(photo credit: PR)
Written and directed by Prashant Nair
With Suraj Sharma, Tony Revolori
Running time: 98 minutes In Hindi. C
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The Indian film Umrika, which won the coveted Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, spotlights the yearning of people in the Third World for the West. It gives a glimpse into the harsh reality of the crime-ridden industry that brings migrants across the world, and often cuts them off from their families forever. Although it’s set in the 1970s and ‘80s, it couldn’t be more timely.
It’s an ambitious movie, a mix of drama and comedy, and at times, its writer/director, Prashant Nair, seems to have bitten off more than he can chew — some storylines are introduced and some don’t develop. But the highquality acting and the refusal to trade in stereotypes make it a complex film, if not as moving as it might have been.
It starts out in a poor, isolated mountain village in India, whose residents long for the plenty of a country they know only as Umrika. The village looks so gorgeous, at times it’s hard to understand how its residents could want to leave. But Ramakant , a young child, has an adored older brother, Udai (Prateik Babbar), who decides to head for the States. While the entire village sees him off with great fanfare, their mother (Smita Tambe) can barely contain her grief. She lives for the arrival of Udai’s detailed letters, and Ramakant comes to suspect that something is off about the letters, although he doesn’t find out the truth for years.
When Ramakant, played as a young man by Suraj Sharma, who starred in Life of Pi, finds out the that the letters are not really written by Udai, who has never been heard from since he left, Ramakant decides to go to Mumbai to try to find out what happened to his brother. He is accompanied by his best friend, Lalu (Tony Revolori, who starred in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Dope).
Mumbai is a grimy, hostile city, where the scraps of information Ramakant has about his brother don’t count for much. This section of the movie, where he tries to learn what he can from the gangs of criminals involved in smuggling migrants out of the country, is interesting, but the story loses focus. He meets a young woman and has to decide how much he wants to tell his family about what he has learned about Udai — and whether he wants to head for America himself.
Suraj Sharma is a wonderful actor, both very handsome and credible as a vulnerable young man finding his way in a harsh, unforgiving city. In addition to Life of Pi, he has appeared in Million Dollar Arm as a cricket player whom agent Jon Hamm turns into a professional baseball player, and the TV series Homeland, where he played a relative of a terrorist and becomes Carrie’s lover. The New Delhi-born actor also appears in the upcoming Burn Your Maps, which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, as an Indian student who befriends a child who doesn’t feel at home with his American family.
Like Dev Patel, the star of Slumdog Millionaire, who has gone on to an international career, Sharma seems poised to become a movie star.
In contrast to Slumdog Millionaire, which was a fairy tale that transcended its gritty Indian slum setting with a satisfying but unrealistic happy ending, Umrika is a far sadder story. It is reminiscent, thematically if not stylistically, of the 2013 movie Siddarth, which was about an Indian family that sends their son to work in a factory and then never see the boy again, even though the father searches all over India for him.
Unlike Siddarth, Umrika is punctuated by moments of humor, many of them connected with the ironic contrasts of the music, movies on video and news clips of Reagan-era America with Mumbai. But the humor is fleeting: Umrika is a bleak story of young people who aspire to better lives and are torn from the families they want to help.