Competing in Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition, Prashant Nair’s “Umrika” focuses on the small Indian village of Jitvapur, where new traditions and community debates arise after letters from abroad paint a picture of foreign American life in the 1980s. For Nair, a director who has traversed the globe, the film was an opportunity to use continental culture to punctuate his subjects, something the director believes film is a vital tool for. Now that film is screening at Sundance following a hectic production shoot, it couldn’t be a better time to get acquainted with Prashant Nair.
What’s your film about, in 140 characters or less?
A tiny Indian village begins to transform when letters start arriving from one of their own describing the marvels and eccentricities of life in 1980s America.
Now, what’s it REALLY about?
It’s 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. The film playfully examines this through the eyes of a remote village in India that’s forced to piece together a portrait of America through photographs and letters that they receive. In particular, it focuses on two brothers whose lives are turned upside down by all this.
Tell us briefly about yourself.
I was born in India but raised in Europe, Africa and Asia before going on to live and work in New York, Paris, Prague, Berlin and now Mumbai. This constant moving and exposure to different parts of the world is probably what has the biggest impact on the subjects I hope to explore through filmmaking.
I came to filmmaking relatively late, having worked in social media up until four years ago. My first film, the micro-budget “Delhi In A Day” served as film school for me. It had a limited theatrical release in India in 2012 and I was fortunate enough to be able to follow that up with being part of the inaugural Sundance Mumbai Mantra Screenwriting Lab in India, with the support of whom I developed “Umrika.”
What was the biggest challenge in completing this film?
The film was originally set up as a French/German/Indian co-production but just weeks before production was to start everything fell apart and the entire project was “indefinitely postponed.” Swati Shetty then stepped in, and she and I sort of stubbornly decided to go ahead anyway, scraping together whatever we could from savings, friends and family. For most of the shoot, we’d wake up every morning not knowing if this would be the last day we could afford to shoot. Fortunately towards the end of the shoot and after knocking on almost every door in India, Swati finally met our other producer, Manish Mundra, over Twitter and he agreed to come on board as a producer and finance the film as well. For a long time, it looked like we’d end up completely bankrupt, with an incomplete film and no friends left…
What do you want audiences at Sundance to take away from your film?
Above all, I hope that they enjoy the ride and are able to immerse themselves in the world we’ve created, even if its one that’s quite distant from their own. Beyond that, if the film encourages people to think about how they perceive cultures other than their own, the stereotypes and assumptions that we regularly make, it would be very rewarding.
Are there any films that inspired you?
Plenty. For “Umrika,” in particular, because the film takes place in the 80s, I ended up watching a ton of cheesy Bollywood movies from the 80s I would otherwise never have seen. Southern Italy has certain similarities to India, so I enjoyed watching some of Tornatore’s films again and also revisited Ettore Scola films and a few of the Commedia all’italiana classics for tone.
What’s next for you?
Nothing is concrete just yet but I have just finished up my first draft of a comedy/drama that takes place in an Indian airport that is falling apart and about to be decommissioned. I’m also working on a dark comedy about a couple that escapes big city life to paradise in order to pursue spirituality, healthy living and “freedom.” Both are being developed with Samosa Stories, the production company that produced “Umrika.”
What cameras did you shoot on?
We shot Super 16. Arri 416 with Cooke S4 lenses. The film takes place from 1975-1986 so we wanted it to have that texture and feel. Sadly, it might be one of the last films to be shot on Super 16 in India as almost all the labs have shut down.
Did you crowdfund? If so, via what platform. If not, why?
Unfortunately not, unless you count friends and family. Crowdfunding is still in its infancy in India and, at the time, there were a number of regulatory issues to be resolved. But we definitely hope to in the future.
Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. Click here for more profiles.