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Cultural Roots

Dosa in diversity


UNITED COLOURS: The team attempts to clarify notions and stereotypes about aspects of Indian culture

The 'Dosa Hunt' is more than just a search for New York's best dosa. It's a short film about the Indian community's growth and search for cultural roots in the US

The Dosa Hunt, very simply put, is a filmed quest by seven men to find New York's best dosa. On another level, it's about first-generation Americans of Indian and Mexican descent trying to find out who they are - through food. 

In June 2011, music writer and now director Amrit Singh's attention was cornered by a short tweet from American indie band Vampire Weekend's guitarist and backing vocalist Rostam Batmanglij. "Eating a dosa, " wrote @RostamBatmanglij. Excited that someone else shared his love for the South Indian "crepe with a spicy potato filling", he quickly replied asking where he was and which of the many dosa varieties was on his plate. A spicy Mysore? A classic paper masala? Batmanglij's answered: arugula and jack cheese. Even though Singh is a Punjabi, he quickly suggested a few places which serve authentic, in his opinion, dosas to Batmanglij, who is of Persian descent. Himanshu "Heems" Suri, of the rap group Das Racist, jumped into the conversation and quickly threw his weight behind Queens as the place to get the best dosa in NYC. American-born South Indian Vijay Iyer joined in with a few recommendations of his own and soon the idea for Dosa Hunt - "the greatest hunt for South Indian food in NYC ever committed to film" was born. 

"The tweet was definitely the catalyst, " Singh says from New York. "I'm a Punjabi and we didn't have dosa at home. It wasn't until I discovered dosa that I realised how little I knew about my culture, even about Indian food. My personal cultural curiosity about dosa is what prompted this little project, " he adds. Questions about cultural roots and identity were shared by the other six - Batmanglij, Das Racist's Suri and Ashok "Dapwell" Kondabolu, jazz pianist Iyer, indie band Yeasayer's Anand Wilder and Neon Indian's Alan Palomo - and attempts to clarify notions and stereotypes are made in the film, which is essentially shot in a Dodge Sprinter decorated with disco balls, at two restaurants - in Manhattan and in Queens - and in the aisles of an Indian grocery store in Jackson Heights. 

In one scene, Batmanglij asks the group about the custom of giving the first born to Sikhism - which is immediately shot down as a joke by the Indians in the group. Another scene has the inescapable discussion on Slumdog Millionaire. "I'm biologically opposed to it, " quips Kondabolu. There's also a charming conversation between Wilder and his mother, who's a South Indian, on drumsticks and its Indian name. "I anticipated these sorts of questions. A quest about authentic food is always going to yield these questions, " Singh says of the exchanges in the van. 

For Singh, who's a qualified lawyer apart from being a musician, the project quickly became a "cultural artifact". "Here is a compelling case of diversity, not just of cultures but also of us as musicians. There weren't enough 'brown' guys to inspire us when we were growing up and as a music journalist I've written about bands like Vampire Weekend and Yeasayer and seen Das Racist and Vijay gain recognition. I've often felt that it must be so exciting to be a 16-year-old now to have these role models, " Singh explains. 

One of the many challenges for this project was getting all seven members together for a number of hours for one day and it finally happened on August 25, 2011. Another challenge was editing the eightand-a-half-hour footage to a short-film of acceptable duration. 

"It took a lot of effort and time to trim it, " laughs Singh, "but I made sure to keep intact scenes which make the movie like the shopping scene at the Patel Brothers supermarket. " In the scene, Heems of Das Racist walks through the aisles, and picks up Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Bisquick and tick marks them as the essential dosa ingredients, a la MTV Cribs style. It's a scene, Singh says, that elicits laughs from Americans and silence from Indian audiences. "And that is perhaps very telling, " Singh adds. 

The presence of Palomo, the only non-Asian in the group, serves an important role. Palomo had never tasted a dosa before in his life before undertaking the dosa hunt that day in August. And in fact, the premiere at Williamsburg in October 2012, where guests were served a variant of dosa - kal dosa - was his first taste of dosa since the shoot. 

"Having Alan there ended up being a great thing and I knew that I would have to be the narrator and intermediary, so that created a dynamic where we were being explanatory in a way that was organic and not just for the sake of the cameras, " Singh says. 

The film also led Singh to make a few other discoveries, like how his tattoo guy just happens to be the son of one of India's most famous Bollywood publicity designers. Anil Gupta, a famous New York-based tattoo artist, grew up watching his father C Mohan design Bollywood posters. One of Singh's reference points for the Dosa Hunt poster was the 1970s blockbuster, Sholay, the very film that Gupta's dad had designed posters for. The Dosa Hunt poster bears resemblance to the Sholay poster, in its font and use of orange flames. 

While the subject of the 22 minutes, 38 seconds long movie is bound to generate some interest back home, it's the music that viewers should also look forward to. Singh handpicked the OST himself, packing it with songs written by the cast members and their bands. "As a blogger, I was exceptionally aware of all their discographies. Yeasayer's Madder Red opens and closes the film. No other song would've done. I had to keep in mind questions like, 'If this was a documentary about Vampire Weekend, which song would you choose?' But at the same time, for people who are not familiar with these bands and artists, Dosa Hunt is perhaps a great introduction to that music."

Dosa Hunt will be screened at the New York Indian Film Festival on May 3

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