A still from Umrika.
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
It is not always easy to recreate a period far gone by. But India’s Prashant Nair (Delhi in Day) does it quite convincingly in his second feature, Umrika. It competed with 15 other titles at the Cairo International Film Festival, which closed on November 20.
In a wonderfully refreshing story, Nair takes us to a remote village called Jitvapur in northern India, where a simple farming community lives in the 1970s and 1980s dreaming of Umrika or, well, America! The land, as the community feels and thinks, is 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 actor Suraj Sharma, whose younger version we saw in Life of Pi).
But as days roll into weeks 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.
Many years later, when the father dies in an accident, a now grown-up Ramakant realises the trick his father had 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 art-house cinema has given us till date.
In a long chat with me at Cairo, 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 as they were once, but illegal immigration can still be painful.” And death-defying! We have been seeing this in recent months.
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 to 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 actually made it to where he wanted to go,” 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.
* * *
Another compelling work which I saw at Cairo was Hungary’s The Wednesday Child. Having been born that day of the week — and often called a child full of woe according to a fortune telling nursery rhyme — I could not resist watching the movie.
Directed by Lili Horvath, The Wednesday Child, also part of the 16-strong competition, turned out to be a hauntingly touching tale of a 19-year-old mother’s struggle to get custody of her five-year-old son, growing up in an orphanage.
The gritty drama nabbed Karlovy Vary Festival’s East of the West Prize, and has been helmed in an arrestingly natural manner, where the young protagonist, Maja (a striking debut by Kinga Vecsei), is desperate to have her son over. It is not easy for her to shake off her bad habits and bad relationships.
Pretty, but tough talking (she has a scandalous vocabulary of swear words), she lives with her boyfriend in a seedy housing complex on the outskirts of Budapest. The guy, Krisz, is a petty thief who breaks into cars to steal whatever he can lay his hands on. Maja helps him at times, and she herself survives on state dole and on the little goodies she can pocket from time to time. But she is more than willing to give up all this if life were to give her a chance to lead an honest existence.
And one fine morning that chance knocks on her door, and a micro-credit scheme is offered to her. She wants to open a laundry with the money, and although the wary social worker, Janos (Szabolcs Thuroczy, nuanced and poignant in an atypical role) is aware that Maja’s careless attitude may spell trouble, he gives the green signal.
The fact that the scheme involves four members, and even if one were to default with payments, the others will lose out on credit inflow, infuses a subtext in a plot that is essentially about a young mother’s intense affection for her child. If the movie’s tense moments relate to Maja’s business deals, with the other members pressuring her to be more responsible, one cannot miss that sequence in the woods when the little son is lost. Maja’s angst has been captured nicely.
Her woes do not relate only to the custody of her son — having grown up in an orphanage herself she understands the loveless hardships there. Life throws other challenges at her. Her boyfriend in a fit of jealous rage damages the washing machines in her laundry just when everything is ready to roll.
Although the character is extremely complex, Thuroczy carries it with wonderful ease. She is tender but defiant, seductive and practical — an amazing contradiction that finally sees her through turmoil and turbulence.
♦ Gautaman Bhaskaran covered the recent Cairo International Film Festival, and may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
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