The Illegal Review: Suraj Sharma slips effortlessly into the skin of Hassan Ahmed. More than words, he lets his face and eyes do the talking.
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Shweta Tripathi, Adil Hussain, Neelima Azeem
Director: Danish Renzu
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
A disarmingly simple yet highly insightful take on the perils of chasing the American dream without a safety net, The Illegal is an English-language film written and directed by Danish Renzu (Half Widow) and featuring Suraj Sharma (Life Of Pi) in the lead. The director and the actor work in concert with great felicity to present a moving portrait of a young man as a struggling immigrant whose dreams take a backseat when duty and need paint him into a corner.
The protagonist of The Illegal is a talented Daryaganj boy who appears at the outset to have everything well under control. He is on his way to the US to join a Los Angeles film school. But once he is there, it is life that schools him. He learns the hard way that a plunge into the unknown is fraught with risk.
His first brush with disappointment is almost immediate. The accommodation he has in mind in LA proves to be a non-starter. His maternal uncle’s home isn’t quite what he expected it to be. He is left high and dry. The steep descent from here on mirrors the experiences of many others who arrive in the US in the hope of finding new avenues but hit dead ends in an alien land.
The plight of the hero of The Illegal highlights the nature of human aspiration and what happens to it when it has to reckon with the vagaries of the harsh real world. The director’s supremely steadfast hand and the lead actor’s quietly proficient performance ensure that the film never veers off track.
Suraj Sharma plays Hassan Ahmed, a boy from an Old Delhi family of modest means. His mind is set on making films. His father (Adil Hussain) takes a bank loan to send him to a cinema school. When we first meet Hassan, he is doing what he loves best: seeing the world through a camera lens and recording “words of wisdom” from his mother (Neelima Azim) a week ahead of his departure for the US of A. He needs these words, he says, “for the times when I am down and ready to give up”. Prophetic words those!
Cut to his sister Mahi (Shweta Tripathi), who, too, is exhorted to come up with “parting words” on camera. “You are a fighter,” the doting elder sibling says after some thought. It is quite apparent that she is somebody who matters a great deal to the boy who is about to pack his bags and give up the security of home for the pursuit of a dream that may or may not come true.
The Illegal has an intimate, diary-like quality. It provides a sort of a peep into a mind grappling with conflicting impulses. The director employs the voice of the principal character to tell crucial parts of the story in the form of a read-aloud film screenplay, a stream-of-consciousness approach that makes the narrative deeply affecting. The boy’s thought processes emerge in bold relief as he encounters one roadblock after another and is hard-pressed to devise ways of dealing with them. His is a voyage of self-discovery in which losses far outweigh the gains.
The tale has huge scope for melodrama but The Illegal does well to keep overt sentimentality at bay. It treats Hassan’s personal crises – they stem as much from the upheavals he encounters in the US as from the problems his family back in New Delhi faces as a result of a medical crisis – with empathy, detachment and subtlety. The austere nature of the storytelling results in a considerable heightening of the relatability of the odds that threaten to derail Hassan’s plans – well-laid but vulnerable to circumstances he has no control over.
At the film school, a professor (William Moses), advises him to put more of himself into the screenplay he writes in the first semester. The films of Fellini are evoked because Hassan is an admirer of the Italian legend, but there is nothing Felliniesque about The Illegal. It is firmly rooted in the everyday, in the nondescript. Yet, in the end, it is a film with a universal appeal, reflective of the wider reality of undocumented workers in the US.
The Illegal is Hassan’s story but the larger picture it crafts pulls into its purview fragments that speak of immigrants from Iraq, Korea and Mexico – these are people who, like Hassan and the avuncular restaurant supervisor Babaji (Iqbal Theba), are trapped in a situation they cannot escape. Babaji, for instance, left Punjab 25 years ago and hasn’t returned home since. He pines for his daughter Geeta (Neelofar Hamid, the lead of Half Widow, in a single-scene appearance) and is desperate to fly back to India to see her.
What makes The Illegal markedly different from most other immigration-themed films is that it isn’t really about illegal migrants. It is about those that have come in with valid papers but have soon been forced by circumstances to flout the law and court trouble.
Survival clearly isn’t easy here. The restaurant owner Zayen Khan (Jay Ali) is a hard, money-minded taskmaster who gives no quarters. But he isn’t a man without a heart, Babaji repeatedly reminds Hassan. Hassan has a few run-ins not only with his employer but also with the eatery’s Mexican chef Gustavo (Danny Vasquez). One such confrontation is triggered when a customer returns the ‘chicken balti” he has ordered. This isn’t chicken balti, Hassan tells the chef, echoing the guest’s opinion. It is my chicken balti, Gustavo asserts, and I will make it exactly the way I want to. A Mexican cook and a film student getting into a flap over an Indian recipe in an LA restaurant – could anything be crazier than this?
Renzu’s casting is spot on not just with the lead actor but also with the other fine performers he has assembled for his small film that thrives on thinking big. Suraj Sharma slips effortlessly into the skin of Hassan Ahmed, expending minimum apparent effort on bringing out the torment of a man whose hopes collide with the need to simply make ends meet. More than words, he lets his face and eyes do the talking.
Adil Hussain and Neelima Azim are pitch-perfect as the parents. Shweta Tripathi, playing the hero’s sounding board and cheerleader, is terrific. Pakistani-American actor Iqbal Theba is absolutely outstanding. Not only is he superb as the protagonist’s experienced friend and guide, he also, in a significant manner, defines the poignant core of the film.
The Illegal, streaming on Amazon Prime, is a little gem – unpretentious, uncomplicated and utterly delectable.