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Friday, September 22, 2023

UKAFF 2020: The Illegal Movie Review

On behalf of UK Asian Film Festival 2020 (Tongues On Fire), Filme Shilmy had the privilege to interview Danish Renzu (via Zoom) for his film The Illegal.

As such, the movie is a gritty, yet sensitive narrative on the conflict of dream vs duty, with the focus on undocumented workers in America.

Hassan (Suraj Sharma) is newly arrived in America from native India, ready to pursue his dream in filmmaking, for which he is accepted by the UCLA film school. But that dream quickly turns sour.

After his uncle’s family admits they are too poor to house and feed him, they leave him on the street with nowhere to go.

That’s when Babaji (Iqbal Theba), a compassionate worker at an Indian restaurant – New Delhi Cafe, takes him in and recommends him to his patronising manager (Jay Ali).

The boss quickly offers Hassan an under-the-table job, a place to stay and a loan whenever he requires one.

Soon enough, Hassan realises that he has unintentionally signed up for indentured servitude while still carrying a full load of college courses.

Meanwhile, whilst his family back home face crises of their own, he assures them that his life in the US is going well.

Renzu avoids wasting time in setting up introductions for each character and cuts to the chase.

We instantly develop an idea about Hassan and his ambitions, as well as his familial background.

It’s interesting to see that he doesn’t hail from a stereotypical destitute household, but are in fact more encouraging towards Hassan’s passion.

Usually, such migrant stories often revolve around the typical ideology of ‘American Dream’, where often the protagonists have stars in their eyes and high expectations.

Thankfully, this is not the case here. All we observe is a young lad who just wants to study for his dream job.

At the same time, there is no emphasis on racism or cultural backlash. Renzu stays attentive towards the main subject and carries that until the credits roll.

From Delhi’s bustling street shots to the clean and slick landscapes of the USA, we instantly catch a glimpse of the protagonist’s journey

Through characters breaking the fourth call, as Hassan shoots them with the camera, it acts as a window to their lives.

The narration in the voice of Hassan too makes him the storyteller of his own life – almost separating him from his own reality.  

Locations are used effectively. The New Delhi Cafe appears to be quite a relaxing and visually appealing place, but yet the people within it are suffering.

Such dichotomy works very effectively and the cinematography is crisp. Danish avoids highlighting brutalities and romanticising the suffering of the workers.

He simply weaves these aspects into the narrative and the message reaches home without the heavy emphasis.

Illegal immigration is an important subject across the globe, let alone America or England. However, the movie avoids becoming a repeated recital of this issue.

In fact, to actually know that there are legal migrants who are forced to work illegally to make ends meet, is shocking and eye-opening.

The way the filmmaker also presents this issue is realistic to the core. There is never a sense of fallacy, which helps one to be emotionally invested.

As a film, which is just under 90 minutes duration, it is cohesive. However, the ‘romantic’ angle seems slightly half-baked.

Though I understand that it was required to exhibit a different side to Hassan’s American life, it seems to happen quite quickly, rushed almost.

Plus, it is quite difficult to relate to the love-angle, especially when the overall premise itself is far more heavy and pertinent.

But the real winners here are the performances. To begin with, Suraj Sharma has come leaps and bounds since Life Of Pi. 

His performance in this film is arguably his most compelling and relevant one yet. Scenes of his emotional and anger outbreaks are powerful.

Even throughout the film, though his expressions are subtle, the body language and dialogue delivery convey it all.

Moreover, representing the voice of undocumented workers is a role of great responsibility, which Sharma carries off excellently.

Daredevil‘s Jay Ali is another remarkable talent. His accent, firstly, is on point. But more than that, his performance as the narcissistic boss is blood-curdling.

It shocks us, not because it’s unbelievable, but because there are people like this antagonist, exist and get away with such wrong-doing.

Scenes, where he cusses people of his own culture and roots, are heart-breaking, acting as a constant reminder of how western arrogance can contribute towards this inner prejudice.

Amidst all of this, the voice of experience here is Iqbal Theba, playing Babaji, an elderly Punjabi man who has been cyclically toiling for years.

Theba is subtle in his dialogue deliveries and interactions with the other characters. His camaraderie with Sharma is endearing.

When it comes to the Indian artists, Adil Hussain, Neelima Azeem and Shweta Tripathi are equally effective in delivering their parts.

Although their roles become more background in the latter part of the film, it is lovely to see such talents unite for a meaningful film such as this.

On the whole, The Illegal is a need of the hour. It alerts and brings forth the untold stories of undocumented workers, who continue to toil and suffer in silence. 

If anything, next time we see a waiter at an Indian restaurant, they too could or could’ve been a Hassan.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4/5 Stars)

Watch our exclusive Q&A with director Danish Renzu here:


Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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