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'I Am Singh' Film Addresses Hate Crimes After 9/11

12/06/2011 02:54 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2012

Despite an obvious flair for the dramatic, Indian actor-director Puneet Issar chose a New York City mosque rather than the red carpet to premier his Hindi film, "I Am Singh."

Set in Los Angeles, the film highlights race-based hate crimes after 9/11. The plot focuses on attacks against the Sikh community, which, because of the men's religiously ordained turbans, has been associated with terrorism.

In "I Am Singh," the fictional Singh family is torn apart when one brother is killed by a gang of skinhead-type white Americans in L.A. When Ranveer, the brother still in India, hears of the murder, he tries to avenge his brother's death.

While it doesn't reflect traditional Indian cinema, the film does feature Punjabi song and dance scenes, dramatic music, love stories and gory fights. Nevertheless, Issar said it is meant to educate, not just entertain.

"It's not a normal, usual Bollywood film. It's an issue-based film based on so many different characters," he said.

He said his intent was not only to address mistaken identity in the Sikh and Muslim communities, but the lack of support and financial assistance the victims' families received after they were killed.

Issar flew from Mumbai to attend the film debut at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York on Saturday, an event that he said would help promote at the grassroots level.

Imam Omar Abu-Namous, the center's religious leader, said he welcomed the film screening because it was a message against discrimination and racism.

"Of course I agreed that the film be shown. There is nothing against anybody," he said, "it is just establishing justice."

During the weekend of the film's launch, Issar visited gurudwaras (Sikh temples) across the state to discuss the film with the Sikh community. He said the response he received from the audience was "heartwarming."

And while everybody agrees that the message is necessary, film critics haven't left the theaters happy.

The L.A. Times' Robert Abele called "I Am Singh" "terribly earnest and earnestly terrible," and made no secret of its disdain for the "general hamminess of the acting, the oddly undercutting cultural touches," and the extended speeches.

Indian media wasn't much kinder.

"Even if we were to agree that the anti-racism intensions of the film are noble, its overall conduct is so blatant, boisterous and jingoistic that the bigger picture is camouflaged amidst it," writes Times of India reporter Gaurav Malani.

Despite the unsavory reviews, it is clear that the Sikh community, which has been in the U.S. for more than 100 years, seeks to educate more American citizens on their religion and culture.

"I'd loved to say things have improved for us," said Manmeet Kaur Lamba, a member and volunteer at the Glen Cove Gurudwara in New York. "But if your turn around and see, one Sikh kid in Queens just got attacked by local people."

Following 9/11, Valarie Kaur's documentary "Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath," explored the same issue after the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man in Arizona.

Then in 2008, filmmaker Tami Yeager profiled the family Sodhi left behind in "A Dream in Doubt," part of the PBS series, "Independent Lens".

Lamba said she was looking forward to watching the film after her New Delhi-based father had recommended it to her earlier this month.

"We're mistaken for the bad guys. It's the biggest issue we have," she said. "I'm happy that somebody's made the effort and put together a movie."