Prashant Nair’s “Umrika” isn’t your typical Bollywood film. That is to say, it’s not about marriage or forbidden romance, and it’s not a musical or action comedy made for the sole purpose of entertainment. But it is about family, the cornerstone of so many Bollywood films. It’s a universal enough subject and, if combined with eventful storytelling, breaks every cultural barrier one can think of. A great example of this is last year’s “The Lunchbox,” or any Satyajit Ray film. As far as “Umrika” goes, however, it’s more of a case of why certain Bollywood films might get lost in translation for an international audience and fail to generate much excitement, regardless of some familiar faces.
The premise is a promising one, and Nair’s opening shots do a fantastic job of lulling the viewer towards it. A smooth, mellow medley, played on what sounds like traditional Indian instrument, glides the camera down toward the small village of Jitvapur, like a feather gently glissading on air. Nair beckons the audience closer and closer, until we see a farewell party in progress. A mother, son, and small brother are seeing off Udai (Prateik Babbar), who is going to America, or “Umrika” as it’s pronounced in the local dialect and remains spoken and written throughout the entire film. The fairytale ingredients are there for the tasting: Udai’s overseas aspirations spin the entire village into a frenzy of pride and gossip, and he makes sure to tell his little brother, Ramakant, that, “in Umrika, anything is possible.” Once his letters and gifts start coming in, with pictures of American landmarks (Statue of Liberty, etc.), the village becomes obsessed with the idealized version of the United States.
Years pass and Ramakant grows up into a young teenager (portrayed by Suraj Sharma), proud of his older brother, and looking out for his mother and father. His mother (Smita Tambe) frets and worries over typical motherly concerns: mainly, whether Udai is eating right and keeping healthy. Ramakant hangs out with his childhood best friend, Lalu (Tony Revolori), and handles his puberty with discreet manners. When his father suffers a fatal accident, however, his mom’s welfare becomes an even bigger priority and Udai’s lack of presence as the older brother is felt with traditionalist pangs. When Ramakant discovers that Udai’s whereabouts are unknown, and that his late father fabricated all those letters, he takes it upon himself to search for him, while keeping his mother in blissful ignorance.
At this point, “Umrika” derails into a quasi coming-of-age tale that crumbles under its own weightlessness and ultimately holds very little interest. Where perhaps another filmmaker would have chosen to turn the above foundation into a suspenseful case of brotherly mystery, Nair concentrates on Ramakant’s assimilation into a bigger city. Narrative threads are woven to the point of becoming a tangled ball, which may deserve untangling were it not for the inevitable headache you’d be left with. Ramakant continues to double as Udai and send letters to his mom, only to forget to write any of his own. The heartfelt goodbye between Ramakant and Lalu is tossed aside and forgotten after the latter pops up again for no apparent reason other than a cheap “you can’t have all the fun” vindication. These moments, and too many more, render the entire story hollow, all leading up to a woefully underwritten and anti-climactic realization of what happened to Udai (indeed, Udai is but a poor tracing job of a relatable character).
The film’s success hinges on the familiar faces of its two main actors, mostly Sharma’s. The “Life of Pi” breakout got some great television face-time last year by playing a central role in the frantic fourth season of “Homeland,” but this is his big Bollywood debut. Sharma has the kind of movie-star looks and screen charisma that will take him places, as long as he nurtures his acting talents along with them, and while “Umrika” proves he’s got all of the above, Nair’s underdeveloped story doesn’t do him justice. The other familiar face is Revolori, who broke out in last year’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” He’s got many eyes on him now, but these same eyes will quickly roll or get averted after seeing him play such a filler role as this. Petra Korner’s cinematography and Dustin O’Halloran’s compositions are competent enough to keep the viewer invested in “Umrika” in as far as not ditching the entire affair, but one feels both have done better work elsewhere (O’Halloran especially, since he’s behind the much more unassuming music of Amazon’s “Transparent”).
Perhaps the ebbs and flows of the storytelling in “Umrika” are more in line with local audience expectation, though I doubt I’d understand what the montage of Ramakant delivering pastries does for the point of the story even if someone took the time to explain it. The importance of placing the story in the ’80s, and calling attention to it through name dropping and important events, is perhaps a conscious way of distancing his story from the current, slightly more volatile vision of America. While that’s understandable, it doesn’t explain the distance created between the audience and the characters, which in turn causes a rift in every message Nair had about the utopia of the American Dream. Without substantial meaning and interesting events, and a handful of underwritten characters and uneventful decisions, “Umrika” is ultimately a non sequitur story that, at worst, holds no weight, and, at best, makes little sense to someone born outside of Indian values and traditions. [C-]