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Review: Surkhaab is a vanity project

The Surkhaab posterSurkhaab lacks the strength to go all the way either to become a masala thriller or to blossom into an insightful take on the exploitation of immigrants, notes Paloma Sharma.

Surkhaab ( meaning Red River in Persian) is an apt title for a film that will make you cry tears of blood as it progresses and you try to figure out just what in the name of rajma chawal is happening. 

Jeet (Barkha Madan), a judo champion from rural Punjab, finds herself standing before a Canadian immigration officer within hours of leaving behind everything she has known and loved for all the 28 years of her life.

Despite having obviously fake papers, she is cleared and once outside the airport, she and her fellow illegal Indian immigrants wait to be received by the 'agent' they have come through, Kuldeep (Sumit Suri). 

However, Kuldeep is missing and the party is taken to a safe house for the night by one of his henchmen, Akram.

But the safe house isn't safe at all.

The police raid the premises and Jeet is the only one who manages to escape a squad of trained policemen and women by -- and I kid you not when I say this -- throwing her bag out the first floor window, climbing down after it and running into the bushes nearby. 

Despite having escaped, Jeet is far from safe. She finds herself lost in a land alien to her, looking for a brother she hasn't seen in eight years. While Jeet pursues her search, unknown to her, there are people looking for her and the bag she carried over from India, and they will not stop at anything to get it. 

Or so the film tells you, because they do stop.

Really, they stop quite easily. 

Surkhaab has some of the worst mafia guys you'd have ever seen. They can't track a phone or follow a girl around or even manage to hide the man they've kidnapped. On the other hand, our heroine seems to manage to do a lot on her own with great efficiency. 

Surkhaab exists in a parallel universe that bears little semblance to our own. Here, the thugs who help you cross the border illegally don't come to your house, beat you up and take the package you were used as a mule to send over. 

No, here they come to your house, beat up your brother and then hatch and elaborate scheme to get you to hand over the bag peacefully. 

Because ahimsa, bruh. 

Surkhaab's first flaw is its casting. 

The camera rarely ever leaves Madan's pouty face with its ever-fluttering kohl lined eyes and hollowed out cheeks. 

Indulgence of this fashion mars the storyline. Her Jeet has more control over her universe than she should. It's one thing to have your character struggle, overcome and write their own destiny, and quite another to have their destiny written down for them, framed in gold and hung over the mantle. 

Sumit Suri strikes you as more of a struggler in Lokhandwala than an immigration agent in rural Punjab. Nevertheless, Suri and his onscreen uncle Naresh Gosain display talent that is notches above the rest. 

Shot in striking contrast in both Punjab and Canada, Surkhaab starts off as a thriller but then goes on to slide into a more mellow place. Clearly the writers get a little too comfortable as the film loses focus on what is central to its story and starts to philosophise about leaving one's own land behind. 

'To them, you're just another immigrant,' mourns a character as she and Jeet look over a lake in a moment of reflection. But of course you're just another immigrant! It's not your country. You're not a national hero. Nobody's going to roll out the red carpet for you. Isn't that kind of the point? 

The story plays out in a non-linear fashion. Although this could have been used to the advantage of the film, shaky editing and direction end up failing to place scenes in a way that maintains the mystery of it. 

While the withholding of information does ignite the tiniest flames of curiosity, it is soon doused by the lack of conviction on the film's part to draw you in. 

To sit through some scenes, especially those involving Jeet, her brother and Kofi (Vaine Moffatt), her brother's housemate and the token African dude, is a lesson in awkwardness. 

The dialogue at times is so mundane, the scenes so dull that you wonder if the film was simply made to showcase the feeling of being alien -- which is a job that Surkhaab does exceedingly well -- and not much else. That and, of course, Madan's various levels of widened eyes.

The film often loses sight of the plot, failing to convey the desperation of the characters. Surely it takes a lot of conviction and a very strong motive to undertake the journey such as that of Jeet. But without knowing her back story until after the interval, one simply cannot sympathise with her. Or even find her interesting. 

An out-and-out vanity project that takes itself far too seriously, Surkhaab lacks the strength to go all the way either to become a masala thriller or to blossom into an insightful take on the exploitation of immigrants. Because it wants to do both, it ends up doing neither. 

Should you ever find yourself in a situation where you're inside a theatre and Surkhaab is playing, there is only one logical thing to do: pack your bags, fake your papers and move to Canada. 

Rediff Rating: