Did you have a happy 4th of July? Yes? No? Not American? Well, anyways, this is a movie about an Indian boy whose brother went to America.
Warning: this movie has spoilers for both King Kong and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
It is Jitvapur in the early 1980s. Jitvapur is a small Indian village somewhere near the border with Nepal. And it getting even smaller. Pretty much the entire village has gathered to bid farewell to two young men named Rajan and Udai. Rajan is going to the big big city. Udai is going even farther. Udai’s parents are proud. Sad that he is leaving, but proud that he is able to do so. His much younger brother, Ramakant, however, understands only that Udai is leaving.
Ramakant barely speaks for months and month, saying only “Umrika” when he finally begins to understand that his brother went to the far off land called America. At the same time, his mother, previously proud at her older son going off to attain a better life in Umrika, becomes more despondent at his absence and lack of contact, which becomes even worse after Rajan sends a letter to his family from the big big city. She and Ramakant’s father begin to drift apart, so much that his father has to sleep in Ramakant’s part of the hut. Finally…FINALLY…there is a letter from Udai. The mail carrier, who may be one of the few literate people around, reads the letter to the entire village. Udai is doing…not great, but okay. Definitely okay enough to impress the villagers and lead to a…uh…thaw in the Cold War. Ramakant’s mother is not just better, but joyful.
Ramakant bears witness to the power of the written word, and vows to become literate. He has his father bring him to a local school, where he almost immediately gains a friend and a couple of enemies. Meanwhile, Udai sends another letter. And another. And his family loves them, as do the other villagers. He even sends a piggy bank and a snow globe…neither of which the villagers comprehend. But they love it. The letters fill their minds with images of things outside of the world that they see. Ramakant’s school lessons become centered around Umrika. They even learn about this strange thing that sucks down White people’s bodily waste when they sit on it. When Ramakant’s family goes to the nearby city to watch a movie and send a letter to Udai, it is Ramakant who writes down his mother’s words, though with a little help from the mail carrier. Years go by and Ramakant no longer needs his help, writing letters to his brother and reading the letters that come back. The villagers learn about American hotdogs totally vegetarian sandwiches. They eventually get electricity.
One day, while walking through the nearby city, Ramakant and his mother pass by a pair of Nepalese girls. One of the girls look at him and he looks at her. His mother does not say anything in the moment, but is furious when they get home…mostly at her husband. Later, he more gently reminds Ramakant that he must marry someone from within the community, not an outsider like a Nepalese girl. Ramakant goes to his mother…maybe to apologize. She wonders aloud whether Udai is okay, whether he is eating well. Ramakant assures her that Umrika has everything…except maybe bread the way she makes it.
It happened so suddenly. Ramakant was not even there to witness it. But it happened. His father has died; electrocuted by a cable on the ground. His mother is not only grieving, but upset that Ramakant had to light the funeral pyre instead of the her eldest son. And Ramakant is now tasked with the responsibility to take his father’s job and his toolbox.
That night, Ramakant is looking through his father’s toolbox when he finds a bunch of envelopes and stamps…and even some letters. He goes to the city and confronts the mail carrier. The mail carrier shows him a room with photographs all over the wall…photographs of America. He sees a cupboard with letters…letters that had been meant for Udai…and never sent. The mail carrier tells him that he has no idea what happened to Udai. They looked and looked. All that they know is that he went to see this immigration guy named Patel, and then vanished. Ramakant’s father could not tell his wife about this…so they concocted a big lie. So what is Ramakant to do now? She is already in mourning for her husband. The truth about her eldest son would destroy her. So, he decides to go looking for him…leaving his mother on her own. He tells his friend to tell her that he went to the city to work for Rajan. He writes a letter as Udai and tells the mail carrier to give it to his mother. The mail carrier gives him both Rajan’s address and Patel’s address. And Ramakant is off on an adventure that takes him, if not to Umrika, then to an India that he has never seen.
Over the past few decades or so, India has churned out movies where their protagonists find their way to the United States or some other Western country, see what it has to offer, maybe get tempted by what it has to offer, and ultimately conclude that it is spiritually bankrupt compared to their homeland. I am unsure whether this started before the trend of Westerners going East to find themselves, but there seems to be a connection. This is not one of those movies. In fact, it is not even about a person’s journey through America, but the idea of America itself; how people perceive America and what people do with that perception. Many people do not have the luxury of going to foreign countries and getting a true feel for the places, so they make do with entertainment media, news media, and whatever things that they have heard from other people. I have never been to India and, yet, I have spent over a year posting articles about Indian movies as if that would give me a better understanding of the country. Fair is fair, I suppose.
Ramakant is merely a boy when Udai leaves, and his world consists of his tiny village and maybe the nearby city. He has no idea what America is when his brother leaves. He also has no idea that America has played a role in the village before, which is the only reason why their very conservative mother would allow her eldest son to leave her sight in the first place. It is through his brother that he learns about America. He learns through everyone talking about him leaving. He learns through his brother’s letters. He learns through the village’s growing obsession with America. And then, one day, he learns that it was all a lie. The things about America that he learned did not come from his brother’s experiences, but from tidbits of information that his father and others had gathered. Some of it may be misinformation or lies. Who even knows anymore? Does it matter? His brother is missing.
Well, sure, it may not matter to Ramakant, but the movie itself plays with the idea of America. Before Udai’s father puts together a bunch of fake letters, Udai is just gone. No one thinks about him except for his immediate family. Ramakant’s mother is despondent, and this has a major effect on Ramakant, who is himself upset at his brother’s disappearance. The letters change everything, not just for the family, but for the village. More than anything, it is the power of America as a symbol that keeps his family together and drives the imaginations of the other villagers. It is seen as a place where you can go to make money. It is a place where you can live stories that you can tell later on. It is a place of wonder. To Ramakant, it is also a rather strange place. After all, who relies on a groundhog to predict the weather? And what is this about setting aside a bird to NOT eat? His focus on America comes not so much from any sort of love for America itself, but for his brother and for his mother. Of course, when he finds out about the lie, he does not stop thinking about America, because he has taken up responsibility to write the letters in order to prevent his mother from falling apart. One of the primary targets of a lie has become the liar. Additionally, the specter of America is still with Ramakant, whether that be due to seeing a Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom or seeing a news report of the Challenger explosion. Whether he likes it or not, America is part of his life. Just as his brother is part of his life.
Oddly enough, there IS an American actor in this movie, who has a pretty substantial supporting role. It was probably thematically purposeful, so maybe it was not THAT odd, but it did kind of throw me for a loop.
The movie also does something different with the last theme of “Indian goes West” films. The Indian village is small and provincial. And Ramakant’s mother, in particular, is quite traditional. She may love that her son is in America, but it is a mixed blessing. She is the one who needs assurance that those totally vegetarian sandwiches are not meat products. When she wonders whether Udai is eating well, it comes the night after Ramakant shares a brief moment with a Nepalese girl. If her younger son can stray for even a moment under her watchful eye, what about her other son in a land full of White heathens on the other side of the world? Temptation must be everywhere. The movie does not fully state outright that their mother is a bigot, but it does seem to imply that this kind of mindset may have negative consequences. The electricity, which is set up in the midst of the village’s “Umrika” obsession, may have killed Ramakant’s father, but it was ignorance and carelessness that resulted in that exposed cable, not Western intrusion. In fact, there is electricity all around when they go to the nearby city and definitely when Ramakant travels to the big big city. And just as the village’s smallness may seem constricting, the big big city is full of dangers and uncertainties. Ramakant is no less out of his element there than he would have been in America. But he adapts, doing things that he probably would not have imagined doing in the village; not all of it good. So, while the movie has a rather ambivalent attitude towards at least the concept of America, it also has an ambivalent attitude towards the reality of India.
On top of this is a question of identity. Not national or ethnic identity, but who you are in this world. Ramakant’s identity changes even when we first meet him. His older brother is leaving. Now, instead of being part of a village family of four, he is the only child of an increasingly estranged couple. He eventually gains the identity of someone with a connection to America. Then, one day he loses his father. Soon after that, he finds out that his connection to both America and his brother were lies. So, he sets aside his identity as a villager and leaves his mother to find his brother, with both his mother and America looming over him. Does he shed his identity that is dependent on his relation to others and become his own person? Maybe. Maybe not. In any case, her certainly does find out a few things about himself traveling down the streets of India. And, sometimes, that is all that matters.
WTF ASIA 65: AV Idol (Japan: 2012, approx. 99 minutes)
WTF ASIA 66: Mulan (China: 2009, approx. 114 minutes)
Available on Amazon, but dubbed. Subbed version is on…the internet.