Director Nardeep Khurmi’s feature debut, Land of Gold (2022), is a touching story of one man’s self-discovery in a climate of fear. Punjabi truck driver Kiran, played by Khurmi, is about to become a father. Weighed down by family trauma, he’s struggling to be the husband and father he wants to be. Taking on an assignment against his partner’s wishes, he sets off on a cross-country trip. When he hears a noise from the container, what he told himself and his partner would be a trouble-free run suddenly becomes complicated when he discovers an undocumented nine-year-old girl named Elena (Caroline Valencia) hitching a ride.
Kiran and Elena’s initially fraught relationship develops as the two begin to bond over their shared “otherness”. Fearful of the police and arousing suspicion, Kiran attempts to reunite Elena with her family. It’s a difficult journey that offers him the opportunity to become the man he wants to be by confronting the tragic past of his parents’ immigration story and what it is to be “other” in a hostile America.
Land of Gold is a disquieting glimpse into the perilous American landscape, driven by fear and misunderstanding. This life-affirming story is juxtaposed with the tragedy of how an act of kindness, one man’s compassion, can become an emotional burden. Land of Gold reminds its audience of the superficial perspectives that nurture America not only as the mythical “land of opportunity” but also a country full of fear and suspicion. Land of Gold exposes the irony of how a country borne out of migration and diversity of people and cultures has become intent on “cleansing” itself, if you will, of its fundamental identity.
In conversation with PopMatters at the Tribeca Film Festival, where Land of Gold received its World Premiere, Khurmi discusses taking control of the film’s representational narrative to convey an authentic and nuanced story about characters of colour. He also talks about why cinema has been slow to diversify representation and the spatial conflict for the hyphenated American.
Where did your interest in filmmaking and storytelling begin?
I was born in Switzerland and grew up in Philly’s suburbs, closer to Amish country than the city itself. I was a brown kid growing up in a white America, and my only thing was I wanted to fit in.
Always feeling like an outsider, I fell into acting doing school plays and community theatre, which helped me form a community of folks where I could pretend to be different things. We were all pretending to be different, and some of us liked being different. It didn’t matter, it was a good thing.
Then I started to think about the work we were doing, and the precocious high schooler in me thought, ‘Oh, we’re doing Oklahoma, 42nd Street, and all these white stories.’ It was a shock that I was playing these lead roles.
I’d always been a voracious reader, and I wrote short stories. I thought, ‘Why don’t I start making my stuff and tell stories with characters I could play that I wish I were seeing onscreen, that weren’t white folks doing brown face?’ How I got into filmmaking was wanting to take control of the narrative and to put something authentic and interesting onscreen.
What were the gaps in representation that you wanted to see filled?
Thanks to my parents, I grew up with a healthy diet of Bollywood films and Indian cinema. I wasn’t growing up lacking South Asian representation. Still, I realised I was lacking a diasporic representation – not folks from India and people who were in England, where my family’s from. It was people from the United States and Canada. What is our immigrant experience like?
When we did see that it was in the character Apu from The Simpsons (Groening, 1989), or it was a white guy in brownface playing an Indian dude in Short Circuit (Badham, 1986), or Peter Sellers in The Party (Edwards, 1968). There was rarely a brown face or a brown body playing these parts.
The portrayals of these characters were stereotypical and basic. The immigration story is powerful and necessary; it needs to be told. But that’s not entirely our story, it’s only one facet.
I found it was either the immigration story of our parents coming over here and that struggle, which is beautiful, fraught, and wonderful to see, or it’s us trying to be white in romantic comedies. […] I wanted to see the pendulum swing back to the middle ground where we can be pursuing love, but our culture informs us. It’s not a story about culture, it’s a story informed by culture, and that’s the nuance that I’ve been desperately searching for.
[…] It has been happening in literature and theatre for decades. Now it’s starting to appear in film and TV, and you see it with shows on television like Ramy (Yousef, Katcher, and Welch, 2019) and films like Minari (Chung, 2020) in terms of the Asian-American experience. I noticed as a child the nuance was missing. We’re not all cab drivers, 711 operators, and subway workers. We’re also not all doctors and lawyers. Those are necessary depictions, but so is everything else.
Why has film been slower to become more representationally inclusive than literature and theatre?
Honestly, it’s the business of film and cinema. If film is the ultimate collaborative art, it requires money. The people at the top maybe lack the imagination of what could be and the importance these stories hold for folks and those who aren’t represented in films. If you can make an empathetic story and character with a great arc, you don’t have to be Indian to understand it. You can empathise with it and find your way into viewers’ minds.
To have that foresight and imagination is lacking in film work, simply because of the economics of film, whereas in literature, you’re one person. You write a book, have an editor, and then it gets out there and finds its audience. With theatre, it’s still expensive to make. I’m a theatre actor, and I get the economics of theatre. There’s a greater emphasis on creativity and originality of voice in the theatre space than film. It’s starting to change when you see the success of Everything Everywhere All at Once (Daniels, 2022), which is hugely original and Asian-American driven.
The intentions of Land of Gold, then, are not only to entertain the audience but to engage them in a conversation.
It’s trying to engage in a conversation while entertaining and giving you a catharsis at the end. I’ve been looking for ways to expand the representation of South Asian folks in media and film. At the time, I was researching the Mexican-Punjabi community formed by the Asian exclusion act in the early 1900s in America. Around that time, two things were happening in my life.
Friends were having children for the first time, and I asked the fathers, “When did you feel like you became a dad? Was it when you found out your lady was pregnant? Was it when you held your child for the first time? Was it the first step, the first word?” There were different answers across the board. At the same time, I started to see all of these new stories of children separated from their families at the United States-Mexican border, trapped in cages for doing nothing except existing.
I wondered what it is to raise a child in this country now with all of these fears. You can send your kid to school, and they could get shot. You can have a black child, and the police are going to look at them differently – they could get shot. A brown kid could get separated from their family simply because of immigration status and a non-empathetic government. It’s fraught, and I started to think about how you raise a child in that system and teach them to pursue their dreams knowing there are so many limitations. How terrifying is it to be a parent with that point of view? These were the inklings of how Land of Gold came about.
I wanted to explore a guy running away to embrace becoming the man he is, to get over the trauma of his parents’ immigration experience that has been holding him back from being the husband and father he wants to be. Then to also show and juxtapose how two different immigrant experiences are more similar to each other than they are different, and how we’re all in this fight together. We all want the same things – safety and happiness.
America is a perilous landscape. I’m often reminded of US President John Adams’ words from 1814: “There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide.” The country is at a crossroads in its grand experiment – will it continue or crumble? The question then is, what are the wider implications should American democracy fail? It’s a crucial moment for America and the world as we witness the rise of nationalism and authoritarianism worldwide.
This stuff keeps me awake at night. We are seeing the rise of nationalism across the world. It’s not just in the United States, it’s in the UK, France, Germany, India, and Japan. It’s everywhere you want to go, and we are more divided now. We’re not separated in many ways, maybe it’s a vocal minority dividing us, maybe it’s the internet, maybe it’s bots. Functionally we don’t know what has separated us.
Something important with Land of Gold was embracing the western and the road trip tropes to tell this hyphenated American story, to show that we are all American. These people are the most American folks you can ever meet, they just happen to be what you might not expect as a white audience. I fundamentally believe that what will bring us together is conversation and empathy.
I often talk about Land of Gold as trying to be an empathy machine, where if you don’t know about this subject, or you don’t know these people, and they frighten you if you’d … get to know them, love them, cry and laugh with them, then you can’t hate them anymore. You can’t hate what you know, and a lot of what’s happening right now is simply ignorance or believing lies. Let’s just call them what they are. I hate this “fake news” bullshit – it’s lies.
If we can get to the point of having real conversations with each other, whether through art because I don’t know that politics has the ability or the language to do this, then let’s talk about the past so that we don’t relive it. You think about how in Germany right now, there’s a rise in Nazism. The indications are all over the country, and we’re returning to that mindset. It’s because there’s not an ongoing conversation about the things we’ve done in the past. There’s no understanding that you shouldn’t hate what you think you hate because if you meet those you think you hate, you’re going to realize that they’re just like you.
We’re taught that there’s a difference for some reason, whether that’s political or religious. I believe conversation and empathy are the answer to all of this, and that’s what I’m looking at in my work. I want to entertain, but the engagement is simply that. Maybe you see the neighbour you didn’t know in the movie theatre, and if you didn’t want to talk before, maybe you do now.
The protagonist performs a kind act by helping the girl, but he has to live in fear. This opens up a discussion of the misappropriation of guilt and shame.
There’s a lot to being an hyphenated American. Often you’re living in multiple spaces, which we are trying to show with Land of Gold. Where do you feel safe? When do you have to put that veneer, that guard up? Something as simple as a little kindness can feel safe in one space, but in another space, that kindness can be looked at as damning, which is crazy because it’s just perceptions.