Jackson Heights review: Zooming into South Asian immigrant life

Jackson Heights review: Zooming into South Asian immigrant life

'Jackson Heights' has the right mix of a good writer, nuanced director and stellar actors.
Updated 27 Aug, 2015

Jackson Heights zooms into that slice of immigrant life – pardes mein chotta sa des – focusing on the intersecting lives of the desi diaspora.

Imran Bhatti (Nauman Ijaz), an oversharing cabbie who shoulders the burden of others’ lives, his gold-tinted glasses-wearing dreamer nephew Jamshed (Adeel Hussain); restaurateur Michele (Marina Khan) whose bitterness reflects the relationship with her homeland; her admirer Rizwan (Adnan Jaffar) running away from a life written out for him; Salma (Aamina Sheikh) earning her way through hard work (plus great threading moves) and her violent husband Sikander (Ali Kazmi).

Behind each of their stories there is a sense of desperation –majbori chasing a behtar zindagi ya khwab and the failings of the lands and people we leave behind sprinkled with a scent of nostalgia.

Nostalgia, however, doesn’t cloud hard realities that they face.

The story so far

Noman Ijaz as Imran Bhatti in 'Jackson Heights'
Noman Ijaz as Imran Bhatti in 'Jackson Heights'

Played with an oily obsequiousness, Imran Bhatti is the lynchpin holding it all together. His country bumpkin-ness balances out his annoying inquisitiveness, his literal angrezi has a Punjabi lilt, and the spectre of the Green Card makes him hold his tongue in front of the constant bulldozing by his American wife.

His smokescreen as a rich and successful man vaporises when nephew Jamshed makes his way to the land of the free. His grand expectations come to a grinding halt once he reaches New York. Slights and unpleasant truths crack his crown of entitlement as desperation seeps in.

Adeel Hussain as Jamshed in 'Jackson Heights'
Adeel Hussain as Jamshed in 'Jackson Heights'

After ping ponging from shared digs, to mamu’s house, to being out in the cold to now renting a room along with a willingness to work for less than minimum wage, Jamshed also seems to charm the curt Michelle. A Pakistani Christian, she saves her razor sharp snipes for the desi cabbies, but is rendered speechless by her best friend Rizwan.

Rizwan (Jackson Height’s nod to Indian Muslims) is of that pedigreed class that begets privilege, though it would seem doesn’t get the girl.

The lesser privileged Salma is busy getting her manicured talons on all the Benjamins she can. Her calm appearance, a front to the threatening presence of her felon husband Sikander

Along with interesting side characters – bickering kids, a loving Ammi and unacknowledged girlfriend, step daughters, a chiding dadi – all in all, ten episodes down, so far, so…ummm…slow.

Our take

Jackson Heights is impressive with intriguing characters that crisscross the class divide. Though there is value to the revelation of their layers, sometimes it is like watching paint peel off the wall. The slow pace gives way to predictability and things are unfolding schematically as opposed to seamlessly.

Salma and Bhatti sahib’s staged run-ins are stale as a day old bagel. Their similar situations (hello, teenage step daughters!) and loved ones that bleed them dry will bind them together, Jamshed will cross paths with Michelle and Cathy will turn all shades of blue and purple, and can be as evil as any zalim saas this side of the Atlantic.

Jamshed finds an unlikely friend in Michelle.
Jamshed finds an unlikely friend in Michelle.

For a drama named after a bustling South Asian hub, there is little flavour of the place. Jackson Heights may be the go to place for desi food, but it is also the gritty reality of the lesser privileged immigrants. While there is an attempt with everyone involved in some 'do number wala kaam’, the camera remains distant, the atmosphere sterile and with the exception of Rizwan’s home which reflects his Wall Street job, the rest are almost too posh.

Bhatti sahib’s house looks comfortably upper middle class, the salon too neat, the restaurant too generic as are the shots of New York. In comparison, Bilquees Kaur was far better in capturing the feel of immigrant South Asians with its formica tables, kitchen shots and diverse folks.

While their run-ins might be stale, Salma and Bhatti chronicle the hardships immigrants face well.
While their run-ins might be stale, Salma and Bhatti chronicle the hardships immigrants face well.

There is also an insularity about Jackson Heights, no surprise, since desis stick to their own. Isn’t it part of being in a new place, to encounter how our folks fare, but also expand our worldview of the land and its people? Instead of undercutting poor Pedro, couldn’t we get a gist of his immigrant experience? Perhaps an acknowledgement that most desi restaurants in Jackson Heights are now run by Bangladeshis?

Still, there are some great ideas touched upon – Michelle paying her desi staff less than minimum wage, the xenophobic violence cabbies face, hint at the lives of working desis in America. The no man’s visa land of ‘in process’ and ‘clearance’, often euphemisms for security and background checks, Tai Ji’s age old prejudices and her phrasing – goray ki bacchi hai kya koodti phire, nacchne wali – reflects the difficulty of holding on to those notions in the big, bad West.

I can only hope that skimming the surface is replaced with some exploration of these ideas.

What to watch for/watch it for

Jackson Heights has a great premise, and is a gold mine of stories.

Writer Vasay Chaudhary’s one-liners and trademark humour – lawnmower, you sit baby, chubti awaz , sticker bana diya, left-hand man, personal bhanja – are sprinkled everywhere. He sure knows how to make his words shine.

Mehreen Jabbar with Adeel Hussain and Marina Khan on the set of 'Jackson Heights'.
Mehreen Jabbar with Adeel Hussain and Marina Khan on the set of 'Jackson Heights'.

Director Mehreen Jabbar brings in minority representations (similar to her earlier works Coke Kahani, Ramchand Pakistani) and examines diverse socioeconomic backgrounds (Daam) using her subtle signature. Also, watch out for her Hitchcockian moment.

The real strength of Jackson Heights is the seasoned ensemble cast. Nauman Ijaz is reveling in playing this tutti-phutti angrezi spouting wise oily cabbie. Adeel Hussain hits all the notes from brash to confident to crawlingly desperate. Marina Khan, always a pleasure to watch, keeps her defences high and manner brusque, even as she sees her resolve chipping away.

The suave Adnan Jaffar leaves a strong impression and has all of us rooting for him. Aamina Sheikh's appearance is way too calm and placid for her character, which is supposed to be a hardworking, harried, working gal. Her husband's performance, essayed by a mercurial Ali Kazmi, is electric as her controlling husband. Even the supporting cast – Naghma, Neelofar Abbasi, Rida Isfahani – is strong.

Jackson Heights has the right mix of a good writer, nuanced director and stellar actors. Fingers crossed that this mix produces something thought provoking.

Sadaf Siddique is a freelance writer, drama enthusiast and sometimes drama queen not necessarily in that order.