Friday, October 21, 2016

UMRIKA (2015)

Indiana Jones is trapped on a rope bridge, with Mola Ram's minions closing from either end. His drastic solution is to cut the bridge in half and hang on for dear life. "Prepare to meet Kali ... in Hell," the hero tells Mola Ram -- at which point the audience in an Indian city starts throwing food and garbage at the screen. "Don't hurt Brother Amrish!" they yell, referring to the actor known elsewhere as Om Puri, who plays the villain in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It's just one of India's many conflicted encounters with American culture in Prashant Nair's film, which follows one village family from the 1970s -- it starts with Indira Gandhi's state of emergency -- through the 1980s. It's an era of promise that sees the village get electricity at long last, but that leads to the protagonist's father getting accidentally electrocuted. Still, a spirit of optimism prevailed, stoked by village scion Udai's journey to Umrika to make his fortune for his family. After a period of silence, letters begin arriving regularly, liberally illustrated with photos of the glamour and weirdness of American life. But after Udai's dad dies, as mentioned above, Udai's brother Ramakant (Suraj Sharma) discovers a guilty secret. Udai has actually written nothing since leaving; his father and uncle have been forging the letters and illustrating them with magazine clippings. Ramakant now embarks on a quest of his own to find out what became of his brother, targeting the fixer who was supposed to arrange for Udai's passage to Umrika.

If you're looking for an Indian's adventures in the U.S., find another film. Umrika is more about the idea of America in Indian minds and their identification of it with modernity, progress and a certain arrogant eccentricity. Nair is smart enough not to make his characters total marks for American culture. The heckling of Indy and some characters' skeptical discussion of the concept of Groundhog Day remind us that the Indians aren't total simpletons, though a certain naivete is necessary to fuel the drama. Ramakant's coming of age is fraught with disillusionments, but they aren't as melodramatic as a synopsis might suggest.  Nothing horrible has happened to Udai, it turns out, but that only underscores Ramakant's sense of disappointment while fueling his resolve to push forward where Udai fell short. Ramakant's determination finally creates a sense of real danger as he enters the Indian underworld and finally embarks on an uncertain journey to Umrika. If the film has been largely satiric, and sometimes sentimental, it closes on what seems to me a darker note as Ramakant and a shipping container full of would-be immigrants are loaded onto a freighter for the long voyage. Meanwhile, his mother and his village will continue to believe a myth, watching with adoration a videotape the brothers filmed together against a patently-fake Times Square backdrop, supposedly made in New York. Perhaps a sequel with an adequate budget will follow Ramakant to the U.S., but it's more likely that Prashant Nair has made his point already.

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