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News ->The push and pull of being an NRI

By Kul Bhushan, February 10, 2008 (IANS)

Sandhya Suri's 'I for India' is a documentary based on her father's quest to make it as a doctor in Britain in the 1960s.Thousands of young, educated or semi-educated, unemployed and ambitious Indians are obsessed about going and living abroad. Middle-aged, successful NRIs are wanting to come back to an India of promise again. Here is the dilemma of migration: if you have not made it, you want to go abroad; and when you have made it, you want to return to your real 'home'. Both these obsessions were presented in two documentaries in New Delhi recently. The first, "Backstage Boys: Punjab's Labour Goes Global" is directed by Meera Dewan and the second, "I for India", is beautifully crafted by Sandhya Suri.

"Backstage Boys...", about thousands of Punjabi lads desperately trying to go abroad, is a horrendous story. Their stark and blank faces relate how the young men sell their family land or home to pay 'the agent' who promises them El Dorado. On forged or tourist visas, they agree to be smuggled into the West.

One of them relates his experience of boarding a rickety, overloaded boat. Once on board, more and more hopeful immigrants were packed in until it started to list. After lifting anchor, it was purposely sunk and hundreds drowned but he escaped and was returned to Punjab by the authorities. Now his land is gone, his old parents hardly have any income and his future is bleak.

Despite immigration laws getting tougher and the increasing risks in 'human smuggling', there is a steady demand for the services of unscrupulous 'agents' by foolish young men who think that their fortune lies overseas. They hear of their kith and kin who went abroad illegally and after the initial hardships, they managed to get legal papers and prospered.

The reasons are easy to determine. Basically, the populations of Europe and the US are aging while young couples do not want to produce and bring up children, so there is a shortage for cheap, manual labour. The illegal immigrants fill this demand at rock bottom wages.

The real culprits are the so-called 'agents' who scout for potential immigrants. These agents are part of the local communities and have become influential with their wealth and 'contacts'. They charge anything up to $40,000 paid in instalments for smuggling a person. Now multiply this figure by 200,000 or more for Punjab every year and it becomes clear why smuggling immigrants is more lucrative than smuggling drugs.

The other film "I for India" tells a real life family history and the yearning of an NRI doctor who migrated to Britain, did well, brought up his children and wanted to return to India.

Sandhya Suri's 'I for India' is a documentary based on her father's quest to make it as a doctor in Britain in the 1960s.Yash Pal Suri, the filmmaker's father, left Meerut for Britain in 1965 and instead of writing letters, he remained in touch with his parents and siblings by using two Super 8-mm cameras and audiotape recorders - one set was with him and the other with his family in India. Over four decades of these recordings have been edited and made into a documentary.

This family history is very personal but also very common for NRIs as it has short extracts from documentaries and TV programmes of 1960s and 1970s showing Britain's tight-lipped resentment for coloured people.

Suri always yearns to return to his roots in Meerut and as his daughters grow up, he makes up his mind to return 'home' with his family because his relatives keep telling him that he will make a good living as an "England-returned doctor".

Homecoming is very emotional and he settles down in his family home and starts his clinic. In a few months, life becomes suffocating for him and his family - no patients, overcrowded home, no good education for his daughters and no freedom. In brief, he has lost the quality of life - professionally and personally.

So with a heavy heart, he packs his bags again to return to Britain.

Sandhya Suri's 'I for India' is a documentary based on her father's quest to make it as a doctor in Britain in the 1960s.The film shows the wedding of one of his daughters, all dressed up as a typical Indian bride, and then the camera slowly moves to the groom - a white Briton whom he accepts as his son-in-law. His life comes full circle when his daughter decides to migrate to Australia in search of a better life - just as he did about half as century ago.

The last scene is poignant as he and his wife are crowded around their computer and video conferencing with their daughter down under. In the final shot, he still proclaims that he will always remain an Indian!

No screenplay writer could have improved upon this real life drama and Sandhya Suri portrays it with sensitivity and creatively. No wonder her film has won many awards at film festivals and has been widely praised by critics in the West. Why? Because the film is a living saga of a basic human obsession - returning to one's roots.

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