So the day has come! The 6th edition of the Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival has finally begun. And what a start! Cineworld Haymarket cinema, the venue for the occasion, received a host of celebrities including Konkona Sen Sharma, Vir Das, and the team of Umrika, director Prashant Nair, producer Swati Shetty and actors Suraj Sharma and Adil Hussain.
The evening culminated in the UK premiere of Umrika, followed by an exciting Q&A with the whole team conducted by “The Times” journalist Wendy Ide.
Umrika follows the steps of Rama in the search for his elder brother Udai, who left their small village to go to America. Sadly, migration is a huge issue nowadays and a central topic in many films, but Prashant Nair offers a different approach in his film. Son of a diplomat, he has lived in many places and has had the opportunity to know the stories of many immigrants. “I wanted to explore everything that happens until they leave, because I think we look at immigration in terms of statistics but every decision taken is preceded by enormous amounts of turmoil.”
The film offers a very particular view of American culture, through the letters that Udai sends to his family. “For me it was about exoticism, how we label things as exotic,” said the director. Used to Western people considering India and other Asian countries as exotic, Nair found “interesting to turn that around and have America looked as an exotic place.”
The making of Umrika was quite an adventure, and a challenge for the team. Initially structured as a French-German-Indian production, the producers couldn’t raise the funds on time, so the team had to face a huge dilemma. “We were in an unfortunate situation where Prashant and I had to really decide whether just give up or make this happen, and we just begun,” producer Swati Shetty explained. Luckily, producer Manish Mudra came on board in the last moment and made the completion of the film possible.
Shetty and Nair had to resort to their own savings and the help of friends and family in order to continue with the shooting, but they were confident they would be able to finish the film. “There was a strong belief that this would happen, and it just happened.” Nair, though, didn’t seem so confident. “I don’t think I ever believed it had started. […] Everyday was like the last day,” the director remarked.
Suraj Sharma also agreed on how important teamwork was for the success of the film. “It was a whole another game to play. Everybody worked together; that belief was pushing everybody forward.” He continued, “When someone doesn’t do it for the money, but does it for something else, for love, there’s something deeply special about that. I think it is what carried us through this,” he confidently added.
The actor also talked about Rama, the character he plays in the film. “Ramakant is a very subtle kind of guy. He deals with a lot in his life and he doesn’t work how to tell people about it.” Although he wowed audiences across the world fighting against an invisible tiger in Life of Pi, the young actor admitted that every single role is challenging in a different way. “I think every film is hard in its own right, it’s different, it’s always going to be challenging and it’s always going to be scary.” But the actor had some words of gratitude for the team and how they made his job easier. “I just listened to them, not think about anything else, and then thing seem less crazy or scary.”
The cast of the film also includes the young actor Toni Revolori, well-known for his performance at The Grand Budapest Hotel. Interesting casting, as he is actually American of Guatemalan descent and he didn’t speak a work of Hindi. “Toni was a happy accident,” the director funnily asserts. He sent the script to the actor because he thought he was Indian “but it turned out not to be the case.”
Umrika enjoyed great success at the last Sundance Festival, where the film won the World Cinema Audience Award. “We knew that the audience was reacting well to the film, but we didn’t expect it so it was a great surprise”. The award has definitely help the film to reach a wider audience as the director asserted. “The film has managed to find a home in about twenty countries and it’s finding its way out there. Obviously, the award at Sundance was very helpful in making that happen.”
Make sure you check out the festival’s programme on its website if you don’t want to miss a great selection of South Asian independent films. The London Indian Film Festival is running until the 23rd of July in London and the 26th of July in Birmingham.
[Photo Credit – Elliot Franks]