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Coming back to India
UK-based Sandhya Suri documents the life of her migrant parents
- Aseem Chhabra
A scene for Sandhya Suri’s (right) documentary I for India
A scene for Sandhya Suri’s (right) documentary I for India
Sandhya Suri must have filmmaking in her genes. Her funny and often very tragic documentary I for India, recounting her parent’s lives in England, is itself made up of home movies that her father shot over the years, while he lived away from India.

But Sandhya’s father — Yash Pal Suri — a doctor who left his home in Meerut in 1965 to go to the UK, did not just make movies for himself. Upon arrival in the UK, he bought two super 8 cameras, two projectors and two audio recorders. One set he kept with himself and the other he sent to his family in India.

Over time, the Suris sent enjoyable and moving accounts of their lives to each other — parties, family gatherings, marriages and even one very sad death. Meanwhile Suri would record his frustrations of living in what was a very racist England, his hopes and expectations.

Sandhya attended The National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, a town outside London. For her first project, Sandhya directed I for India, with her parents’ full co-operation.

Earlier this year, I for India was the official selection at the Sundance Film Festival. Since then, it has travelled to several festivals around the world. The film was recently screened at the Indo American Arts Council’s festival in New York City, where it won the best documentary award. And in February the film travels to the Mumbai International Film Festival.

“My parents were very happy for me to use all the footage,” Sandhya says after winning the IAAC festival award, adding that she had access to nearly 40 hours of audio and movie recordings. Initially her plan was to make a half hour long graduation film using the family’s archival footage.  

“Since it was a film school project they didn't give it much thought,” she says. “Before I took the commission to make the longer film, we discussed quite a lot. They are loving parents and just wanted me to do well in my life and career so I had their blessing.

“I used some very intimate archive recordings from my father and he fully understood that,” she adds. “For him it was also important that I represent his and my family’s experience honestly and sincerely and in as much complexity as possible. This was both our objective.”

I for India captures personal moments in Suri’s life — touching cine-letters from his father asking him to come back; his mother’s voice talking about her dream that her son would have a big mansion in Meerut; her death, while he is still in the UK, followed by his brief, but unsuccessful attempt to take his family to settle in India.  

The film ends with Sandhya exploring recent aspects of her parents’ lives. Both her mother and father belong to a video club where they share their home and travel movies with their British friends and neighbours. Suri is often caught alone on the film, listening to tragic Hindi film songs sung by Mukesh and reflecting on his life. Sometimes he tends to his garden, and occasionally there are still moments of the Suris sitting and drinking tea.

And finally Suri and his wife receive a blow, when one of their daughters decides to migrate to Australia. It is a painful separation that every parent and child goes through in life. 

“Separating myself from the film was difficult,” Sandhya says. “It was a massive responsibility to represent my parents and their experience as truly as possible. I was glad also when it was over because going home had become more of a trauma than a joy and a comfort. I was constantly looking at my parents and wondering if this or that was a scene.”

But in the process of making this film, Sandhya also learnt a lot about her parents, including the fact that their life was not always sad.

“Before I started, I felt very bad that my parents had tried to go back home and hadn’t managed to resettle,” she says. “That my father had had a dream and lost it and was left in a very awkward no-man’s land as a result. But with time, and also since the completion of the film, I have seen him grow more accepting of UK and have a healthier relationship to India.”

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