It is not always easy to recreate a period far gone by. But Prashant Nair (Delhi in a Day) does it quite convincingly in his second feature, Umrika, competing with 15 other titles at the Cairo International Film Festival, which closes on November 20.
In a wonderfully refreshing story, Nair takes us to a remote village called Jitvapur, where a simple farming community lives in the 1970s and 1980s dreaming of Umrika or, well, America! The land, as they feel and think, where one can make pots of dollars, where women wear pants and even wrestle, and where men play football or drive fancy cars.
Interestingly, this is certainly the India that was in those days -- when America was a bigger and better Maya Nagari than Bombay (as it was then known ) was, and in a fable-like parting at the beginning, Prateik Babbar’s Udai bids an emotional goodbye to his family of father, mother and kid brother, Ramakant (who grows up to be Suraj Sharma, whose younger version we saw in Life of Pi).
Watch Umrika trailer here:
But as days roll into week and months, and there is no news from Udai, the mother (Smita Tambe) begins to despair so much that her husband connives with a local postman to forge letters that seem to be arriving from the son -- whose pictorial descriptions of the exotic land gladden the woman.
But when the father dies in an accident, a now grown-up Ramakant realises the trick his father has been playing, and the boy takes it upon himself to keep the game going. But he is also determined to find Udai and travels to Bombay, the exit port for America that he supposedly took.
Not always unpredictable, the plot veers into another alley in Bombay, and conveys with a sense of feel-good charm the moods and nuances of a struggle -- first to keep a lie going and then to find a long lost sibling. And finally, to make a difficult move.
Despite some patchy stretches and uneven performances by Babbar, Nair’s directorial effort leaves one with a sense of satisfaction. Contributing to this is Tambe, who is really convincing as a mother pining for her favourite son, and Sharma, of course, who combines perplexity and ambition in a role that is perhaps his first in Bollywood.
Above all, Umrika is an extremely honest effort to portray an India that is warm and caring, not just impoverished and evil - as many movies from the country have been tempted to do. Nair’s Jitvapur and Bombay are no sorrowful spots, and happily, even mercifully, he presents a far more positive image than much of Indian arthouse cinema has given us.
In a long chat with this writer on Wednesday night, Nair says that as a son of a diplomat and having lived abroad, he used to come down to India every summer. And it was those visits that left a strong impression in a young Nair. “It was this sense of nostalgia that I wanted to create in my film. It was also the time when the fascination for America was strongest,” he says.
This craze for America still exists, with many Indians wanting to make a living there. With foreign exchange no longer an impediment, more and more Indians go there to study or even work. So in a way, the movie may well appear as a starting point of a dream that continues to seduce so many Indians even now.
Nair avers that there were two aspects that he looked at in his film. One, the notion of exotica. “I lived in the middle of America, and people looked at India as something exotic. They would ask me crazy questions. So what is this notion about exotica? Is it a temple or a hotdog eating competition? This is what I wanted to show. Two, migration and displacement are huge issues today. They have not been as pressing since World War II, and Umrika deals with this... People may no longer be smuggled in containers, but illegal immigration can still be painful”. And death-defying!
Umrika explores this, but not as brutally as some of the other movies on the subject have, a fine example being Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses that also talks about unlawful migration from Mexico in the US.
“I wanted to end my film at a point where a decision is made to migrate...I wanted to leave the audiences a little uncomfortable, wondering whether the man has actually made it to where he wanted to travel”, Nair smiles.
Indeed, this is a fine climax, but maybe Nair could have been a little less sentimental, a little less emotional. It could then have made Umrika somewhat more punchy.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Cairo International Film Festival.)