America! America!! – written and directed by the author’s father – was a captivating portrait of three different immigrant journeys
I moved to California for three months when I was seven years old. I learnt only years later that my parents were toying with the idea of living there permanently. I had essentially forced my parents to return. I was so scared to miss a beat of everything India: the wholesomeness of grandparents, food, and folklore. Little did I know my father was encountering a similar dilemma within. The first seeds for a very organic script for his fourth film, titled, quite appropriately, America! America!! had been sown.
The film hit the screens two years later. With 70% shot in the major landmarks of the East and the West Coast and a crew of twelve people, it was nothing short of a feat for its time. Come see America in Rs 45, the newspaper advertisements read. The year was 1997 when the dollar to rupee ratio was 35 to 1, and chasing the American dream was a powerful and (still) attainable idea. The film garnered both critical and commercial success, running in theatres for 365 days, and winning a national award.
Centred around three characters, Surya, Bhoomika, and Shashank, pawns for the three philosophies the story is grappling with, it is also an examination of a friendship that goes beyond the same ideologies. Surya, like the sun, is all heightened optimism, believing, always in the inherent strength and capacity of India to be great. Shashank is the dreamer – the man who has already tired of India and its myriad third world problems, the moon whose other side we may never see. He would rather build a comfortable, good life in a place that respects and values his intelligence. Bhoomika is grounded and uncomplicated – she chooses to go where life takes her, accepting and appreciating, like the earth, the strength of both ideologies. Their personal journeys between the two cultures, and what they choose to assimilate or reject in each makes up the story of the film.
The film begins with a shot of the three children walking on the edge of a waterfall with the voice over of Bhoomika asking Surya, “Why are there petals in the water?” Young Surya replies, “There’s a forest further uphill. The flowers fall and tumble downstream.” The film sets out to explore the contradictions of this magical far away land that seems to rule our desire from across the seven seas. This essence, captured beautifully in Yava Mohana Murali, written by one of the pioneers of modern Kannada poetry, Gopalakrishna Adiga, was originally composed as a spiritual song about the calling of the afterlife. Translated to the context of the film, the song acquired fresh meaning.
The film juxtaposes the quality of an Indian childhood against the American immigrant experience, exploring the impossibility and hypocrisy of belonging to two places at once. What is moral? What is one’s responsibility? “I’m not Mahatma Gandhi! I am an ordinary human being!” Shashank defends himself. “Would you address another child’s mother as your own because she’s decked up in a silk sari, and your mother can’t afford one?” Surya responds. The dialogues are crunchy and natural, and play havoc with the mind: lens constantly shifting perspectives, offering anecdotal truths about both cultures. “One husband for a whole lifetime? How boring!” an American woman rambles. In another instance, Shashank meets an older American couple, in love and happily married for 40 years. The story resists reduction of stereotypes, both American and Indian.
One of my favourite scenes in the film is shot against the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge. The evening sun sets behind Surya and Bhoomika, old friends reconnecting after a long time. He asks her if she’s happy. She responds by asking if materialistic comfort equals happiness. Here, it’s so easy to fool ourselves into thinking we own everything we have, she says, because it’s a life based on credit. “It’s a rented life,” she says. Years after the American housing market collapse, this statement still rings true to me.
The film is as eternal as it is contextual, and I still watch it from time to time, drawing new energy and meaning from subtext I didn’t catch before. If this is your first foray into the world of Kannada cinema, I’d recommend you start with America! America!!