When Swati Shetty first met Prashant Nair in early 2013, she was looking for a director for a film that would have marked her debut as a producer. By then, Shetty had quit her job as the President of Balaji Motion Pictures and was planning to launch her production house Samosa Stories with a “Bollywood film featuring song and dance”. Nair had already directed Delhi in a Day — a quirky, dark comedy about a British tourist’s experiences in Delhi — and his script for Umrika had been selected for the Mahindra Sundance Scriptwriting Lab. They met for coffee and soon realised that Nair was not the right choice for a traditional Bollywood film. “That project did not materialise but it brought us together,” recalls Shetty. Some months into their relationship, in September 2013, Nair’s Indo-German-French producers backed out. And Shetty, took on the role of its producer.
At the time the producers pulled out, they had got dates of Suraj Sharma and other actors. The crew too was in place. “We decided to go ahead with the shoot, scheduled in December 2013. We pitched in all our savings and kept the shoot running with the help of family and friends,” says Shetty, who kept on her search for a partner producer. On the 42nd day of the shoot, she contacted Manish Mundra on Twitter. Mundra, who was by then backing Aankhon Dekhi, came on board. “We could not have finished the film without him,” she says.
This January, Umrika was screened at the Sundance Film Festival where it received the Audience Award in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section. According to Nair, Umrika— set in India of the ’70s and ’80s — is a simple film with heart, which has found resonance with the international audience as it deals with the universal theme of brotherhood, family and immigration. Set in a fictional village in Madhya Pradesh, the film follows the journey of Ramakant (Sharma). He, along with his friend Lalu (Tony Revolori of The Grand Budapest Hotel fame), land in Mumbai in search of his elder brother Udai (Prateik Babbar), who was supposed to have left for America.
Since its Sundance premiere, the movie has been sold in nearly 20 countries and will be releasing in France on July 29. “We are yet to finalise the India release date along with Manish, whose company Drishyam will distribute the film,” says Shetty. For those who have seen the trailer of the movie, it makes sense when Nair says: “I love fables and magic realism”. The writer-director adopts a “fairy tale-like treatment”, especially while shooting the village scenes, and captures the perception of villagers that America — or, “Umrika” as they call it — is the land “where anything is possible”. Nair spins a tale around this sweeping modern myth, plays with the notion of “exotica”.
Being the son of an Indian Foreign Service officer, Nair spent his early years in different countries and continents. “Every time we moved to a new place, people would ask me the same questions about my country and culture. Most of them were stereotypical. This formed the initial idea for the film — to playfully show how different cultures perceive one other,” says Nair.
Though Umrika makes a mention of the Emergency, Nair says, “The movie has more cultural references than political. For instance, it has snatches of Tarzan song playing on radio, Sharabi poster in the background and the news of Amitabh Bachchan getting injured during the shoot of Coolie.”
Interestingly, both Nair and Shetty were far removed from cinema while growing up. Nair worked as an engineer in the IT sector in Paris for a decade while Shetty, a graduate in pharmacy, worked in a pharmaceutical company before moving to the television industry. Today, Shetty and Nair — who are planning to tie the knot soon — are keen on focusing on cinema. Even as they would like to work together on a film again, they are also open to individual projects.