It’s 1979, and 10 year old Smith Bhatnagar is introduced to the wonderful world of America – a world of disco, fried chicken, Halloween, and girls. One girl in particular, Amy Brunner, the girl next door. In an effort to swoon Amy (who needs less swooning than he realizes), Smith shapes himself up to be a proper American pre-teen – a good ol’ boy.
What’s a movie without a few obstacles? And what’s an Indian diasporic film without parents who have trouble assimilating? In Growing Up Smith, Smith’s parents insist on growing their own jack-o-lantern, handing out tricks instead of treats, and hosting meatless barbecues, acting as the main force working against Smith’s attempts at being the All-American boy he strives to be.
What starts off as a light-hearted family comedy with just the right amount of quirk, quickly becomes heavy near the end, with an unpredictable twist.
I had the chance to chat with Samrat Chakrabarti (Midnight’s Children), who plays the grown-up Smith, about his vision for the film, the story’s parallel to his own life, and how, in a time where America is in racial turmoil, Growing up Smith is just as relevant today as it was in 1979.
What element of this story stood out to you the most? What resonated with you, and drew you in?
There were elements of Smith’s parents in the film that reminded of me of my parents and their journey as immigrants from India. I felt like this story reflects their struggles assimilating and even parenting. I also liked the innocence Smith portrays. I wanted to be a part of the film the second I read it because it shows a very human story in an comical and entertaining fashion.
You play the title character, but you yourself appear in the film for a very short time. It is your voice, however, that really ties the whole story together, as the narrator. What was it like being the voice of a character, who is essentially your younger self?
I remember watching the Fred Savage TV show The Wonder Years and the classic film Stand By Me, and being in awe in how deeply I related to the protagonists. Interestingly enough, both of those pieces of TV and film had a narrator of an older version of the character narrating the story. It gave a sort of extra punch to the emotion, or literally sometimes the punchline. I wanted to do the same thing for this film and had a blast collaborating with Frank (the director) and the team.
Roni Akurati plays the younger Smith – how did you two collaborate, or work together, playing the same character at different periods of his life?
Roni was a ball of fun energy on set, always cracking jokes and sometimes breaking out into spontaneous dancing. We met a couple of times and I observed his mannerisms and enjoyed connecting with him. I wanted to mirror his essence in both my voice and body. I worked with writer/producer/actor Anjul Nigam to record a temporary track of my narration before the shoot. When Roni actually shot his scenes, the director would turn on the recording of my narration, so Roni could play off of it. I later on made a final recording of my narration after the entire film was shot, so I could play off of Roni’s performance. It was a fun collaborative experience.
Set in the 70s, this film encapsulates the Indian immigrant experience during this period. My father, for example, grew up in Canada during this time period, and his family’s experience is really reflected in the film. How do you think the story can be applied to a modern day audience?
I think this film is extremely relevant today; especially in a time where the word “immigrant” has become a buzz word. It is important to humanize the Indian immigrant experience and make it relatable to all the other immigrant experiences that are had in this melting pot we call America. As someone from Indian origin, I think it’s my job as an artist to be a part of creative movements that share the message of universality and constantly remind ourselves that we also make up the fabric of America. What better way than telling the story of innocence and the story of the one’s first love; something everyone can relate to.