Sekhar Kammula's debut feature Dollar Dreams is about 20-somethings contending with an intrusion into their middle-class reality — the American Dream. There are the usual suspects: NRI friends who have better paychecks, parents of children settled abroad preening about their accomplishments and most significantly, the 20-somethings' own ambitions. Before the film opens, the US-returned director puts up a non-disclaimer — the film is based on his own experiences, and that "any resemblance is quite intentional".
When Ravi (Ravi Raju) leaves for the US, his friends begin dealing with the prospect of emigration. Balu (Santosh Kumar) decides that he wants to follow Ravi. He goes to visa consultancies, fakes his qualification, and even puts on an accent. Sreenu (Anish Kuruvilla) doesn't want to leave, but as his friends' group seems to be eroding, he wonders if he's a loser for wanting to stay back.
Archana (Satya Krishnan) wants to see what the big deal about the US is, but her husband Phani (Dr Anil Prashanth) seems happy with his job in India — until his boss decides to emigrate too. A family friend tells him about his US experience — ikkada unna happiness akkada undadu (the happiness you find here, you won't find there). The thing Dollar Dreams does best is to illustrate this feeling. This small, independent feature is packed with details that make up the backdrop of Indian existence, the ones we don't notice until they're gone. Conversations happen with Carnatic music, Hindi songs or Tony Greig's voice in the background. There's a scene when Ravi's mother talks about missing him while it is raining; the scene ends with an exterior shot where the camera tilts to show us the rain falling pitter patter on the cement floor outside the house. As someone who studied in the US, I remembered how I felt about the rain there: It's not the same.
This sort of nostalgia for India permeates the film — Archana and Phani recount each other's favourite things: mirchi bajji, Irani Hotel lo dosal tho chai. When Balu is cheating his way through a telephonic interview, we pan around to see his room filled with posters of Chiranjeevi and Madhuri Dixit. We know the direction these characters are heading in will strip these things away from them, but they themselves don't — this kind of everyday Indianness is invisible to them because they are surrounded by it.
But this nostalgia is also in large part for a middle-class life, and there's a near-spectral presence (the credits refer to her as "She", played by Manasa) who seems to haunt the main characters, picking away at the blindness that can come with privilege. She gets free food at a cafe that she gives to kids in a slum nearby, much to Sreenu's chagrin — a comment on how one man's social welfare scheme can be another's "freebie". Corny? Yes — but there's a scene with a poor man and a two-wheeler that stood out to me for its unexpected resonance in 2020.
Unlike Swades, Dollar Dreams offers many perspectives on the emigration question. Some of it plays like a documentary, especially the scenes with Usha (Priyanka Veer), a journalist who interviews people about their dreams of going to the US. There are lovers who want to get away from oppressive homes, and political science majors who dream of living the American dream even if it means having to settle for software jobs. Ravi comes back for a visit; he's more confident, but he seems to have shed a part of himself in the process. He's aware of this — he tells Phani to not emigrate, that his priorities will change when after landing in the US. He doesn't seem unhappy with his life, it's just that he's assimilated. There's a group photo in the beginning, before Ravi leaves, in which he sports a full-toothed smile through a pronounced moustache, and a second towards the end when he's back for a visit — in this, clean-shaven, he glares at the lens, attempting a sort of self-conscious coolness. I was reminded of the wistful lines in U2's City of Blinding Lights —
Don't look before you laugh,
Look ugly in a photograph…
It's hard to call this a Telugu film (even the CBFC certificate recognises this: it says English); it's certainly a Hyderabad film — characters effortlessly slip into Hindi, Telangana Telugu and English. There are rough edges due to this being a low-budget debut — awkward transitions, interruptions in dialogue and sound, and incomplete arcs; sometimes, these cumulate in a fly-on-the-wall effect, like in Care of Kancharapalem. Other times, it seems like important scenes are missing — we don't see Phani and Archana leave for the US, for instance; we only see their friends alluding to it — and the feature-or-bug conundrum is sometimes hard to resolve.
But despite these narrative ambiguities, we don't doubt for a second that they are best friends. There's an unassuming quality to their interactions that doesn't need "big" friendship moments, and their zingers to each other are often genuinely funny.
Some references remind you of the film's age — a character talks about Pokhran and proposes deploying the bomb in the enemy country immediately; his friend wonders if this would affect his son's H1 processing. There's also some dated humour. Midway through the film, Usha interviews a man who is trying to persuade his NRI son to return. The man bought a piece of land 15 years ago that was subsequently encroached upon — a small shack turned into a building, and he's been fighting the matter in court ever since. He tells Usha "My son keeps telling this story to avoid coming to India… He says India doesn't protect people's rights. Before I die, I want to prove him wrong."
After 20 years (the film released in October 2000), Dollar Dreams (streaming on Disney + Hotstar) is still relevant, and I wonder if there isn't something a little sobering about that.