Movie Review by Peter Bradshaw
Published Friday August 3, 2007
The family memoir has come to be a staple of modern British publishing, and Sandhya Suri's gem of a film shows that the genre works on screen, too. It is a cine-autobiography, a real-life family story, unassumingly told: funny, engaging and often very moving. The director's father is Dr Yash Pal Suri, who qualified in medicine in his native India and then, in 1965, brought his family over to Britain, settling in Darlington, where the NHS needed qualified doctors. But Dr Suri wanted to stay in contact with his family back home, and so, with no little flair and imagination, he purchased two Super 8 movie-cameras, two projectors and two reel-to-reel tape recorders. One set of these he shipped back home, the other he kept himself, making films of his new life and then recording a live commentary, to be played in tandem with the film - and he asked his brother to do the same.
It was a tremendous archival experiment. Decades later, his daughter discovered the cache of cine-reels and reconstructed an extraordinary dialogue of words and pictures between India and the UK covering many years: a vivid, evolving record of culture, identity and the fierce and complex emotions involved in leaving your homeland. Her film does not merely pay a warm tribute to her father's project, but continues it, taking up the story where she and her sisters have to make their own choices about where to live.
Her story is interspersed with 1960s TV footage including some toe-curlingly condescending British programmes targeted at the new south Asian communities: one gentleman, speaking slowly in the Queen's English, shows them how to use a light switch, perhaps unaware that it was the language, not the technology, that would have been unfamiliar. Other clips show National Front yobs on the march, and Margaret Thatcher's interview about being "swamped".
The home movies show a pleasant, prosperous life - with family parties and jolly nurses demonstrating Scottish country dancing for the camera - though there are encounters with persistent, casual racism. But it is the films coming back from India that carry the film's emotional force. His brother reproaches him for not coming home for family weddings. Finally, his adored mother dies and we hear his father's quavering voice on the reel-to-reel tape - devastated, bewildered, angry - begging his son to return because he has nothing left to live for. Listening to this gave me a lump in the throat.
Perhaps Dr Suri felt all this much more keenly because of his filming; the films showed him how all his distant family were growing older, and how he must be growing older as well. The very fact of both filming his life, and trafficking the results with that filmed parallel life in India, allowed him to scrutinise his own existence and choices far more clearly. He has, to paraphrase Socrates, an intensely examined life. In just 71 minutes, Sandhya Suri's film covers a huge amount of ground, and makes you believe you know the family personally: a miraculous mini-epic. It's terrifically warm, watchable film-making.