Taking a more serious and less busily contemporary path after his primarily comedic 2011 indie, “Delhi in a Day,” writer-director Prashant Nair’s sophomore feature, “Umrika,” is a straightforward, ingratiating drama that builds toward a satisfyingly expansive close. Chronicling a rural youth’s journey to the big, bad city to discover what really happened to his supposedly America-bound brother, the pic belies its potentially cliched themes with likable understatement. The lead presence of “Life of Pi” star Suraj Sharma (in his first Bollywood role) and “The Grand Budapest Hotel’s” Tony Revolori should draw some interest beyond the usual home and expat auds for Indian cinema.
An entire mountain-farming village turns out to send off ambitious Udai (Prateik Babbar), who’s doing the unimaginable by starting on the long journey to the United States, an almost mythical place for this isolated community. When he fails to be heard from for months on end, his mother (Smita Tambe) is alternately near-catatonic and enraged in her grief. Letters do begin arriving at last, detailing the favored son’s successes in his exotic new land. But once their father (Pramod Pathak) dies in an accident, younger child Ramakant (Sharma) realizes that Dad and a kindly postman uncle (Rajesh Tailang) had in fact been forging Udai’s communications for the mother’s benefit. Having apparently vanished as soon as he reached the port city from which he was to go abroad, Udai might never have reached “Umrika”; he could well be dead.
Determined to find out, Rama leaves home for Mumbai himself, his only clue being that Udai’s contact for his emigration arrangements was a shady customer known as Mr. Patel (Adil Hussain). The latter is not an easy man to access; enterprising Rama worms his way toward contact by becoming a delivery boy for a local candy company whose treats his quarry favors. Meanwhile, he shyly courts his drunken landlord’s pretty, initially standoffish daughter, Radhika (Sauraseni Maitra). He’s also joined by antic village best friend, Lalu (Revolori), whose own no-nonsense older brother, Rajan (Amit Sial), preceded them both to this hectic, sometimes dangerous lower-class city life.
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The resolution to Udai’s mysterious disappearance is not what one might expect, lending the pic a new emotional depth and leading to a grace-note ending that adds still further unsentimental yet poignant dimensionality.
“Umrika” takes place from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, marking the passage of time with major events both political and pop-cultural. It uses Rama’s lifelong obsession with America — born from yearning for his absent brother, then necessitated by his taking over the fake communiques — as a running source of humorous cross-cultural commentary in an essentially serious narrative. Despite the story’s potential for it, there’s no melodramatic heavy lifting here, thanks to Nair’s soundly constructed script and deft handling of a very good cast. Sharma, in particular, carries the pic with an attractive gravity that makes it clear his virtual one-man show in “Life of Pi” was no lucky newcomer’s fluke.
Shot in Super 16mm to maximize period flavor, “Umrika” is handsomely turned in all departments, with particularly delightful use of some America-influenced vintage Indian pop songs from the era throughout.