The Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival opened this year with Prashant Nair’s second film Umrika, starring Suraj Sharma, Toni Revolori, Adil Hussain, Smita Tambe and Prateik Babbar. It was the UK premiere of the film after it wowed the audience at Sundance Festival earlier this year and won the World Cinema Audience Award.
Umrika revolves around the lives of a humble family living in a small village in rural India. Udai, the eldest brother, decides to try his luck and embarks on a long journey to America, or “Umrika”, as locals pronounce it, where “anything is possible”. After a short time without any news, letters with detailed stories about this exotic land begin to arrive, filling the imaginations of the whole village and boosting an idealised version of the United States. The youngest brother Rama grows up with all this stories and believing his brother is living a comfortable life on the other side of the world.
But when their father dies in an accident, Rama finds out that Udai never sent those letters, but his father and the postman set up the scheme to appease his mother. Determined to know his brother’s whereabouts, Rama leaves for Mumbai, from which Udai was supposed to go abroad and where he was last seen.
Prashant Nair offers a kind story about dreams and aspirations, and how they usually clash with reality. The director stays away from clichés and elaborates an insightful story about migration. Nair sets his story in the 70s and 80s, when the fascination for the US was peaking in India and before the Internet and social media changed communication at a world level. The setting and the atmosphere he creates contribute to make the story feel believable and realistic.
With still a short career on his shoulders, Life of Pi star Suraj Sharma carries the weight of the film, as it’s his character Rama who is determined to find out what happened to his brother while he makes sure his mother doesn’t suspect anything.
Rama is a young man that finds himself with more than he can handle. He needs to grow up and take charge of the lives of his family. Sharma manages to show this transition to the audience, from him playing with his friends to when he has to take life changing decisions.
One of the most complex characters in the film, the mother, is flawlessly portrayed by Smita Tambe. Although she worries about her family and wants the best for her sons, her love can become stifling and unbearable, which leads to destructive consequences. The actress succeeds in portraying all these different aspects of her character. Although his time onscreen is quite reduced, Prateik Babbar does a competent job as the elder brother Udai, which helps deepen the relationship between the two brothers.
Umrika shows a different side of the blot of illegal migration. Rather than focusing on the journey, the director portrays all the circumstances and opinions that lead to this life changing decision.