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Review: ‘Growing Up Smith’
– Sweet, Funny Immigrant TaleFor those of us whose families came as immigrants in the 70’s, ‘Growing Up Smith’ will surely hit a sweet spot – almost every Indian immigrant child has a memory of being the only brown-skinned student in the class, the one with the unpronounceable name and a lunch box from which emanated curry smells. ‘Growing Up Smith’ is a love poem to all those little kids who struggled to become ‘American’ and tried to straddle two cultures.
In order to help his young son navigate the American culture, Bhaaskar Bhatnagar (Anjul Nigam), an immigrant from India, gives him what he thinks is a popular American name – Smith – little realizing that it is a last name! Living in American suburbia with his Indian parents, a shrine full of Hindu Gods and a lit-up Taj Mahal replica on the cabinet, 10-year-old Smith Bhatnagar (Roni Akurati) falls in love with Amy (Brighton Sharbino) the cute girl next door as he tries to juggle the various pieces of Indian and American culture, often with hilarious results.
In one of the best scenes Butch, Amy’s father, played by Jason Lee, takes Smith big game hunting – that leads to an adventure full of surprises which sets off quite a chain of events. Without giving too much away, I’d say immigrants often wonder what would their lives have been like if they hadn’t migrated – ‘Growing Up Smith’ gives you a little taste of that too.
‘Growing Up Smith’ is directed by Frank Lotito and written by Gregory Scott Houghton, Anjul Nigam and Paul Quinn. The film has strong, well-etched performances by both Jason Lee and Anjul Nigam, both very different yet colorful, sympathetic characters. Roni Akurati in his debut film is energetic and engaging, someone you identify with and root for. Brighton Sharbino is winsome as his big crush Amy. The film also stars Samrat Chakrabarti as the grown up Smith (and narrator), Poorna Jagannathan as Smith’s mother and Shoba Narayanan as his older sister Asha, etching in the brush-strokes of an Indian immigrant family in the 70’s.
‘Immigrant’ has become almost a dirty word in the current political climate but ‘Growing Up Smith’ takes us back to a simpler time when so many hard-working migrants did struggle and find the American Dream. The film with its comic coming-of-age tale of Smith trying to fit in will resonate with viewers because it is about such a universal longing. Not surprisingly, it has won several awards including the Best Picture Audience Award at the Woodstock Film Festival, the Jury Award for Best Family Feature at Garden State Film Festival and the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Naples International Film Festival. A good film to catch with the family.
An Interview with Anjul Nigam – actor, co-writer and co-producer
” We’re living in such cynical times where we’ve stopped listening to and making an effort to understand those who might have different views about life than we do. ” – Anjul Nigam
‘Growing Up Smith’ has been a labor of love for Anjul Nigam.
How much of your own story is woven into ‘Growing Up Smith’?
As storytellers, we write about what we know best, which is our own stories and experiences. Like Smith, I grew up as an immigrant child in Small Town, America (Cheshire, Connecticut to be precise) of the 1970s and 1980s. And my home upbringing was in an Indian household where my family was confronted with the duality of our predicament. On one end, we were immigrants in a new country where my parents were intent on preserving the traditions from our homeland, but on the other hand, they wanted to provide us the best possible opportunities so that we could achieve the American Dream.
What were the pros and cons of growing up in Middle America in a solitary Indian family?
The benefit of being one of the few Indian families in 1970s and 1980s America is you have an incredible opportunity to make an indelible mark on your home away from home. You can share the best of the best. When you’re a fish out of water, there’s a natural tendency for people to view you as an “other” and therefore someone who doesn’t have a rightful place in society. And too often this marginalized treatment is expressed under the disguise of “exotic,” such as, “Your skin tone is so exotic.”
Why do you think it was important for you to make this film?
We’re living in such cynical times where we’ve stopped listening to and making an effort to understand those who might have different views about life than we do. We need to revisit the idea that despite our differences, we all are ultimately trying to find a way to make our lives better than they may be… and we need to honor each other for that.
There is a sweetness and gentleness to this film in spite of Smith feeling different. What do you think audiences in America will take away from it?
‘Growing Up Smith’ is about universal themes: first-love, childhood heroes, and growing up in a small town, and all told from the perspective of an Indian immigrant boy. Setting the story behind the lens of a memory of simpler times, we can inspire our audiences to leave the cinema with a skip of optimism in their hearts… a sense of renewed faith in tolerance and acceptance.
How hard did you have to look before you found Roni Akurati?
Once we announced we were casting the title role of our movie, we were inundated with nearly a thousand submissions – you’d be surprised how many people believe they fit the bill of a “ten-year-old Indian boy with charm and wit.” Although born and raised in Chicago, Roni happened to be in India when we first learned of him. We initially auditioned him over Skype, but eventually brought him out to Los Angeles for a screen chemistry test with Brighton Sharbino, who was already cast in the role of “Amy.” Roni has this inert innocence and warmth that is key to the character’s likeability that he was the natural choice.
You have a production company – what are you planning next in feature films as well as acting in movies/TV.
My production company, Brittany House Pictures, is committed to telling stories that transform and inspire people, and our mantra is no explosions, no profanity and no violence. We have two projects that are both looking like they may go into production soon. One is a political satire comedy called MR. SHARMA’S ATOM BOMB. It’s about an unsuccessful immigrant salesman from India who’s has been toiling away trying to achieve the American Dream. Just as he’s about to move his family back to India, he wins a gas station sweepstakes family vacation to a remote island in Japan. But when the family arrives on the island, they discover an unexploded ticking atom bomb from World War II. As they try to de-activate the device and get off the island, the Sharmas set off an international crisis. I’m producing it, will be an actor in it, and we will soon announce a Bollywood star who has come on board to play the title role.
The other project is ‘The last Day of April’. Inspired by a true story, it’s about a girl living on borrowed time, a boy who believes in magic, and a fugitive full of regret as they all come together on a tiny island where each of their lives will be changed forever. I am one of the two writers and the producer on it. And if we can hire a director who’ll let me, I may also be an actor in it! Otherwise, I’m back on “Grey’s Anatomy” in their 13th season, again playing the character of psych Dr. Raj Sen, having portrayed the role in the show’s first three seasons.