Umrika (2015, 96 mins., Hindi with English sub-titles)
A rare Indian entry to premier at the Sundance Film Festival, Prashant Nair’s critically acclaimed dark comedy Umrika is an astute and surprisingly insightful virtual mirror of how some non-Americans, in this case impressionable villagers in a remote Indian hamlet, view America. Nair’s movie takes cues from a series of letters—veritable postcards—written by a villager who has gone to America to his family back home. It’s when the letters stop mysteriously that things get a little haywire. Featuring Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi), as the youth who sets out in search of his America-bound older brother (Prateek Babbar), there is also a great best-friend role, played by Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel). Set in the 1980s, the concise story-telling taps everything from Indira Gandhi’s funeral and the Challenger explosion to the Indian villagers’ hilariously spot-on takes on American cultural touchstones such as Halloween and Thanksgiving.
Parched (2015, 118 mins., Hindi with English sub-titles)
Directed by Leena Yadav and produced by Ajay Devgan, Parched is a jolting, non-squeamish and beautifully bittersweet calibration of the lives of four women in a rustic, ethnically vibrant and often harsh Rajasthan setting. Oppressed, victimized and mostly written off as no-good bystanders against the stone wall of male hegemony in their neo-feudal universe, the women struggle—often by a mere thread—to keep their humanity intact. The brilliant and bawdy script—an amalgam of western Hindi and Gujarati—empowers budding, even behind-closed-doors, exploration of both their sexuality and contemplation of the possible demise of their victimhood. Lead by Tannishtha Chatterjee, who spearheads as Lajjo, a young struggling widow, Radhika Apte as Lajjo’s friend with an abusive husband, Surveen Chawla as their friend who wears her firebrand village whore rep like a lapel pin and Lehar Khan as the teen-age bride of Lajjo’s teen-age son, Parched quenches on so many levels.
Sairat (2016, 174 mins., Marathi with English sub-titles) Noted Marathi filmmaker Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat (loosely meaning “wild”) became a runaway hit and the all-time highest grossing Marathi language movie. Nearly three hours long yet never boring, it starts out harmlessly by serving up a college romance between Prashant/Parshya (Akash Thosar), he from the fish-monger family, and Archana/Archi (Rinku Rajguru), she from the upper-crust landed gentry. Unable to bridge the gaping socio-economic divide between their backgrounds, Parshya and Archi elope, incurring the wrath of Archi’s politically-connected father (Suresh Vishwakarma). Told mostly as a romance and action adventure of their lives on the run, this could easily be a run of the mill re-dressing of the Raj Kapoor hit Bobby (1973). By going just one step further, however, Tinku Rajguru), she from the upper-crust landed gentry. Unable to bridge the gaping socio-economic divide between their backgrounds, Parshya and Archi elope, incurring the wrath of Archi’s politically-connected father (Suresh Vishwakarma). Told mostly as a romance and action adventure of their lives on the run, this could easily be a run of the mill re-dressing of the Raj Kapoor hit Bobby (1973). By going just one step further, however, Sairat becomes a solemn reflection of sweeping themes from contemporary rural Indian sociology that includes the clash between Old India and New India. Karan Johar has already acquired rights for the Hindi remake.
1,000 Rupee Note: Ek Hazarchi Note (2014, 89 mins., Marathi with English sub-titles)
In Shrihari Sathe’s 1,000 Rupee Note nothing much appears to be happening and yet there is so much going on. An elderly single woman, whose name is Parvati (Usha Naik) who goes by Budhi (“old”) in her Maharastra village, lives by herself, is impoverished and makes ends meet by scrubbing floors. Budhi’s daily joy is making a steaming cup of chai, which she invites her benevolent neighbor Sudama (Sandeep Pathak) to share. At a political rally, Budhi unwittingly ends up in a line where the politician is handing out money to the attendees—an outright bribe just outside the reach of rolling cameras—and walks away with several 1,000 rupee notes. Perplexed and also excited by the unexpected windfall, and with her kindly neighbor Sudama in tow, Budhi goes on a shopping spree. Sathe’s staging of village street scenes often bring to mind Shyam Benegal’s agrarian dramas from the 1970s. For Budhi, the life lesson that follows is a poignant morality tale outlined simply and with lasting impression.
Amal (2007, 103 mins., Hindi and English with English sub-titles)
Indian-Canadian filmmaker Richie Mehta’s well-received film debut was a superb reflection on the heart and soul of Amal (Rupinder Nagra), a Delhi rickshaw driver, who unknowingly becomes the focus of a city wide figurative man-hunt. Both the good guys—Naseedurin Shah’s cranky reclusive billionaire with a fortune to bequeath —and bad guys—thieves and murderers—are after Amal when fate leads to his being named the beneficiary of the reclusive billionaire’s vast fortune. Similar in feel to Peter Sellers in Being There, Amal triumphs as a monument to those humans whose humanity screams silently simply because they always speak the truth. With Seema Biswas in support, Mehta’s movie has retained its ability to draw the viewer into the one-track life of the rickshaw driver. The poorest of men can indeed live the richest of lives.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.