VIFF Review: Umrika

Umrika examines the American Dream, or more specifically, the perception of America that people living outside of it have, and their desire, ambition, and determination to get there.Umrika VIFF

The film follows Ramakant (played by Suraj Sharma of Life of Pi and Homeland Season 4), whose brother Udai departs from their tiny village in India for America when Ramakant is a young boy. After his departure to the land most desired, Udai becomes an idol to the people of his hometown – he is the only one of them who made it. Over the course of Ramakant’s life, the real story of Udai’s journey slowly comes to light, crushing the idea of the Umrikan Dream along with it. As the vision of America becomes bleaker, Indian becomes more vibrant.

Ramakant spends a large part of his life hearing about Umrika – from his mother, his neighbours, and in the letters his brother sends him, emblazoned with pop culture icons and American landmarks. The film provides us with Ramakant’s perspective of American customs. He can’t wrap his head around them, and it provides some comic relief (as well as moments of reflection), when he explains common American practices, such as the annual killing and eating of a very special bird (Thanksgiving), or the giant rodent that Americans rely on to tell them the weather once a year (Groundhog Day). We can see that he has become slowly desensitized to the sensationalism of America. One of the friends Ramakant makes along the way asks the golden question that begins the unravelling of the American Dream: “What do they have that we don’t?” The film leaves us with the notion that the answer, is nothing.

The film plays on two ends of a spectrum. It highlights how much hope the very idea of America (along with the luxury, glamour, and mysticism associated with it) brings to India. Ironically, at the same time it kills them, both literally, and figuratively. One of the most heartbreaking moments in the film occurs when Western technology is introduced to the Ramakant’s rural village. It represents a larger issue at hand – the dangers of trying to implement Western ideals and developments in a “foreign” context. As well, it offers a firsthand look at what happens when America tries to “save” developing countries with even their simplest inventions.

The film is relatable to the Indian-born audience, who know firsthand the dreams of America that run deep in India. The film also feeds the diaspora, who might feel something of the reverse – thinking of India when searching for a place to belong, while wondering what those in India see in ‘Umrika’.