'Umrika': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
The themes are clearer than some of the plot details in this atmospheric story from India

Indian director Prashant Nair's second film stars Suraj Sharma, the lead of 'Life of Pi,' and Tony Revolori, the bellboy from 'The Grand Budapest Hotel.'

A wide-eyed young man from the Indian countryside ends up in sprawling Mumbai in Umrika, the second feature from Indian-born director Prashant Nair (Delhi in a Day). Closer to Western cinema than Bollywood — see: svelte 100-minute running time — this good-looking feature stars Suraj Sharma, the protagonist of Ang Lee's Life of Pi, as a young man who travels to the big city to try and figure out what happened to his older sibling, who supposedly left for the United States (the Umrika of the title) but was never heard from again after his departure.

Though unevenly paced and structured, the film's takes on immigration, country-city contrasts and youthful dreams of the future are lovingly detailed and should spark interest on the festival circuit and in countries where Indian art house fare, such as the recent hits The Gangs of Wasseypur and The Lunchbox, did well. As an added marketing bonus, Tony Revolori, the bellboy from The Grand Budapest Hotel and one of the stars of Sundance breakout hit Dope, co-stars as the best friend of Sharma's character.

In the film's opening, Udai (Prateik Babbar, My Name Is Pinto) is seen leaving his gorgeous but very humble village of birth, which is so high up in the mountains that it's surrounded by clouds. His destination: Umrika. His brother, Ramakant, is still a little boy, and the siblings' mother (Smita Tambe) has a hard time letting her eldest son go, even though she's a fan of the mythical and faraway land where Udai's headed. Her misery increases when there's no word of her son for months. But one day, as if by miracle, a stream of letters from the U.S. finally starts arriving, often with illustrative pictures of exotic Yankee phenomena.

It is one of the few sources of gentle humor in an otherwise quite serious film. Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan is also name-checked in several jokes, and the film's voiceover references to the 1980s — when the film is set — are also good for some chuckles, though the Cold War political references seem something of a stretch for a teenager from the remotest corner of the Indian countryside.

When Rama (now played by Sharma) reaches the age that Udai was when he left, their father (Pramod Pathak) dies and the protagonist discovers that he's been writing Udai's letter in collusion with the local mailman (Rajesh Tailang, also in the upcoming The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). In reality, Udai simply vanished when he left the village years ago. Rama thus takes it upon himself to travel to the Mumbai, from where Udai was supposed to leave for the U.S., and see if he can find out what happened.

The first half-hour of the film is immediately engaging, bringing to life the sights and sounds of both the rural village and the bustling, modern city that Rama has to explore. Thankfully, it's not the poverty of the village but the sense of family and the warmth of home that's highlighted, and the city actually looks darker, more stressful and unwelcoming. The resourceful if not entirely honest Rama finds a job as a delivery boy after he's stolen another worker's bike, and it's here that the film plateaus, with Rama's search for Udai temporarily taking a back seat to his experiences in Mumbai. There's a touching moment, however, somewhat later in the film when Rama, who has taken on the duty of his father to write to his mother as Udai, is told that she's very happy about hearing from her eldest but wondering why her younger son doesn't write to her as well.

The film's time period is evoked in several unobtrusive ways, including the classic method of having characters learn about specific events via the radio or TV. The grain of the 16 mm stock used by cinematographer Petra Korner (The Wackness, My Soul to Take) is also a constant visual reminder of that era. But the story could have been set in any era, as stories of family ties and immigration are universal.

Indeed, though the film struggles in its third act to bring its story to a satisfying and even entirely legible close (some of the plot details, including the actual fate of Rama, remain somewhat obscure), the greater themes resonate because Nair has managed to incorporate several big and abstract topics — including what ties us to our families and place of birth and the extent to which these things are important — into a story in which they become highly personal for the characters.

As in Life of Pi, Sharma's not only a charismatic and very physical presence but also proves he's got some serious acting chops. And despite the fact he's clearly been dubbed, Revolori has infectious fun in his somewhat underwritten supporting role. For Indian audiences, the casting of Babbar as Udai, the son far, far away from his mother, will resonate more than for audiences who are unfamiliar with the fact he's the son of Smita Patil, one of the actresses who emerged as part of the Parallel Cinema movement (whose directors included Satyajit Ray) and who later also found mainstream success. She died not long after giving birth to her only son.

Production company: Samosa Stories Entertainment
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Tony Revolori, Smita Tambe, Adil Hussain, Pramod Pathak, Rajesh Tailang, Amit Sial, Sauraseni Maitra, Prateik Babbar
Writer-director: Prashant Nair
Producers: Swati Shetty, Manish Mundra
Director of photography: Petra Korner
Costume designer: Nyla Masood
Editors: Xavier Box, Patricia Rommel
Music: Dustin O'Halloran
Casting: Abhishek Banerjee, Anmol Ahuja
Sales: ICM/Beta Cinema

No rating, 100 minutes