Longing for the Land of the Free, Living in the Home of the Brave

in 37th Cairo International Film Festival

by Karsten Kastelan

UmrikaIf you never heard of ‘Umrika’, it is the land where dreams come true. A country of splendor and opportunity, where a poor immigrant will be welcomed with open arms and make a fortune in a fortnight, as the streets are paved with gold.

The Umrika being described here is, of course, America – well, not so much the real United States, but an immigrant’s dream of what it should be, so it’s quite apt that director Prashant Nair chose as a title for his film the colloquial name given to it by inhabitants of a small, rural village. The reason for America being the main topic of conversation all of a sudden, is that one of their own is leaving for its shores: Udai (Prateik Babbar) has been offered a much coveted job in the US, leaving his family behind: his proud parents as well as his younger brother Ramakant (Suraj Sharma), who now studies everything that there is to know about the wondrous land that he also hopes to see one day, but probably never will.

Some things about Udai’s progress in New York – relayed to the village folks via letters and photographs – doesn’t add up, and while we – the audience – are the first to notice, smart-aleck Ramakant will figure it out pretty soon, leaving his village in search of his brother and taking this heartwarming comedy about the naive dreams of country folks into the much darker territory of the next big city, where the bitter reality of aspiring immigrants becomes the more central theme of the film.

What makes Umrika so special is that it stays a fairy-tale from beginning to end, even through its darker moments, which – very much in the tradition of fairy tales all over the world – provide a veneer of danger and cruelty, but never intrude on the light-hearted humanity with which Umrika regards its characters. A father, whose love for his wife will make him commit one of the kindest, most loving deceits imaginable. A woman whose love for her eldest leaves little for her introspective son at first, but will grow to encompass both. A smart boy who is forced to grow into his father’s shoes, but will balance his own dreams and desires, while still caring and providing for his kin. And his brother, who seems truly selfish at first, but is revealed in one short, magnificent scene to be anything of the sort.

It’s this unabashed love of humanity that allows the audience to accept, even cherish, its well-executed naiveté.  A film in which country folks look at pictures of an American Barbecue and try to recreate it using carrots instead of Wiener’s (as nobody would believe that their favorite son would eat meat in a bun), could have easily turned out condescending, elitist or seemingly racist. Umrika is neither. Like Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire before it, it is a tale universally humanitarian, funny and also heartbreaking. It is one of the rare examples of a film that opens the doors to a different culture, but also makes us re-evaluate our own, in a kind way that allows us to see our reality as somebody else’s dream.

Which is why it should not be a surprise that Indian-born director Nair spent his childhood in Switzerland, Sudan, Syria, Zambia and Austria; later living and working as an adult in New York, Prague and Paris. Umrika is not an Indian-film per se; it’s rather unlikely to do well there, as it does not conform to its own home-market’s rules and conventions. It’s universal in the best way that a film can be. Accessible, though challenging. Often funny, but progressively in a dark context. And so effortlessly told, that tears will have to be held back or allowed to freely flow across our faces, as the story unfolds.

Karsten Kastelan