Film Review: Growing Up Smith

The Editor's Desk

By Samir Shukla

Indian-American experiences are unique, filled with wide-eyed expectations, dreams, fears, and, of course, traditions. There is nothing like the experience of first generation immigrants, especially Indians who arrived in the 1960s and the 1970s. Sure, Indians have been migrating to the US for decades, but the first wave in significant numbers really began in the 1970s. The foundations of the now successful Indian-Americans spread out all over the country were laid in the 70s by the “pioneers" if you will. My family was among those who arrived in the early 70s.

Anjul Nigam, actor, writer, and producer, also arrived in the States in the early 1970s with his family. Some of his own experiences from childhood inform his latest film, the coming-of-age story of an Indian boy titled Growing up Smith. It's a fine independent film that centers on 10-year-old Smith Bhatnagar, portrayed by newcomer Roni Akurati. Nigam co-wrote and co-produced the film. The film also hit some memory chords for me, an 11-year-old new arrival in NYC in 1974, trying to make sense of the Americans and their way of life.

The film, where Nigam portrays Bhaaskar Bhatnagar the family patriarch, also features veteran actors Jason Lee (My Name is Earl, Alvin & the Chipmunks), Hilarie Burton (One Tree Hill), Brighton Sharbino (The Walking Dead), Poorna Jagannathan (The Night of), Shobha Narayanan (Quantico) and Samrat Chakrabarti (Midnight's Children) as the elder Smith and narrator.

Debutant director Frank Lotito has crafted a warm and funny film - about an Indian family that migrates to America with hopes of living the American Dream in a small town in 1979. Their 10-year-old son Smith falls hard for Amy, the girl next door (Sharbino). He desperately wants to fit in and be an American (his father has even named him Smith thinking the name will Americanize him somehow without losing his Indian identity).

Smith goes through a series of adventures with Amy and her motorcycle-riding father Butch (Lee) while managing the quirks of his traditional Indian parents who are keen on keeping his and his older sister's Indian values intact.

Later, due to his sister's actions and a misadventure he has with Butch, Smith is sent back to India to live with his grandmother where he becomes a doctor, marries and has a personal trauma and finally returns to America 19 years later to rejoin his family and see about his childhood love.

It's a lovely film that takes its time telling the story with a wonderful performance by Akurati as Smith. Nigam, Lee and other actors turn in stellar performances to flesh out the story and propel the film forward.

I spoke with Nigam recently about his work and the film.

Nigam began his career in 1988 with an army training film called “Hostage Crisis and Terrorist Management," he played a young and naïve terrorist. Then he began the ups and downs of a struggling actor and has been a “working actor" since '93-'94. He has worked in Bad Words, True Detective, Grey's Anatomy, and made numerous other film and TV appearances including on Jimmy Kimmel.

Growing up Smith was filmed in upstate New York in the Kingston area of Hudson Valley, but could be any small town in America. Nigam spoke of his work over the years and the difficulty in getting a film made.

The film is a labor of love that began as early as 2000, says Nigam. It took a lot of perseverance, seeking funding, finding actors, writing and rewriting, before the film was made.

The prime roadblock? It took years to find the financing. “We hit one roadblock after another. It was a journey to understand how film financing works and a journey in understanding how much B.S. there is in the entertainment industry. What brought the project to a green light was a financier out of New York who is in the Hedge fund world. Whose bucket list item was to make a movie. He came on board with significant financing and we began the process of casting the movie." The financier wanted a star in the movie for marketing reasons, so Nigam and crew focused on the character Butch and through luck and a fine script, they landed Jason Lee.

Nigam enlightened me on the egos and bumps of the entertainment world. The constant fires that have to be put out even after financing and casting is set.

“Another fire we had to put out was two weeks before preproduction we lost our title role. So we began search for another actor and we received over thousand submissions. It was a worldwide search believe it or not. We narrowed down using Skype auditions. Roni who is based in Chicago and L.A. was actually in India at the time. Due to spotty internet a 10-minute audition turned into a three day one. We loved his work and had to bring him in for a screen test. We had three contenders for a screen test in L.A. We had Sharbino already cast in the role of Amy and we did a screen test for chemistry with her and Roni got the job."

Growing up Smith will is now playing in limited cities and will expand nationwide during the month.

Samir Shukla is Saathee's Editor