2016 Milwaukee Film Festival – Review – UMRIKA
UMRIKA is India’s sole representative at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival as part of the Worldviews program. However, with some familiar faces, a style that’s more Hollywood than Bollywood, an immigrant dreams story line, and a focus on America (“Umrika is a corruption of the name) as a place of dreams, it’s widely accessible.
UMRIKA is the story of Ramakant (played by LIFE OF PI’s Suraj Sharma as an adult) which starts when Ramakant’s older brother Udai leaves their small rural village for a job in America. Their village is soon enlivened by letters from Udai which depict life in America in comic detail. But, after the death of Ramakant’s father, Ramakant finds that the letters were fakes from his father to assuage his mother’s fears. At which point, Ramakant sets out to retrace his older brother’s footprints and find Udai, even if it takes him all the way to America.
That’s the basic plot, but the film is more concerned with the coming of age and hopes and dreams of Ramakant than it is with a SEARCHERS style quest. America is a metaphor for all the hopes and dreams of Ramakant and his family, and it probably helps to appreciate the comedy to know the reality of America rather than the fantasy of America. Fittingly, much of the film is set in the 1980s during Reagan’s presidency, the last time of real mythologizing about America. There’s a lot of humor to the film, aided by THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL’s Tony Revolori as Ramakant’s friend, Lalu. Toss in a bit of romance for Ramakant and the spirit of UMRIKA is mostly gentle.
There’s also a darker undercurrent to the film centering around the local crime boss who will smuggle immigrants to America for a price. There’s a bit of mystery here as there’s a strong suspicion that Udai crossed this crime boss’s path with a bad outcome. It’s something that leavens the film and provides a grounding for the gentle humor of most of the film.
Ultimately, it’s about hopes, dreams, and aspirations and what are we willing to give up to live the life that we want. And, also, how strong are the ties of family, do they support us or hold us back? Those are universal themes that transcend the superficiality of the Indian setting and period trappings. It’s helped a lot by a really strong performance by Suraj Sharma and a fun performance by Tony Revolori proving Ang Lee and Wes Anderson astute at recognizing talent. I don’t think the script works fully on all levels, it’s trapped betwixt comedy and drama at points not fully committing to either, but its heart is in the right place. It may not be a coming of age story on par with PATHER PANCHALI, but then again, what is? It’s just a solid, well made film.
UMRIKA will play twice more at the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival, at 12:30 pm on Tuesday, October 4 at the Oriental Theatre and at 7 pm on Thursday, October 6 at the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill. Tickets are on sale at the Milwaukee Film Festival’s website.