When we picture the American dream, we see the triad of freedom, success and happiness, all rolled into a better life. But seldom do we weigh the cost of turning those fantasies into reality. The Illegal, directed by Danish Renzu, takes a hard, immersive look at the price of pursuing that elusive American dream. Starring Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma, Shweta Tripathi, Iqbal Theba, Adil Hussain and Neelima Azeem, The Illegal was shortlisted for Oscars 2020 in the Best Picture category and won much acclaim at international festivals.
The Illegal follows the life of Hassan, played by Suraj Sharma. Coming from a typical Indian middle-class household, he dreams of going to the United States and making his mark in the world. He has the courage to risk everything and plunge into the unknown. So much so that he doesn’t go for obvious professions – engineering or medical. He remains hopeful that America will let him turn his life around even in a film studies course. Hassan finds his greatest support in his muse and his sister Mahi, played by Shweta Tripathi. She believes if anybody can make it happen, it’s her big brother. He is a fighter in her eyes. Hassan also finds encouragement from his parents, who, despite all their fears, believe in him.
So, Hassan ends up in America, with his camera and great expectations. As soon as he lands at the airport, he misses home, as anyone would, and immediately wonders how many days it would be before he returns. The bigger question hits him the next second if he would ever return.
His one safety net in the foreign land goes away when his uncle asks him to find his own accommodation, for he isn’t living the great life people back home imagine him to be living. He advises Hassan to choose a stable course with real job prospects, being all too familiar with the massive struggles and little successes of an immigrant.
Hassan is still determined to take charge of his own destiny as he says, “Dreams get lost in Delhi, ambitions don’t.” So, from Delhi’s Daryaganj, he lands up in New Delhi Café in Los Angeles. An elderly man called Babaji, essayed by Iqbal Theba, helps him out. He sees the burning passion in Hassan from the wreckage of his own broken dreams.
Even as Hassan feels cornered and alienated, he tries to balance work and studies, day in and day out. But the unforeseen demands of his job soon cast a shadow on his goals. His observations are a revelation at times. In one of the scenes he wonders if the American dream is just photoshopped reality. Life throws one curveball after another and this hapless undocumented worker has to accept it all. He even meets a girl, but Hassan’s ‘illegal’ status doesn’t just hold him back, but smacks him on the face. His will, values and integrity are all tested as he tries to survive inside a system that’s been designed for his failure.
A striking dialogue from Shweta’s Mahi stands out in the film. She tells her brother Hassan that in arranged marriages, one has to live their entire life for someone else. The expression on Hassan’s face tells his entire story in that moment. Immigrants who don’t quite make it suffer similarly. They do everything for the well-being of their families, wanting to visit them back home, all the while being taken advantage of and fighting to keep their dreams alive.
Despite The Illegal being Danish Renzu’s second feature, he shows his directorial prowess. His vision of communicating that each illegal immigrant has an individual story comes through. Theirs might be similar faces, but they’ve lived very different lives, finding a common ground in facing trials and tribulations away from their homelands.
The screenplay in The Illegal is engaging and the casting is perfect. Suraj Sharma gives a convincing performance as Hassan. We are moved by the naivety of his youth, and his plight of not being able to break free from the vicious cycle of being undocumented. Shweta Tripathi is delightful as ever and adds a crucial dimension to Hassan’s story. Iqbal Theba also plays his character to a T. Adil Hussain and Neelima Azeem do justice to their roles as cautious, but supportive parents.
There are teachable moments in the film. Hassan is told that it takes a courageous man to follow his dream, but a wise man must know when to walk away from it. But he holds on, as his Indian spirit clashes with the gloomy reality of the American dream. The Illegal does a brilliant job at portraying the lives of immigrants behind the shiny façade, the search for identity beyond those rose-tinted glasses. But the film is not without its flaws. Certain scenes seem to overdramatise the troubles of the protagonist and the pace falters here and there. Yet, one should watch this heart-touching story about chasing one’s dreams and finding the inner strength to continue dreaming, fighting and living.
The Illegal is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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