Writer, Director: Danish Renzu
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Iqbal Theba, Jay Ali, Shweta Tripathi, Neelima Azeem, Adil Hussain
Cinematographer: Antonio Cisneros
Producer: Danish Renzu, Tara Tucker
The Illegal, (a 2019 film that got its digital release on Amazon Prime after a successful run at the film festival circuit) has so much tension because there is so much at stake, always on the verge of a blow-up or a melt-down. Every time there is a smidgen of resolution, the plot coughs up another hurdle for Hassan (Suraj Sharma), who moved from Daryaganj to LA to pursue filmmaking — a loan his father took to pay the fees, undercut by his health issues that demand immediate money; an illegal side-job Hassan took to pay for housing and living, undercut by the academic pressures of film school; a paternal kinship he forms with a co-worker, undercut by anger and animosity he feels towards another co-worker; a budding love he feels for an LA girl who has never been to Indie-yuh, undercut by the hand-to-mouth existence that doesn't allow for arias and amore.
For a film that begins with "bright music" (as subtitled), there is very little light at the end of this tunnel. So thickly concocted with relentless tension, that there is little space even for small joys; a tension that forgets about catharsis. But maybe that is what the immigrant life is all about. At one point, Hassan calls the American dream "a photoshopped reality", an apt metaphor, where a hint of ugly truth is morphed into aspiration by filters and pulled-by-the-bootstraps stories, which are after all, exceptions; success is, after all, an exception.
What strikes sour here is that Hassan serves as a narrator to this movie as much as he plays protagonist to his life. His ringing monologues have the same problem most voice-overs have— it dilutes feeling by highlighting it in deep purple prose. A lot of what can be seen, is now also heard with student-film like sobriety, with an acrid dose of metaphors. There is an over-seriousness in its treatment that makes an over-serious topic feel laboured. Any feeling that comes out of here is muffled. On the other hand, his tether to a life back home, that doesn't come under the VO radar, has a more organic despair.
Hassan's parents, played by Adil Hussain and Neelima Azim, have the yin-yang quality of rationalism-idealism. His sister Mahi, also his confidante, also his cushion, is played by Shweta Tripathi who holds a close-up like no other. In the beginning of the film we see Hassan trying to give notes as he records her, telling her to look away, into the distance. In the last scene, in a dose of melancholy, she looks away, into the distance, but this time girded by true feeling. It would have been so easy to not buy into her climactic sadness having seen her pretend sadness before. But that's not the case here. The rainbow riot of Delhi's streets and the orderly greyness of LA sunshine is striking. There is something very lonely about LA's streets, the distant gaze with tall structures and knotty shanties, a foreign kind of sunlight that evokes both nostalgia and aspiration.
Suraj Sharma holds court in a performance that requires charm and character; to feel just as hopeful in one scene as hopeless in the next— the eternal seesaw between a life being lived and a life being lured. The writing however labours his struggle with a shrillness that even he is unable to transcend. He has an uncle who speaks in "film-vilm" "love-shove" lingo, a lover who "feels like [her] truest self" at a beach, a professor who cares enough to offer advice but not enough to hear how it is received. These are all characters on the threshold of caricature.
Towards the end of the film, there are shots of Hassan's co-workers sitting on steps, melancholic, as he muses in the background. It brought back memories of India Cabaret, Mira Nair's documentary where she lived with bar dancers in then Bombay for months, recording them by being among them, a kinship that is an attempt to not be outward-looking-in. There too they are all sitting on stairs, poking cheap fun, and sighing deep sadness. The attempt in this film, however, is to see if we can live our own stories outward-looking-in, to be both distant narrator and enmeshed protagonist, to be both the person feeling and the person voicing feeling. The verdict, unfortunately, seems to be, not effectively.