (or perhaps that's the fault of whoever did the dubbing for him).
Throughout the film's torturous two hours, it's virtually impossible to know what exactly the film is trying to say. It begins as an effort to counter Anti-Sikh discrimination post-9/11 and then shifts to the turban issue with the introduction of Fateh Singh (Issar, himself), a former LAPD cop who is fired for refusing to take off his turban. The film then wobbles uncontrollably through flashbacks about a Muslim man being mistaken for a named terrorist, and then to Ranveer's brother being falsely charged for murder by the LAPD. A courtroom drama follows, where all the actors continue their record feat of mouthing dialogues like a memorized speech with zero expression. And just like that, after repeatedly glorifying Sikh history and resilience, the characters stamp out the root of all racism in the world when the bodybuilding thugs are finally arrested or killed. The incredibly complex and layered issue of global racism and discrimination was so easy to solve all along. Silly us for thinking otherwise.
I Am Singh is a shining example of how not to make a film. It's not just an opportunity lost. It's hurled as far away as possible from logic, restraint, or any kind of sensibility. And if you're still curious about the film, save two hours of your life and instead just sacrifice a few minutes on the trailer.