SURKHAAB. Director: Sanjay Talreja. Players: Barkha Madan, Sumit Suri, Vineeta Malik. Produced by: Vivek Kumar and Barkha Madan.

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Thugs are looking for Jeet in her village in Punjab, sent by a powerful minister’s son whose advances she has spurned. She needs to flee, and desperation pushes her to seek help from nefarious racketeers who promise her forged documents to Canada.

So it is that Jeet, a doe-eyed village belle from Punjab, arrives in Toronto and joins the ranks of the undocumented immigrants trying to find a toe-hold in the strangeness and promise of a new country. This “fresh off the boat” experience is superbly portrayed in the film as a bittersweet amalgam of coldly efficient immigration officials, touching family reunions, and the blur of new faces and places. Jeet’s situation is made more precarious by her lack of proper papers. In one scene, convinced that every passing policeman can see through her pretense of legality, Jeet ducks out of a coffee-shop and finds herself staring at the majesty of the Niagara falls with open-mouthed wonder.

She has little time to stand and stare. Sinister events unfold. Additional unsavory characters begin showing up to claim a bag that she has couriered for the village goons. (At this point, I found myself remembering the guitar case in El Mariachi, that other indie low budget action icon.) It is not till much later that Jeet begins to suspect that the crooks are after more than the besan ke laddoos (sweets) that her doting mother has sent from back home.

The film starts strong, with a convincing back story, though it flags a bit towards the end. The writing by Sanjay Talreja is good, the characters believable and the storyline well conceived. Barkha Madan infuses her character with all the vulnerability of a stranger abroad and the chutzpah of a state judo champion who doubles as a Punjab di Sherni (Lioness of Punjab). It is interesting to note that there is no love interest for our strong and independent protagonist. The anti-hero Kuldip is played by Suri with believable swagger and panache.

The film has done well in the film festival circuit, bagging several prestigious awards.

Besides London, Madrid and Houston, film festivals in India such as the Noida International Film Festival and Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival have sent laurels their way. I caught up with the producer Vivek Kumar, a Bay Area resident, who is a co-producer of this self-funded film. “Jeet is a reluctant immigrant. She is not a victim, though. She might be a pind di kudi (village girl) but she is a martial arts champion who can take care of herself.”

The film ends on a positive note, with Jeet reunited with her brother, and gainfully employed.

As for her future, one can only speculate.

I am reminded of a quote from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) by Junot Diaz “What did you know about states or diasporas? What did you know about Nueba Yol [New York] or unheated “old law” tenements or children whose self-hate short-circuited their minds? What did you know, madame, about immigration? Don’t laugh, mi negrita [my little dark one], for your world is about to be changed.”

There is much to commend in this film, named after a small but robust migratory bird found near Amritsar. Surkhaab ke par nikal aaye hain is a phrase that refers to the spreading of wings and of flight, evoking the long journey that is another name for immigration.

Geetika Pathania Jain earned her doctorate in International Communications from the Radio-TV-Film department of the University of Texas at Austin. Her daughter, Sagaree Jain, is studying English Literature and History at the University of California at Berkeley

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