“This is actually the India I knew best and grew up seeing.”
The London Indian Film Festival 2015 officially opened with the UK premiere of Umrika at Cineworld Haymarket, London on July 16, 2015.
The Hindi language film is directed by Prashant Nair and stars Life of Pi star Suraj Sharma alongside Tony Revolori, Adil Hussain, Smita Tambe, and Prateik Babbar.
The incredibly moving film has already won the hearts and ‘Audience Award’ at the Sundance Film Festival.
It is described by actor Adil Hussain as, ‘a film about the intense innocence which drives the main character to fulfil a dream’.
Watch our Exclusive Gupshup with the Cast and Director of Umrika here:
The film focuses on two brothers who hail from a small Indian village and have dreams of making it big on ‘Umrika’ aka America.
Udai (played Prateik Babbar), the eldest son, has his wish fulfilled and departs to America for work.
His family wave him off proudly, but this quickly transforms into concern as they hear no news from Udai.
Eventually, letters begin to arrive with vibrant pictures of American life, and the family are filled with joy.
It is only when Udai’s younger brother Rama (played by Suraj Sharma) realises that the letters are fake, that he runs away to find what has happened to his brother.
As a concept, Umrika sits in a different category. We have seen many films which focus on Indian migration, particularly the journey and plight of a character migrating.
However, rarely does one see those that get left behind; the family that eagerly awaits news of their loved one, or those that are unsuccessful in migrating at all.
When director Prashant Nair was asked about why he chose this concept to focus on, he said: “I really wanted to explore the journey and decision that paves migration.”
Suraj Sharma is a natural actor, reinstating that his confident lead breakthrough in Life of Pi was no lucky fluke. He completely dissolves into the character of Rama and his struggle wins the hearts of the audience.
Asked about how he drew inspiration for his role in Umrika, Suraj says: “I grew up in Kalkaji, Delhi, where one side of the metro line is a slum where dreams get torn down whereas the other side is the rich, who represent the dream.”
The parents also support the film well, particularly the mother, played by Smita Tambe, who is honest in her portrayal.
Tony Revolori, from Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) fame, plays a supportive, fun loving friend to Rama. It is hard to believe that he is not Indian because he speaks and breathes the rustic dialect and mannerisms of the character:
“We thought Tony was Indian and wanted to cast him. Even when we discovered he was not, he was very keen to learn. It was a huge challenge,” says Prashant.
Suraj reveals: “I was involved in helping Tony with the dialogues. It was hard but in the process of laughing and learning, we became closer.”
Two brilliant actors are in the cast but we only get to see them in the end and their talents are wasted. This is Prateik Babbar who plays Udai and Adil Hussain who plays smuggler, Mr Patel.
The film transports you into the montages of the 80s India, subtly depicting key events such as popular films, historical events like the Cold War and key news stories like Amitabh Bachchan’s injury.
The growing fascination in America was also prominent at this time, as more and more found it an attractive option to migrate there.
There is a delightful use of some American-influenced vintage Indian pop songs from the era throughout.
When asked about why the 80s was chosen, Prashant admits: “This is actually the India I knew best and grew up seeing.”
The fascination in the ubiquitous American culture through photographs and events were a key element of the film:
“It’s about how cultures perceive each other: the stereotypes, assumptions, misunderstandings and labelling as ‘exotic’ of all things unfamiliar.”
“It’s what Americans tend to have about India, but this film shows that vice versa applies too,” he adds.
Umrika is shot in super 16mm to maximise period flavour. The grainy texture adds authenticity to the film and grounds it to that era:
“Umrika is probably the last film to use 16mm film. It was a challenge as the labs were in the process of shutting down, but we felt that it was the right medium to use.”
Cinematographer Petra Korner also deserves a mention; his work is fantastic. He takes audiences on an emotional journey, from the vibrancy and openness or rural India to the noticeable unpleasant and claustrophobic underbelly of Mumbai’s black market.
Whilst most scenes were shot in a remote village, it was hard to find one that reflected 80s life accurately:
“Even villages have satellites and cables nowadays so we ended up building our own village.
“We wanted to feel a little remote for mainstream Indian viewers – far enough for them to understand that those letters would travel a far way to get there.”
Following its positive response from numerous festivals, the independent film is seeing increasing success by being released in 20 countries as well as looking forward to a planned release in India.
With huge praise from the opening night at LIFF, it is hoped that Umrika will make a full-fledged UK release too.
For more details about other films at LIFF, including their showtimes, please visit the London Indian Film Festival website here.