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And Off To... The Opening Night of London Indian Film Festival at the Cineworld Haymarket

20 July 2015

 

Now in its sixth year and attracting bigger and bigger stars, audiences and attention alike, LIFF opens its 2015 festival with a nostalgic independent film about migration, the precarious nature of dreams and a mother’s love. Umrika, the Hindi word for America, tells the story of a young man, Rama, whose older brother, Udai, leaves their rural village with the good, old American dream in his sights.  Apparently. Set in the 1980’s, the director, Prashant Nair, reminds us all of the pervasive nature of American culture at that time but, more interestingly, how that was understood, or misunderstood with hilarious results.  

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Life of Pi's Suraj Sharma takes on the leading role of the younger brother left behind witnessing his mother’s initial misery at the loss of her son to the mystical land of Umrika. The sorry fortunes of the family changes when, suddenly, they start receiving a flurry of letters from the prodigal son with grand tales of life in Umrika.

Nair comments: “I thought it would be interesting to flip {it} around, and to present America as an exotic place as seen through the eyes of this remote Indian village.” And interesting it is. Residents of the village are left to construct their own versions of American habits and culture with only Udai’s letter for a reference point. Their touching naivety results in some hilarious interpretation and bafflement – from thinking hot dogs were cooked carrots, and endeavouring to eat them as such, to tittering over female mud wrestlers to wonderment at the dressing up and visiting of houses for Halloween.

It made us wistful for the time when letters, not emails or texts, were so crucial in keeping loved ones up to date. The world that Umrika portrays both of India and America seems long gone; replaced by a globally connected world where google is the answer, not letters. Now everything is immediate, the innocence of not knowing, even in a remote village, is simply not available anymore. Sadder still to witness the perception of the warmer, exciting, inviting 1980s America, now having lost its fantasy-sheen, post 9/11, for a new, slightly volatile glare. 

The letters, however, turn out to be a fabrication of the father and the local postman to halt the mother’s descent into depression and apathy at the loss of her dearest son. Rama discovers this and keeps up the illusion even from Mumbai, where he journeys in search of his brother, and all its dusty, chaotic distractions. Not wishing to reveal too much, the film ends on a poignant and ambiguous note, leaving us fully considering the dangers of migration and the courage it would take to make such a decision.

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The Q&A afterwards elicited fascinating responses from the cast members, including Adil Hussain, Nair and producer, Swati Shetti. Various challenges, synonymous with actually getting an independent film made and distributed, were discussed: the film was permanently on the edge of crumbling, due to financial constraints. Hard work, sheer grit and no-doubt the stellar cast, including The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori, all played a part in this film’s success, typified by winning this year’s Sundance Audience Award. 

Director Nair said that the film is "about the mythology of America and, more generally, how cultures perceive each other: the stereotypes, assumptions, misunderstandings and labeling as “exotic” of all things unfamiliar.”

And Back Home For...

Our very own ClubTEN for the LIFF opening night bash, where the stars, the LIFF team and all the supporters and sponsors let loose and celebrated the start of this year’s festival. Asian canapés and a free-flowing bar kept everybody well-oiled as the dance floor filled up. We were lucky to party with Prashant Nair himself and two of his main actors Suraj Sharma and Adil Hussain. A fantastic inaugural night for what is set to be an incredible festival.  

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“This year’s festival perfectly captures LIFF’s desire to deliver challenging, beautiful and culturally pertinent films to a far-reaching audience” - Tony Matharu, LIFF patron and Managing Director of Grange Hotels.