Anyway… I started reading some of the different comments and posts that were left on the message board on The Debut’s imdb page. They ranged from notes of praise and love for the film’s endearing portrayal of the Fil-Am experience (as seen through the eyes of 2nd generation-ers), to out-right detestation for its overkill of some of the more popular Filipino stereotypes. Reading the posts got me thinking of how the film affected me. I started to shuffle through my memories to find out.
When I first got wind of the film, I was actually in school and very-much still engrossed in the “collegiate” Fil-Am experience. My life back then was all about Asian and Filipino American student activism, PCNs, leadership and empowerment conferences…the list goes on. As a student, I learned so much about the history of the Asian American experience in general; of which I will never forget. The Debut meant a great deal for me then.
It wasn’t until I graduated from school, and jumped into “the real world,” when the finished movie finally made it’s way to a limited run across the country. When it came to the DC area, I was pretty excited to see it, and I campaigned for it amongst my different circles of friends. After I finally saw the film, however, I was left with mixed-emotions. While I was extremely proud that someone finally put a Filipino American story on film (on a decent reel at that; though the feel of the film was absolutely indie and teetering on low-budget), I began to realize that there were many things about the film that I found to be way overdone and over-the-top the more and more I let the experience set-in. The story itself is classic, and it touches on a topic that young Americans, whose parents are 1st generation immigrants, all experience: immigrant parents come to America for opportunity, which is why they want their children to become successes in the form of lawyers, doctors, or engineers. But while the story line may have tugged at the heart-strings of many viewers, it was still laden with an overuse of blown-up stereotypes, a high sense of Filipino-centricity, melo-dramatization, and a poor rendering of non-Filipinos having an overt ignorance of ethnic flavor. As much as I didn’t want to think that way about the film (as I wanted to fully embrace it), I couldn’t help it. In more ways than one, I felt like it was as banal as your run-of-the-mill PCN, but on the big screen (for lack of a better way to describe it).
The other day, I happened to watch The Namesake, which is a film by South Asian American film maker, Mira Nair (who also did Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala). While I am a fan of Nair’s work, I was still a little wary about the “coming of age” storyline of the movie, and I couldn’t help but allow pieces of The Debut dance around my head as I watched the opening credits. But as the film pushed on (the film is an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel of the same name), I found myself engrossed in its message –--a charming testament to the immigrant experience, and the evolution of the first generation of children born from that. I laughed hard as I watched how the main character, Ashima, experienced living in the U.S. for the first time…after spending all her life in her native India. Moments after the laughter subsided, I was then moved to tears as I related her story to that of my own mother, who also left the only world that she had known for so long before coming to America with my dad. The portrayal of Ashima’s loneliness while her husband went to work each day only made me think how hard it must have been for my own mother to have endured the same thing years ago. Then watching the joy that Ashima and her husband, Ashoke, had as they brought forth their first son into the world gave me an idea of what it may have been like for my own parents when they gave birth to me.
I related quite well to one scene in particular; when Ashima and Ashoke received an unusually late-night phone call. I instantaneously knew what that phone call was about as it had all the signs of something that I had experienced a few times in my own lifetime: the late night call, the scurrying of feet going to pick up the phone, and then the cries of pain and sorrow that followed. On three separate occasions my family received that “late night call,” and each time my mom and dad helplessly cried themselves to breathlessness over the news of the death of their own parents. Watching the scene play out on film brought back those memories, and I couldn’t help but remember how much pain my mom and dad were in back then. And since I was too young, I didn’t know how or what to do to make things better at the time. That scene was surely one of the more relatable ones.
There were other scenes that made me laugh hysterically, such as the scene where the children, Gogol and Sonia, traveled to India as teens. The pain on their faces (because of the lack of air conditioning, or because of the constant attention by aunts, uncles and cousins) was all too familiar, and I laughed as I remembered how I went through the same thing with my own brother and sister. And the scene when Gogol brought his Caucasian girlfriend home to meet his parents reminded me of the first time one of my older cousins brought home a non-Filipino to one of our family parties. I wanted to laugh so hard at the girlfriend’s innocence (in the film), yet I cringed each time she did something that was not conventionally “Indian.”
Generally speaking, the film was captivating in that I was able to relate to the characters and situations on a more deeper level than I related to the characters of The Debut. Not that The Debut wasn't relatable, because nearly everything that was portrayed in that film has happened to me in one way or another at some point -- but it was almost too satirical. Nair was still able to incorporate some of the known South Asian stereotypes (which are not at all different from the Philippine ones). Yet they were portrayed classically, and not overdone. The film also played the “coming of age” card more cleverly than through a depiction of an angry immigrant parent fighting with his equally angry (and culturally ignorant) artist-wanna-be son. It was simply done in a way that was more effective, more persuasive, and undoubtedly more relatable. I truly hope that one day a director, with a talent and vision that rivals Mira Nair’s, will be able to put the Filipino / Filipino American experience on film in a similar way.