The Illegal movie review: Immigrant dreams and vicious cycles, recounted with heart and heft

The Illegal reminds us of the burdens that patriarchy places on men despite being a system perpetuated for the benefit of those very men. That and so much else makes The Illegal the little jewel that it is.

Language: English with some Hindi

The bare bones of The Illegal’s plotline may feel like a familiar tale. After all, plenty of films so far have recounted the experiences of immigrants – Indians and others – who moved to foreign climes seeking a better life for themselves and their families, unprepared for the back-breaking challenges awaiting them in those faraway lands. A film is more than its basic nuts and bolts though, and if you watch this one you will see that writer-director Danish Renzu and his team have imbued the story with enough heart and heft to take it to a whole new level of poignance and insightfulness.

Adding greatly to The Illegal’s thoughtful, tender tone is its sterling cast, in particular the leading man. Suraj Sharma is best known so far as the boy from Life of Pi. Here he plays the central character who has the entire film resting on his shoulders, and he responds to Renzu’s faith in him with a carefully calibrated, moving performance. 

The Illegal begins with Sharma’s character, Hassan, preparing to leave Delhi for film studies in Los Angeles. His mother (Neelima Azim) and sister (Masaan’s Shweta Tripathi) back the move. His father (Adil Hussain) believes it is a risky decision for a youngster from a middle-class family. 

Once Hassan gets to the US, an unforeseen turn of events ruins his plans and he soon finds his American sojourn spiralling out of control. The Illegal takes us through his struggles and heartache as his blueprint for his future comes apart.

The Illegal movie review Immigrant dreams and vicious cycles recounted with heart and heft

Suraj Sharma in a still from The Illegal.

Hassan’s family is middle class, not poor. He does not travel to the US to escape persecution or financial deprivation, but by opting to study in an expensive country, he unwittingly pushes himself into poverty. This is different from the heroine’s situation in Deepa Mehta’s English-Punjabi-Hindi film Heaven On Earth (2008), which was about the mindless desire to emigrate to the West that drives middle-class Punjabis to exchange reasonably comfortable lives in India for a mirage, landing up on alien shores without a well-thought-out goal or even a reasonable assurance of improved prospects. Unlike the families in that film, The Illegal’s protagonist is not a fool without a roadmap. (Minor spoiler ahead in this paragraph) Hasan has already gained admission to the university of his choice, but his undoing is a betrayal by another Indian immigrant – the sort we have heard of, if not personally encountered – who is willing to go to any lengths to keep up the pretence that he is prospering in the US. (Spoiler alert ends) 

Beyond that episode, without judging Hassan or spoonfeeding us an answer, Renzu compels us to examine the difficult question of whether there is wisdom in letting go of dreams if pursuing them might potentially destroy you. Of course there is a stage at which there is no turning back for Hassan, but before that, should he have done so?

Elevating The Illegal by several notches are the asides it gently inserts into Hassan’s experience. In one scene, he speaks of the “vicious cycle” in which immigrants are caught up, soon after a character describes the vicious cycle of a woman’s existence, leaving us to wonder why those who are not caught up in dire circumstances fail to recognise and disrupt these widely prevalent life patterns. 

There is remarkable layering in the film’s view of optimism. At one level is Hassan’s eternal positivity, which gives him strength. Then there is the positivity of his mother offering him well-intentioned – though empty – words of encouragement that his father sees as false hope. (Minor spoiler ahead in this paragraph) She may at worst be deemed foolhardy, but when an evidently kind, seemingly prosperous white American woman tells Hassan, “You just need to take a deep breath and trust that everything is gonna work out. Everything always works out,” right at a point when his world is crashing down, her blinkered privilege screams off the screen. What makes The Illegal what it is though is its refusal to condemn her, although it shows us Hassan’s controlled fury in reaction to her statement. (Spoiler alert ends) Privilege is never more exasperating than when it is given voice by an apparently good human being. 

The narrative falters marginally in its final moments, when Hassan’s closing VO gets trite in passing and the testimonies he records of immigrants from countries other than India become somewhat maudlin in comparison with the understated overall texture of the film – but this is just me nitpicking because of the high bar Renzu sets for himself with the rest of The Illegal. In a film this lovely and this well-produced, it is also irritating to see major faux pas in the subtitles such as “celluloid” appearing as “cellulite” on screen. 

Renzu’s earlier film, Half Widow, was set in his home state, Kashmir. The Illegal has been on the global festival circuit since 2019 and is now available to the Indian public on Amazon Prime Video. The director’s strength is his ability to make a point or tug at the heartstrings without raising decibels. Among other things, it is interesting that he does not make Hassan’s religion his sole or primary identity – we are aware that he is Muslim, but his Muslimness is not rubbed in our faces to the point of othering him. 

Renzu proves to be a master of minimalism with The Illegal, well-complemented by DoP Antonio Cisneros’ unpretentious frames, the film’s muted sound design and a stirring yet low-key background score. 

One of my favourite immigrant films from India is Salim Ahamed’s Pathemari (Malayalam, 2015), in which Mammootty plays an Indian worker in the Gulf, crushed by the demands of relatives in Kerala. Unlike them, Hassan’s family is not apathetic, but The Illegal reminds us in its own quiet way of the burdens that patriarchy places on men despite being a system perpetuated for the benefit of those very men. That and so much else makes The Illegal the little jewel that it is. 

Rating: 3.5 (out of 5 stars)

The Illegal is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video 

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Updated: March 23, 2021 — 11:23 am

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