By Pranjali Wakde
The American Dream is not as dreamy as it sounds – The critically acclaimed film, The Illegal, is a true rendition of undocumented workers.
For Indians, surprisingly enough, the American Dream is even more important than it is for others. Going overseas for education and coming back with a job paying a hefty salary is the dream every parent dream for their children. This American Dream, so to say – and all the obstacles that are attached to it – is reflected perfectly well in The Illegal, starring Life of Pi actor, Suraj Sharma. While the film was originally released in 2019, it graced its presence on Amazon Prime on March 23, 2021.
This critically acclaimed film, directed by Danish Renzu, is a deceptively simple film about an ordinary boy, Hassan, trying to win his way into one of the best film schools in LA. Hassan Ahmed (Suraj Sharma) hailing from a middle-class family in Daryaganj, gets into this prestigious school and is seen filming farewell videos to act as an emotional keepsake when he gets alone there. You couldn’t help but share his excitement; with him, you look forward to the fun times, the opportunities and more importantly, the independence.
However, once he travels to LA, his uncle (Ismail Bashey) and uncle’s wife turn him down, forcing him to find some living accommodations. Stumbling around LA, his hope in one hand and the camera in another, he comes across New Delhi Café, where he’s taken in by Babaji (Iqbal Theba). The café’s owner (Jay Ali) takes him in on Babaji’s recommendation and so forth, Hassan starts multitasking – student by day, busboy by night. Hope and hard work shine from his face, as he strives to excel in every sphere of his life, innocently oblivious to where he is headed down.
For a while, it seems everything will be fine for Hassan. He’s doing what he loves, he’s getting good at his job and he meets a girl, Jessica (Hannah Masi). And then, the hardships of chasing the dreams chips away at Hassan’s will. He’s left stranded after fighting at the job, where he returns to score a loan from the owner so that he can help contribute to the medical emergency back home. He’s forced to work fulltime, making him a dropout and then ultimately, alone and isolated in his sad little bubble which he can’t seem to get out of.
The film proceeds like a flower opening – the dismaying petals fall off slowly but steadily, to reveal the truth about the undocumented workers. It is by the end that we get the stories of other workers at the New Delhi Café, who can’t possibly leave this job, this space, this country, till they die. Hassan sees someone taking his place as the busboy, while he goes on to act like Babaji. It is at that moment the audience realizes the viciousness of this cycle, the sad factor of this reality, portrayed as believable as possible and thankfully, with no dramatic undertones. The life of these immigrants seems to be all bells and whistles to their loved ones back home – as seen when Mahi (Shweta Tripathi) says, “Yaha pe sab keh rahe hai ki aap hero ho!” – but only they know the reality behind this shiny façade.
What is fascinating about The Illegal is its execution – it is as gripping as it is truthful. Not every story has a happy ending; in reality, only a handful of dreams are fulfilled, while the rest fade away into oblivion. Hassan’s story is the latter case, reminding of Langston Hughes’ poem, Dream Deferred. Everyone is amazing in their roles, may it be Masi, as the oblivious, privileged American woman, or Shweta Tripathi, as the supportive, obedient and quite a philosophical sister of Hassan; Suraj Sharma, however, steals the show. Hassan’s naivety at the start of the film to his chained existence by the end reaches out to us through Sharma’s performance, engulfing us with familiar sadness. His voiceover appears frequently in the background, which is as heart-touching as his character.
Hassan’s narration, by the end, turns out to be a script he is writing, documenting his experience as well as his fellow workers’ stories. Whether Hassan put this script in front of a lens or thrashed it on the footpath like his camera, we don’t know. But we do know that The Illegal is an absolute masterpiece, hopelessly beautiful and utterly moving.