A new Auckland-based film was fuelled by curry but has relevance for all. Jacqueline Smith reports.

Curry Munchers

does not have to be a racist term, says Anand Naidu, the producer and lead actor in New Zealand's newest romantic comedy with an Asian twist.

"Curry munchers means people who eat curry. Who eats curry? The whole world. I am just desensitising people and making them see how stupid it is - let's deal with it," he says.

His feature film which proudly waves the derogatory term as its title, is a self-funded labour of love starring good friends, familiar faces and pots of curry (thanks to the generous restaurant Little India).

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It's been a rather long-time coming, as Naidu wrote the script eight years ago, when he was running a drama and art group called Hamari Pehchan, which was all about empowering young Indian immigrants. The film is the realisation of a dream to tell their story on the big screen.

Naidu plays the lead character Sidrath, the son of proud Indian parents who move from Delhi to Auckland to give their two children a university education.

Sidrath is to follow in his uncle and grandfather's footsteps as an engineer so studies at Unitec (which features heavily in the film, as it was a major supporter). But, when Auckland's sluggish bus system and the confines of his family's dilapidated new home get too much he decides to go behind his parents' backs and take a part-time job at an Indian restaurant called Sangeet in order to buy his independence - and status - in the form of a motorbike. That's when he discovers he has a natural way with spices, and that tossing a pan excites him far more than calculating the exits of a building.

And - this is a cross-cultural romance after all - it introduces him to a lovely blonde ... .

While, getting a part-time job on top of studies might not seem that rebellious, Sidrath's actions represent the ultimate betrayal in his conservative family.

Naidu says the film is about 60 per cent autobiographical and the remainder is inspired by his friends' stories.

Just like his character Sidrath, Naidu dreamed of a life quite different to the one his parents' had planned for him.

"I am a chartered account, but my life pattern was different. I became a chartered accountant, then I followed my life dream of becoming an actor. That bit is me."

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The scene where Sidrath's father Dinesh (Ajay Vasisht) attends an interview for a job as an accountant is taken from Naidu's experience of interviewing Indian immigrants looking for jobs.

Naidu says many immigrants will identify with the string of lies Sidrath's family tell one another to protect each other from the truth.

"When you come over from another country there are huge expectations, and when you don't meet them, how do you go back to your families back home and tell them? You lie."

Director Cristobal Araus Lobos says it was important to him that, unlike Bollywood films which always favour the hero or heroine, the protagonists of

Curry Munchers

do not get everything they want. There are consequences.

While he loves the surreal, heightened world of Bollywood, Lobos says it was important to keep it as far from that as possible. He scrapped the idea of a dance sequence. Instead, it is bedded in reality - and comedy.

"The one thing I got from being in India and talking to these kids was that they were craving something else. They've had Bollywood for years, and a lot of them are over it. It definitely inspired me to keep this real."

Lobos had never been to India before working on the film, but empathised with the theme of displacement and identity, as he immigrated from Chile in the late 1980s.

Travelling to Delhi to film the first scene was an eye-opener he says, and like the rest of the shoot in New Zealand, he aimed to depict it through the eyes of people who knew the city well - swerving to avoid cows on the road, the youth drinking culture, that sort of thing.

As it turned out, the rest of the shoot - which took place largely around Sangeet, a real Indian restaurant in Manukau, and Unitec - was almost as hectic as filming in Delhi. Filming was squeezed into 26 days in May 2010. So the sweat and tears of the cooking contest were actually as stressful as they looked, says Lobos.

Thankfully Little India, one of the film's sponsors, plied cast and crew with plenty of curry. And no, Lobos didn't get sick of it.

Naidu says it was heartening to see business leap in to help the underdog film. He has high hopes for it, having used his accounting background to build a business plan, and is buoyed by interest from other countries. "It's got that feel that could transcend countries. That's the big plus. Indians are all around the world so it works," he says.

Lobos thinks the release is well-timed, not only with the new season of

MasterChef,

but also the debate following Paul Henry's comments about the Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit last year.

"It's a releasing valve. You can have a bit of a laugh. It will be interesting to see if people call it a Kiwi film, as opposed to an Indian film. I hope they call it their own, even if it was done by a Chilean director. The question of identity is a big one - when can you start calling yourself a Kiwi, when is long enough?"

Says Naidu: "This is not Bollywood at all. It's a New Zealand film. It's about Kiwis, New Zealanders, who live here. It's their story."

LOWDOWN

What:

Curry Munchers

When and Where:

Released through selected Event cinemas from today.

-TimeOut