American Turban

A review of Puneet Issar’s “I am Singh”

"I Am Singh" Poster (photo: cinebasti.com)

“I Am Singh” Poster (photo: cinebasti.com)

At a local theater this past weekend, I took the opportunity to watch “I Am Singh“, a Bollywood movie that was written and directed by Puneet Issar. According to the movie’s website:

This story is about a young Sikh named Ranveer Singh, a young, confident man settled in India. Ranveer’s elder brothers are citizens of America. Ranveer’s life takes a turn when he receives a call and he comes to know that one of his brothers is dead, his father is seriously injured and his other brother is missing. The cause of this is unknown.

The inspiration behind this movie was the backlash that Sikhs and other South Asians have faced in the United States after 9/11.

Let me say, as a preamble to my review of the movie, that I respect and appreciate the motivation behind this film.  It is a noble and creditworthy objective for the producers to create a film that would highlight the issues faced by Sikhs and other minorities in the United States, and try to educate audiences about who the Sikhs are, what they believe, and the injustices they have faced. The theme of this story is one that many Sikh organizations and individuals in the United States have worked tirelessly for – protecting the civil rights of minorities based on those guaranteed to all in the Constitution.  Sikhs faced challenges before 9/11, but the terrorist attacks amplified the discrimination that many South Asians had to bear.

While I’m in no way an expert on film, what follows is a review of “I Am Singh”.  Be aware that I will be discussing plot elements that will give away parts of the story.

The story is framed by a monologue of an elderly mother, sitting at Ground Zero in the present day.  She discusses the impact of 9/11 on society and emotionally speaks of the losses that innocent people have suffered because of the attack and because of the backlash since.  The majority of the movie, before returning to this woman, is the story of her family in the days after 9/11.

While the movie opens and closes with this woman, the protagonist of the film is one of her sons: one Ranveer Singh, who is the youngest of three brothers.  He lives in India while the rest of the family – his parents, two brothers, sister-in-law and nephew – live in Los Angeles.  His brothers and father are attacked in a parking lot by racists who target these men on the basis of their ethnicity and turbans. One of the brothers is killed, the father is beaten severely, and the surviving brother is arrested by officers from a biased police department led by a bigoted sheriff.  On hearing the news of the attack on his family, Ranveer Singh comes to America to deal with the aftermath and pursue elusive justice.  Another Sikh, Fateh Singh (played by Puneet Issar), is a Sikh who was suspended from the LAPD for refusing to discard his turban while serving, and he crosses paths with Ranveer Singh to help him find justice.

A critical aspect to the film was the focus on the Sikh turban and less about uncut hair (which the turban is supposed to cover).  Most of the main male characters were shown with trimmed beards (in reality, the actors themselves do not keep their hair nor wear turbans – another example of “Sikh-face“). The movie is all about the turban, and to neglect the full Sikh identity was a mistake, in my opinion.  Unfortunately, this is not unusual in Bollywood – recent films such as “Singh is Kinng” have portrayed Sikhs in this light, and with that misrepresentation, these movies have done us a disservice.

Also not uncommon in Bollywood these days, the film has a fixation on scantily-clad white women as female dancers, the first set of which appears very early in the movie as part of a bachelor party scene.  The scene is gratuitous and really had nothing to do with the theme nor the plot, and as such I wondered why it was even included in such a film. Later in the film, similarly-clad white women are dancing with turbans on their heads in a Daler Mehndi song sequence.  These sequences hardly reflected the “pride and honor of the Sikh’s turban” that is stated as the inspiration of the movie, and many people could find the sequences ridiculously offensive and contradictory to the film’s message.

In contrast to the above, there were a couple of song sequences that exhibited traditional Sikh soldiers preparing for battle.  Both sequences occurred before the protagonist was to face a challenge, and it was an interesting way to show how Sikhs draw from history and their martial spirit their strength and courage to face obstacles. The hawk that appeared in these sequences could be interpreted as a symbol of Guru Gobind Singh, watching over his Sikhs from above.  I found the use of these images quite interesting and novel.

Concepts of the pride and honor of the Sikh’s turban, and izzat (personal/familial honor or prestige) also appear in the film. These are very South Asian concepts, and the crimes and biases against the Sikhs are held as violations of izzat.  I’m not sure that such concepts would be considered very relevant to a non-South Asian audience.  Being Sikh was also often confounded with being Punjabi (as one of Daler Mehndi’s song sequences emphasized), and I don’t think that was useful.

Shortly after Ranveer arrives in LA, the movie begins to devolve into a series of stern lectures covering an array of topics, which included but were not limited to:

  • the sanctity and symbolism of the Sikh turban
  • how Sikh children are teased in school
  • the failures of Sikh parents to educate their children
  • the misguided interpretations of Islam that motivate some to take up terrorism
  • the anti-Constitutional nature of the violations of the civil rights of Sikhs and Muslims
  • that Sikhs and Muslims are not terrorists
  • the lack of unity among South Asians in standing up for rights
  • standing up for one’s identity
  • the role America has played in the creation of the Taliban, Al Qaida, Osama bin Laden, and Iraq

Sitting in the audience, the constant lecturing – broken up by the song sequences – became somewhat exhausting to me (as did the constant zooming into Ranveer Singh’s face on any dramatic scene).

I also felt that the movie did to Americans what it accuses Americans of doing: stereotyping. Most of the police officers in the film were white, and shown as uncaring, bigoted, callous and even in association with the racists criminals (who were constantly referred to as “rednecks” – a stereotypical word itself).  I thought this was an unfair characterization of law enforcement, and for a movie that is trying to dispel stereotypes about South Asians, the use of the word “redneck” was probably inappropriate.

The acting was not the greatest, and there were constant inconsistencies in editing, but more importantly, the film’s plot and dialogue were very simplistic and out of touch with reality.  “I Am Singh” seemed not so much about telling a story but more about voicing the intended messages, and therefore the story and plot suffered from superficiality.  For example, even to a lay person such as me, how the legal process was presented was very inaccurate – so much so that several separate cases (the wrongful imprisonment of Ranveer Singh’s brother and the wrongful dismissal of Fateh Singh from the LAPD) were heard in one single trial with one jury and judge.  This did not make any sense, but it was perhaps a convenient way to present these issues.

Much of “I Am Singh” left me shaking my head with disappointment, and frankly, I found the movie embarrassing at times.  It was difficult to sit through the whole thing.  The movie suffered from lack of context – it was obvious that this was a movie made by Indians who don’t live in the United States, nor have a full understanding of this country (how many police stations in this country have cops standing guard outside?).  Quite often, it seemed as though the setting was being confused – some of what went on might be the Indian context, but it was being applied to America.

I give full credit for the motivation behind the film, but if the intention of the filmmakers was to educate the public about what Sikhs are facing in this country, I don’t think that this movie expressed that sentiment particularly well.  Perhaps those who are fans of Bollywood might be more forgiving, but I personally wouldn’t recommend this movie to someone who was not familiar with Bollywood film-making, and therein lies the missed opportunity in communicating the lessons espoused by “I Am Singh”.

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