By Dimitri Keramitas
Prashant Nair’s Umrika comes at a critical moment of migration crisis in Europe, where thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa face overwhelmed services in Italy and Greece, where expanding refugee camps are putting pressure on the governments of France and the UK, and where backlash in Germany and other countries threaten the lives of asylum-seekers.
|Saying farewell - a scene from Umrika.|
In America a similar situation with Latin American migrants has become a heated political issue, particularly in the presidential campaign (Republican Donald Trump has maligned Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals”, and supports building a wall to keep them out).
A number of recent films, such as Hope and Dheepan, have powerfully depicted the plight of migrants and the ordeal of trying to enter the so-called First World, whether "illegally" or through the asylum process. Umrika, which won the audience award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, is different in focusing on life before migration. The move to Umrika - America - comes only at the end of the film. It portrays that life not only in terms of material deprivation, but complex family relationships and a skewed idealization of the Other Land - the flip side of how those from wealthy nations sometimes exoticize developing countries.
|Umrika gives the back story.|
The director begins by showing traditional village life in an arid Indian landscape. Nair is meticulous in giving us the details of the harsh daily routine of the villagers, but his visuals are so vivid he almost makes it attractive. Almost, but not quite - we can understand why the villagers seek their fortune elsewhere. In one particular family, it is the eldest son Udai (Prateik Babbar) who decides to leave and head for Umrika. His parents are grief-stricken, especially his mother. She genuinely loves her child, but as a deeply traditional woman she is also bereft at the absence of the first-born from social and religious ritual. Also saddened is Udai’s much younger brother Ramakant (Suraj Sharma), the real protagonist of the film.
For a long time the family agonizes at the absence of any letters from Udai. While others receive word from distant loved ones, there is nothing from their son. Smita Tambe’s strong performance as the mother makes us feel the pain of the families migrants leave behind. Then letters do start arriving, with pasted photos and descriptions of the outlandish country on the other side of the world. It seems that Udai is becoming an immigrant success story.
Positive change also seems to come to the village, but that progress is often only apparent. New electric lines are put in, but in a shoddy way. Nair doesn’t explore the political dimension explicitly or deeply, but he makes it clear that we are in the period of Indira Gandhi’s State of Emergency. The father (a very affecting Pramod Pathak) winds up dying, electrocuted by accidentally stepping on a wire, and Rama leads the funerary rite, though it should be his older brother. (Indira Gandhi also has a tragic end, assassinated by her bodyguard.)
Faced with a dire financial situation, the now older Rama decides to set off for the city, sneaking away in the night without his mother’s knowledge. He is determined to make a sufficient living to support his mother, and to carve out a future for himself. In addition, there is growing doubt about those letters from his brother, and Rama will proceed to inquire about them.
Up to now the film has been reminiscent of Satyajit Ray, for the authentic, very human portrayal of peasant life, and the treatment of children. Nair’s expert, empathetic direction is matched by the performances of the actors playing the villagers. When Rama strikes out on his own, the film shifts, reminding us of Slumdog Millionaire and the novel White Tiger, cynical depictions of urban India’s lower depths.
|The film is also a love story.|
Rama is driven to survive, and is not above stealing another youth’s bicycle, which he needs to get a delivery job. The deliveries are for a firm selling halva for celebrations, but it’s implied that there are also special, more dangerous deliveries. What’s striking is that Rama maintains his humanity in this rough new environment, bonding with friends and falling in love with a girl from a deprived family. It’s a tribute to the director and to Sharma’s moving performance as Rama that this never strains credibility.
Nair’s direction appears sure-footed, even when we suspect at certain moments that it really isn’t. He sometimes includes Bollywood-type music, but this is to underline the mind-set of his characters. The photography gets grainy, like 16 mm or even Super 8, but this tends to happen when the environment and goings-on become murky. Camera movements and the use of close-ups turn out to be controlled, even when we think at first that the director is making heavy-handed stabs at emotion.
|The logo sums it all up.|
Aside from the dense emotional texture, what distinguishes the film from the Slumdog genre is the thematic drive, the focus on Umrika. Through photos and news reports, we get a humorous parallel history of America in the ’70s and ’80s. Events in America are absurd enough already, but are distorted through the Indians’ interpretations, even the tendency to make analogies with Indian myth and legend. We see how the Other Land is imbued and overlaid with elements of projection, transference, sentimental longing, resentment, and idealism, just to name a few.
Rama’s search for his brother continues, with ultimately shattering results. Not unrelievedly so, happily. But without revealing too much of the plot, it is Rama himself who will pick up the baton and decide to fulfil his brother’s promise. There Umrika ends, and America begins. The migrant will have no choice but to discover the true moral and social nature of the Other Land. Prashant Nair’s film gives us the opportunity to understand the reality of the migrant, beyond the headlines.
Production: SSPL/Entertainment Pvt. Ltd. Distribution (France): ARP Sélection.
Dimitri Keramitas is a Paris-based legal specialist and prize-winning writer.