Review: ‘I for India’

The pain and necessity of separating from one's parents forms the unifying theme of "I for India," Sandhya Suri's intimate and rewarding documentary about her Indian expatriate family. Essentially two films in one -- the first an abstract but absorbing weave of archival footage and old home movies, the other an almost unbearably moving look at the family in the present -- this artfully integrated piece raises questions about cultural identity and filial obligation and provides no easy answers.

The pain and necessity of separating from one’s parents forms the unifying theme of “I for India,” Sandhya Suri’s intimate and rewarding documentary about her Indian expatriate family. Essentially two films in one — the first an abstract but absorbing weave of archival footage and old home movies, the other an almost unbearably moving look at the family in the present — this artfully integrated piece raises questions about cultural identity and filial obligation and provides no easy answers. Handled internationally by Celluloid Dreams, pic should have many more stops to come on the worldwide fest circuit.

After moving to the U.K. in 1965, Yash Pal Suri bought two Super 8 cameras, two projectors and two reel-to-reel recorders so he could keep in touch with his parents and siblings. Each film made constitutes a kind of visual letter, featuring grainy, mundane images of life in the English town of Darlington and layered with voiceover narration.

Docu’s first half settles into a distinct rhythm, intercutting the Suris’ home movies with television reports on the rise of Britain’s Indian population. As the U.K.’s attitude toward immigration became progressively more hostile through the 1970s, so the pressure mounted for Yash to return to India with his wife Sheel and their three daughters — Sandhya, Vanita and Neeraj — despite his successful medical practice and comfortable lifestyle.

Daughter-helmer Sandhya’s oblique approach smartly prioritizes showing over telling, and achieves some lyrical poetic effects, returning periodically to a closeup of her parents Yash and Sheel sleeping while her grandfather’s anguished pleas for Yash’s return play in the background.

The Suris did eventually return to India in February 1982 (though for less than a year), and pic signals the change with a radical formal transition, as Sandhya subjects her parents and sisters, previously glimpsed only briefly, to a series of interviews about how their lives have changed — for better and for worse.

Final third is given over to Vanita’s decision to leave England and move to Australia, a separation that is at once ironic and truly heartbreaking. While Yash and Sheel understand all too well the need to let go, their tears offer the viewer that rarest of gifts, a sense of inclusion within a deeply loving family.

I for India

U.K.- Italy - Germany

Production

A Fandango and zero west production in association with ZDF-ARTE and YLE Teema. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by Carlo Cresto-Dina. Directed, written by Sandhya Suri.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, Super 8) Sandhya Suri, Lars Lenski, Yash Pal Suri; editors, Cinzia Baldessari, Brian Tagg; sound, Alexander Weuffen; sound designers, Karl Atteln, Markus Loebel; associate producers, Thomas Kufus, Kai Kuenneman. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 20, 2006. Running time: 70 MIN.

With

Yash Pal Suri, Sheel Suri, Sandhya Suri, Vanita Suri, Neeraj Suri.
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