By Aditya Savnal. Posted on December 29, 2015
Director Prashant Nair's Umrika tells the story of the residents of Jitvapur - a small town in the heartland of rural India, who are elated when one of their residents Udai (Prateik Babbar) migrates to America. Udai keeps sending letters while in America, which keeps the joy and hope alive among the residents of the village.
But when the letters stop coming, Udai's younger brother Ramakant (Suraj Sharma) and his best friend Lalu (Tony Revolori) set out to find the cause of the same, embarking on a journey of their own in the process.
Umrika, which is Nair's second feature, was premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it won the Audience Award in the World Cinema - Dramatic category. The film also won the FIPRESCI award at the Cairo International Film Festival.
Nair is a qualified electrical engineer and worked in an online organisation at the start of his career and later on set up a social media agency in France. He however gave up his professional career to pursue his dream of being a filmmaker.
He made his directorial debut with the film Delhi In A Day, which was premiered at The International Film Festival Of Kerala in 2012 and was released theatrically in India, through PVR Directors Rare.
We recently spoke to Nair about what inspired him to be a filmmaker, his debut film Delhi In A Day, why he chose to make Umrika, the roadblocks he faced while making the film and pursuing his filmmaking journey.
Republished below are excerpts from the same.
My parents were Indian Foreign Services officers and I grew up living in various parts of the world including Switzerland, Sudan and Austria. During my childhood, I had limited access to arthouse films as we lived in places that didn’t have much of these available and I didn’t grow up as a cinephile. None of our family members had worked in films either. I always wished to be a writer, though the prospects of becoming a writer seemed daunting and probably unrealistic to me at that point. So I ended up studying electrical engineering. But soon I realized that I wasn’t that interested in it. There was a video store down the street, where I stayed during my engineering days. As a result, I rarely attended lectures and ended up watching 3-4 films in a day.
This is when cinema started to impact me in a much more profound way. When I graduated, I probably was one of the worst electrical engineers in the world but luckily for me, the internet boom had just begun and that was really exciting. During this time, I worked at a number of internet companies in New York. Thereafter, I worked for 10 years in France where I started a social media consulting company, which we grew from a handful of employees to a full fledged business.
At the age of 32, I began to feel the urge to get back in touch with what I originally felt passionate about and so decided to leave the industry to try my hand at something creative. I wanted to make films; however, I was clueless about the filmmaking process. During this period, I did a 3 month basic course in filmmaking and as a part of the course, I made a short film and really enjoyed the process of making it. It was at this point of time, that I decided to spend a little more time pursuing film and to try to learn a little bit more about filmmaking.
Post the filmmaking course, I consulted a friend of mine, who was a pretty successful director in Hollywood and asked whether I should assist a filmmaker or if I should pursue a formal education in filmmaking and what would be the best way to get started. He suggested that I go ahead and make a film with a fraction of the money I would spend to pursue a formal education in filmmaking. Not to worry too much about getting it perfect but just to go ahead and make a film and that it would teach me more than any class or assisting job.
He also advised me to prepare a fixed schedule for making the film up-front and adhere to it religiously, almost as if it were a class. And that’s how I ended up making my first film Delhi In A Day. We shot the film on a 5D camera and I managed many of the responsibilities of the film myself, including the writing. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by good people and so I learnt a lot about the process as well as what areas I wanted to focus on.
The film had a limited release in India through PVR Directors Rare. I am glad that it did get a release, because the process of releasing a film teaches you a lot about the challenges involved in bringing your movie to audiences once you have made it.
While directing Delhi In A Day, I was also writing the script of Umrika. I submitted the script to the Mahindra Sundance labs, where it was accepted and based on the feedback I received at the lab, I worked on improving the script. Directing Delhi in A Day had made me aware of the difficulties involved in making a film and getting it released. I therefore wanted to get Umrika made as an international co-production in the hopes that having several stakeholders in different countries would help the film travel as well as provide a context to create something truly universal. Initially it was supposed to be an Indo-German-French co-production. Everybody had committed to their part of the money and we were ready to go on floors.
During this time, Swati Shetty also came on board and helped us to get in touch with Suraj Sharma (the lead actor of the film). Having worked in the studio world, she brought a strong understanding of marketing, release and distribution activities. Sadly, the financing fell through, a couple of weeks before we began the shoot and the project seemed doomed to never happen.
Swati suggested that since we were in the momentum, we should try and get the film back on its feet at the earliest. We then started shooting with minimal finances. Soon Manish Mundra came on board and he helped us to slowly get back on our feet.
Growing up all over the world, I found that India was often unfairly labeled as an “exotic” place, especially in America. But the truth is, if you look at American traditions (Thanksgiving, Groundhog Day) through naive eyes, they are equally exotic. I wanted to sort of flip this around and have America viewed as an “exotic” place through the eyes of an Indian village. So, in Umrika, the inhabitants of Jitvapur village receive letters containing photos of America and they construct their own idea of the country, much as people who have never been to India do. In their eyes, Umrika is an exotic place.
The other theme of the movie is obviously illegal immigration. I think we often tend to look at illegal immigration through statistics but behind each statistic is a very personal and heartbreaking story. I had seen a lot of cinema about how difficult the journey is or how hard it is once an immigrant reaches their destination but I wanted to tell the story of everything that happens up until that decision is made. And to end the film with that decision, almost leaving the audience hoping that the protagonist reaches their destination, even if it is their own country. Umrika is a family story and the character’s decision to immigrate stems from reasons that go far beyond war, poverty, ambition and are hopefully universal.
I am a fairly young writer and have written only a couple of scripts, so my writing process is still developing. I find screenwriting to be the most difficult part of the filmmaking process. When I wrote Umrika, I had this image of a brother leaving a very small village to go to America and the entire village surrounding him to say goodbye - and that was it. And from there, it sort of took on a life of it’s own and it wasn’t till many drafts later that I sort of understood what I was actually writing about.
I wrote the first draft in 3 days to make the Sundance Mahindra deadline. Though they saw potential in it, they acknowledged that it needed major rework. Through the lab and the various sessions with my mentors, I was able to more clearly identify the themes that I was really trying to write about and the following months, I was able to write several more drafts and incorporate the feedback of my lab mentors as well as producers. It’s an iterative process. I’d recommend the lab to anyone who has a screenplay – the experience there is invaluable and the atmosphere in which it takes place, so humble and generous.
Barring Tony Revolori, all the actors are Indian. The casting of Tony was a happy accident. Abhishek Banerjee and Anmol Ahuja were the casting directors and we used a purely improve-based casting approach where actors were primarily doing scenes that didn’t exist in the script.
Rahul Shankalya and Dheerender Dwivedi (who helped me with the dialogues) also helped us with the casting of the film. They are both from the region and having them with me throughout the film was a lifesaver as they were able to coach the actors, be on set with me to identify pronunciation flaws and also during the edit.
I did several auditions for Tony Revolori’s role, but I wasn’t finding anyone who I thought fit perfectly. When I saw the trailer of The Grand Budapest Hotel (30 seconds after it was released), I was impressed by whatever I saw of him in the film and was convinced that he was an Indian. Unfortunately, he isn’t but I sent his manager the script anyway and they read it in a day and loved it.
I think everyone thought I was crazy but if you’ve seen TGBH, you’ll see there’s something very magnetic about Tony’s performance and I couldn’t get him out of my head for the role. We did a few Skype meetings and some dialogue tests and ended up deciding to just go for it. He had to work very hard and spend lots of time in dialogue coaching and getting exposed to India and the village we had identified. Tony is remarkably hard-working and talented.
During the shoot, Tony and Suraj became good friends, which also helped them to develop their on-screen chemistry. Suraj also helped him with the dialogues.
We wanted the film to have a magical, almost fairy-tale like feeling to it. This was never going to be an ultra-realistic or documentary style approach. We wanted to depict a village that was lost in time and where time stood still. The film is set in the period from 1975 to 1986.
So from the production side, Swati had to contact the brands (shown in the film) and get permission for using their logos and brand names. Due to this, the production took a long time. In order to recreate the era, we went through several thousand ads, photographs etc of that time. We had to ensure that the clearances, permission etc were in place when we began shooting. Similarly with music, there was a huge effort involved in licensing the appropriate music.
All departments from costume to sound to the production guys had to coordinate and work together tightly to make this happen on our budget and I am really thankful for the way everyone embraced the challenge. We had to show not only a specific era but also how India changed during that time: postal stamps, clothes, music, advertising, color TV happened, certain cars came out – 1975 to 1986 is quite a huge time-frame and getting the details was pretty exhausting.
We used varied colour schemes for the film. For depicting the village life, we used warm earthy colours and used colder colours to show the transition of Suraj Sharma as he moves from the village to the city life.
Christian Conrad was such a pleasure to work with on the sound design of the film. He spent many months in India and was very methodical about getting the era right in terms of discussions with local sound designers, research, etc. He was very particular to get certain things that were specific to the era right in the film like: 2 stroke versus 3 stroke engines, the sounds of the mills in the 80s in Mumbai, very particular vendor calls. These are all present in the film.
We wanted to make a film that had an international appeal and would travel widely while catering to our home audiences as well. We tested the film with audiences in U.S, Germany and India among other countries. In some ways, the timing of the film was appropriate. When we began releasing the film in the various European countries, the European refugee crisis was at the forefront and the subject on everyone’s minds. In that sense, the film was really timely in that it speaks about illegal immigration and attempts to portray one person’s journey.
Aside from all the festival screenings, we’re really happy that the film has been releasing commercially in many countries and continues to do so. It’s a joy to see the film resonate with the different audiences and more so to see the debate and questions that it raises amongst viewers. I’ve been at a few Q&A sessions that have been particularly charged and that’s rewarding.
Drishyam films is trying to find the right window for the release. The film should release in the first quarter of the next year. We’re very fortunate to have them behind the film, I think their vision will really change the landscape of Indian independent cinema over the next few years. Their commitment to bringing all these films out is essential to the development and nurturing of the audiences we need for the future.