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India 2015
Directed by
Prashant Nair
98 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

Umrika

Synopsis: Ramakant (Suraj Sharma) is a little boy when his older brother, Udai (Prateik Babbar), leaves their remote mountain village of Jitvapur in northern India, supposedly to seek his fortune in America (known as “Umrika” to the locals). Letters from Udai generate a sense of excitement in the village but when the letters stop, the brothers’ mother (Smita Tambe) is grief stricken. Years later, Rama sets out on a quest to find his brother, soon to be joined by Lalu (Tony Revolori), his childhood friend.

It’s always a joy to see a Bollywood film, but a greater joy to see serious Indian filmmaking with a strong narrative, emotional punch, and a balance of light and shade. Films such as The Lunchbox and Slumdog Millionaire have shown audiences that Indian cinema can be much more than song and dance fests.  So does Nair’s film, which opens in the remoteness and poverty of Rama’s village. Rather than emphasising negativity, the film’s early scenes highlight the familial and communal connectedness, as well as the powerful, almost oppressive love that the mother has for her oldest son. The visuals in these scenes are, despite the villagers’ extreme poverty, bucolically beautiful – goats grazing the hillsides, oxen pulling carts, and little carefree kids playing cricket.

When Rama arrives in the nearby city and gets a job as a sweets delivery boy, the visual palette becomes darker, a reflection of the seedier and more corrupt side of life ever-present in the teeming metropolis. An element of mystery sets in, as Rajan (Amit Sial), a man from Rama’s village also now in the town, seems to have knowledge of Udai’s possible whereabouts. Romance materializes in the form of the beautiful Radhika (Sauraseni Maitra), a strong-minded girl for whom Rama has an eye whilst the appearance of Lalu, a fun-loving fellow provides a strong comedic element. Suraj Sharma was very impressive in Life of Pi, and now a few years older is proving to be a powerful and magnetic screen presence. Revolori who came to fame as the bellboy in The Grand Budapest Hotel, also rewards but every role from small to large is beautifully realised as the film captures the overall sense of chaos intermingled with ritual and tradition that is the essence of India.

The story's setting of the '70s and '80s is framed by international events, seen often on television and described in a voice-over from Rama that puts some of his personal experience into a larger and sometimes amusing context. Misconceptions of how Americans live make for much of the film’s comedy. However, things darken towards the film’s end, with an ambiguous denouement, which leaves one uncertain of Rama’s fate. Having gone from more personal themes, there are now allusions to people traffickers, murders and lifelong indebtedness to criminals.  

Umrika captures the anomaly and paradox that is life in India. But it is also a finely wrought narrative that ticked enough boxes for it to be a crowd-pleasing winner of the Audience Award at Sundance 2015.  

 

 

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