Every nation involves itself in some kind of myth-making surrounding its national identity: Australia being the land of the “fair go”, for example. This kind of iconoclastic hagiography becomes a vital part of how people across the world see a particular nation – not as a geographical territory, but rather as an ethos that simultaneously represents and re-enforces its iconoclasm. Indian films and culture have had a fascinating relationship with the national myth-making of the United States. Mainstream Hindi film directors such as Karan Johar have explicitly indulged in American iconoclasm with broad strokes in order to show the “West” to the Indian and Non-Resident-Indian audiences globally. The allure of the American Dream is so attractive for some Indians that the word ‘abroad’ is sometimes used as an implicit reference to the States as opposed to the rest of the world more generally.
Amidst this backdrop comes director Prashant Nair’s Umrika – a cautionary tale about the dangers of such myth-making and the adverse impact it can have on the lives of people. It is a tightly woven drama that is as bleak as it is funny, asking us to consider what achieving the ever elusive American Dream might cost. And more importantly, is it all truly worth it in the end? We are introduced to the members of Jitvapur village, who are bidding farewell to Udai (Prateik Babbar) as he makes his perilous to Umrika (aka ‘America’). The villagers are excited that at least one of them could escape their repetitive and mundane lifestyle and go on to bigger and better things. However, as the days pass without any news of Udai’s well-being, his mother becomes increasingly anxious. She runs out in futile expectation for any news of her departed son whenever the postman brings letters. Udai’s younger brother Ramakant (Suraj Sharma) grows up in the shadow of his older brother – someone who has moved on to bigger and better things and forgotten his roots. But one day, that magical letter does arrive and it changes the whole complexion of the village. Soon, the letters become a regular affair and reading them a ritual for the villagers. After Udai and Ramakant’s father passes away in a freak accident, Ramakant sets off to find his older brother only to discover that all is not as it seems. Will Ramakant be able to find Udai and if so, at what cost?
Despite its bleak undertones, it is the absurd humour of the film that stays with you (reminiscent of the bleak but hilarious absurdity of another recent Indian gem Court). In a nonchalant voiceover, a young Ramakant describes the grief experienced by his mother resulting in a lack of intimacy between his parents as an extended “Cold War”. The highlight however, is a sharply edited sequence that indicates the extent to which the villagers start to fuel their own fantasies through Udai’s extravagant letters describing American life. In one of Udai’s letters, his mother spots a photograph of a man barbequing a sausage and gets dismayed at the fact that Udai may not be a vegetarian anymore. However, Udai’s father is able to convince her that a sausage is nothing more than an “American carrot” and hence, Udai is still true to his roots. It doesn’t take long before the curiosity around the concept of a barbeque in the village escalates to a degree that the villagers start making their own vegetarian version of a sausage roll, substituting carrots for sausages.
Umrika is a far cry from the staple mainstream Bollywood fare. The narrative is tightly edited, with a runtime of 98 minutes. There are no extravagant song or dance sequences. This is not a comment against the film but rather about audience expectations. Since the goal of majority of Indian cinema is still escapism, it is very important to rightfully appreciate how films like Umrika are helping to change that dominant landscape for mainstream Bollywood and Indian cinema broadly. The minor downside of the film comes in the second half in the form of a forced, half-baked romantic track between Ramakant and Radhika which disrupts the neatness of the tightly strung narrative. Over all though, that is a minor blemish on an otherwise well-structured output.
Suraj Sharma shines as the leading protagonist Ramakant. It is through his eyes that we see the events develop. He is able to convincingly take the audience on the perilous journey of tracking down his brother, showing an understated vulnerability in his performance that makes him endearing. Tony Revolori (of The Grand Budapest Hotel fame) has some crackling lines as Ramakant’s best friend Lalu and is able to keep the humour quotient brimming. Watch him cackle with delight as he asks Ramakant to bring back a “firangan” (foreign girlfriend) from the States as Ramakant departs for his journey. Smita Tambe aptly commands the emotional quotient of the film as the matriarch of Udai’s family. Sauraseni Maitra as Radhika – Ramakant’s love interest with whom he is able to share his American Dream and the ordeal of finding his brother – leaves a mark in a limited role. Prateik Babbar delivers a suitably understated performance as Udai, the catalyst for this narrative. Rajesh Tailang is wasted in the role of a postman. However, it is Adil Hussain (Life of Pi, Sunrise) in a memorable cameo who adds the requisite gravitas to the climax of the film as the menacing loan shark cum people smuggler, Patel. Dustin O’Halloran’s music is well-suited to the tone of the film. Petra Korner’s cinematography is short and sharp, adding visual contrast to life in Jitvapur village verses life in the by-lanes of Mumbai. Umrika is a unique visual and dramatic experience and ought to be celebrated as such.