Land of Gold: In pursuit of the American Dream

…Let the horses part the sand

Bring a quiet to this land

It was ours before it was theirs

And the ghosts await their share…

Lyrics from “Shadow Song” by Gabi Fastman © 2022 Exit Line Music. All rights reserved. 

These semantically charged lyrics are part of a song that accompanies the closing credits of Land of Gold, Nardeep Khurmi’s first full-length feature film, that he has written, directed, and acted in. Khurmi plays a first-generation American of Punjabi origin, alongside Caroline Valencia, who plays an undocumented child of Mexican immigrants. Through a simple story hinged largely on the interaction between these two characters, the film unpacks complicated issues like racial and religious identity, generational trauma, separation of families at the border, intersectionality, and all the trappings of being born to parents who left their homes in pursuit of the American dream

Land of Gold humanizes these politically-charged issues. It also pays homage to the shared history of farmers from Punjab and Mexico who came to the USA in the 19th century.

After a brief theatrical outing, the film is now available to stream on Max. It has also had a great run at film festivals like St. Louis International Film Festival, Vancouver International South Asian Film Festival, Denver Film Festival, Philadelphia Film Festival, HIFF, and CAAMFest, among others.

This image is of Nardeep Khurmi, smiling during the interview over Zoom. He is bespectacled and bearded (Image courtesy: Ashwini Gangal)
Nardeep Khurmi is all smiles during the Zoom interview with India Currents (Image courtesy: Ashwini Gangal)

Joy, pride, and exhaustion writ large on his face, Khurmi spoke to Ashwini Gangal of India Currents over a Zoom call soon after attending the Tribeca Festival, where it all began for him in 2021 when he won Tribeca and AT&T’s ‘Untold Stories’ prize – a million-dollar grant to make Land of Gold.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Ashwini Gangal: Writer. Director. Actor. Which creative alter ego feels the most ownership over the material and the accolades Land of Gold is getting?

Nardeep Khurmi: In this case, I’d say it’s the writing and directing, maybe. If you’re a multi-hyphenate, you can’t divorce one from the other. When I first wrote the script, I didn’t intend to act in it, though.

When I direct things that I haven’t written, it’s purely an interpretation of the script I’ve been given, but when I’m doing both, a lot of the direction is given in the writing. On set, I look forward to being surprised; when you’re writing and directing your own material, it’s easy to get locked in.

AG: Land of Gold sounds like an allusion to the American Dream. Right? 

NK: Yes. While writing the script I was listening to a playlist; an Anoushka Shankar song called Land of Gold came on. The lyrics were gorgeous. I thought she was singing about the border crisis in the United States, but actually, it was about the Syrian refugee crisis. It made me think back to the history of immigration to the United States. The Chinese, the Japanese – they all came here for prosperity, for the “gold rush”, for fields of golden wheat. The US is the land of gold for most immigrants, but I think it’s a bittersweet place. 

AG: You identify as a BIPOC immigrant filmmaker. That’s a superpower because you see stories where others don’t. Your craft is informed by your identity in such a big way – surely there’s a flip side to that?

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NK: This is a constant debate I have within the filmmaking community. As a BIPOC immigrant creator, my identity will be wrapped up in whatever I work on. It may not always be the defining element, but all my material will involve identity in some way. 

I think the industry does prop up this narrative, particularly for first-time filmmakers who happen to be of color, or belong to the LGBTQ community, where they have to speak as their honest true selves. We have the burden of bleeding on screen for people, especially when the audience is predominantly white. They’re drawn to narratives of trauma.  

That’s a challenge for the immigrant filmmaker or the BIPOC filmmaker or the female filmmaker, whatever the prefix is. It’s a little bit of a burden but it’s also a responsibility. When you’re a community filmmaker of any kind, it’s about owning the responsibility of being a voice of that community. It’s both a limitation and an opportunity. 

AG: Your short film Pagg (2018), about xenophobia faced by Sikhs in America, is on the same thematic continuum as Land of Gold. Are the two films cut from the same cloth?

NK: Totally. There are thematic throughlines between Pagg and Land of Gold. Both films are different explorations of the same experience, that is, the Sikh identity in America.

Pagg was my response to the Trump presidency and the hate and fear I was seeing at the time. Land of Gold is like the story of the first-gen child of the protagonist in Pagg.  

AG: You came to the US at the age of five. You inhabit the complex space between immigrant and first-generation American…

NK: Right. I am first-gen, but I do own the immigrant experience too. My family went from Punjab to England, so my cultural heritage is a mix of Punjabi Indian, Punjabi British, a little bit of Switzerland, where I was born, and the United States. 

My immigrant story is very much the diaspora story of being caught between cultures. My soup is very spiced. 

Ashwini Gangal is a fiction writer based in San Francisco, who has published stories and poems in literary magazines in the UK and Croatia.