Smith Bhatnagar comes of age in Growing Up Smith, a family-friendly film set in 1979 and opening today in select theaters. Played by newcomer Roni Akurati, Smith is an endearingly awkward 10-year-old boy who immigrated from India to Small Town, USA. His American dream is full of exciting things like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Saturday Night Fever, and Halloween. He’s also very much in love with his charming neighbor Amy (The Walking Dead‘s Brighton Sharbino), daughter of his personal hero Butch Brunner (My Name is Earl‘s Jason Lee). The Brunner family stands out as friendly and accepting of the Bhatnagar family’s differences in a community that’s not so tolerant, and at school where Smith is bullied.
But Smith can’t tell his parents Bhaaskar and Nalini (played by Anjul Nigam and Night Of’s Poorna Jagannathan), about sneaking bites of KFC or about his first love. Bhaaskar is busy working as a CPA, and together with mom Nalini, they want the kids to grow up with their traditional Indian and Hindu culture. They have selected future Indian spouses for Smith and his sister Asha (Halal in the Family‘s Shoba Narayan), and also decided on Smith’s future career as a neurosurgeon. Bhaaskar’s American dream is to make enough money for the family to return to India and “live like rajas and ranis.” But the parents also fear their children becoming too American — dad warns early on in the film, “Today it’s the apple pie, tomorrow it’s the Jesus.”
Narrated Wonder Years-style by the adult Smith (Mr. Robot‘s Samrat Chakrabarti), the film evokes a nostalgia for the late 1970s and portrays the cross-cultural/generational story of a young desi immigrant boy as a gentle, heart-felt one, in contrast to current divisive rhetoric surrounding immigration in America. The film’s production company Brittany House Pictures is committed to telling positive stories with “no explosions, no profanity, no violence,” according to Anjul Nigam (Grey’s Anatomy, True Detective). Nigam is not just the veteran actor who plays Bhaaskar — he also has writing and producing credits for Growing Up Smith. The Aerogram had the chance to ask him a few questions. Read his replies, edited for length, after the clip from the film.
The film has a delightful scene with you as Bhaaskar offering Halloween trick-or-treaters a bit of a challenge, based on the story from your own childhood about your father. How much of Bhaaskar is based on your father, in terms of dialogue, mannerisms, motivation, etc.?
A lot of Bhaaskar is based on and borrowed from my own father. My parents, two brothers and I immigrated from India to Connecticut when I was two. My parents raised my brothers and me trying to preserve our Indian tradition. For example, the “utthak baithak” punishment depicted in the movie is something my two elder brothers and I were given when we fell out of line. We would be instructed to hold our ears and squat up and down until my father felt we had understood our offense.
The Halloween scene where Bhaaskar asks trick-or-treaters to grab coins from a flat tray is also something my father did — and still does! In fact, if you were to visit my childhood home in Connecticut on Halloween night, you’d still find my 83-year-old father offering coins to unsuspecting trick-or-treaters.
Meanwhile, my father’s goal was never to be here permanently, but rather to become professionally established and then return to our homeland. Bhaaskar’s line, “We’ll go back and live the American Dream… in India” is taken directly from my father. In many ways, it’s relatable because the immigrant experience is essentially universal… it’s about finding a home away from home.
The world of Growing Up Smith is set in 1979. What kind of efforts went into recreating the look and feel of that time?
Our production designer, Sam Lisenco, in recreating 1979 America, wanted to be sure it wasn’t a glamorized depiction of the era. Grounding the look meant we needed to find props, set pieces, and locations that were authentic. Many things in the film like costumes, Smith’s bike and the “Star Wars” lunch box were purchased on eBay and from vintage stores.
Working within a very limited budget, there were many aspects to consider in searching for the Bhatnagar family home: it needed to be frozen in time in the 1970s; it needed to be on a quiet street so we could control traffic flow without requiring expensive security; and it needed to be empty, as moving a family out of the house for several weeks would be cost prohibitive.
The home we found was on a quiet suburban cul-de-sac and its elderly owner had recently passed away, leaving behind a home stylistically frozen in the 1970s. We were able to rent it before a new owner came in.
What coming of age film(s) do you consider a must-see?
Stand by Me, Cinema Paradisa, A Christmas Story, Billy Elliot, My Life as a Dog, and Whale Rider…I’ve been so inspired by these coming-of-age movies. Their main characters are children in a world where they have to confront difficult challenges around them, and in overcoming these challenges they are transformed. And often the stories are a memory from childhood, an adult perspective on a period in one’s life that we look back upon with nostalgic longing. In fact, one of my favorite lines from Stand by Me touches on this: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
Has your family seen Growing Up Smith? What do they think of the film?
Sadly, my mother passed away during the long journey to get the movie made. My father first saw the film at the Woodstock Film Festival, where we won the Audience Award for Best Feature Narrative. In the post-show Q&A, he stood up and through tears, expressed how happy he was of seeing the movie come into fruition after all these years. When asked if he approved of my portrayal of “Bhaaskar,” his reply was a firm “Yes.” While, I’m not sure if he fully recognizes how much of the role was based on him, his approval was a personally rewarding moment for me as a filmmaker and actor.
My wife [Anjalika Mathur Nigam] is a co-producer on the movie, and she juggled the roller coaster ride of making an independent film all the while being there for both our kids as a full-time mother.
Over the course of our festival run and various screenings, both of my kids (two boys, ages 13 and 7) have seen the movie at least ten times, and they seem to enjoy it! But then again, as Bhaaskar would say, “If you’re a good obedient boy, you do exactly what your father tells you to do.” I’ve told them to enjoy the movie!
How long has the film been in the works, through the stages of writing, production, and filming?
I was originally going to play “Smith” but it took so long to get the movie made, that I outgrew the role and had to play the father! The truth is, I first learned of the project in 2000 when writer Gregory Scott Houghton sent me his original script, at that point titled Good Ol’ Boy, to attach me as an actor. He had based his writings on his roommate Ramesh Raju’s personal life experience growing up as an Indian immigrant in Oklahoma.
The project was in its embryonic stage, so I optioned the property, did a rewrite, and sought out someone to collaborate with… but who? Well, it just so happened after seeing and falling in love with a beautiful film called This Is My Father, I had the fortune of meeting its writer/director Paul Quinn at a mutual friend’s party. But unfortunately, I didn’t have the courage to share with him about my little project; I let the opportunity slip until fate would reconnect us some six months later. Through our mutual friend, Paul learned that I was selling a classic 1971 Mercedes 280SE, and contacted me to see the car. Although he did come by to take a look at the car, which incidentally I had listed for $6,000 and ultimately sold to someone else for $600, he left with the script for Good Ol’ Boy.
Paul read it within a few days (a miracle in Hollywood time) and called me to say, “This needs to be made!” The story had hit home for Paul. He had grown up outside of Chicago with Irish immigrant parents who, dreading their eldest son, Paul’s brother, was becoming too Westernized for his own good, banished him to Ireland. So Paul came on board, and he and I spent a year writing yet another draft of the script, the one that would eventually make its way up on screen as Growing Up Smith. While we finished the screenplay in 2004, securing financing for the movie became a nearly decade long journey.
It wasn’t until 2013 that we met a gentleman from the hedge fund world who had it on his bucket list to make a movie. Once we cast Jason Lee, we had a green-lit film and we were in production in 2014. We finished post-production in 2015, and from there started a 25-festival run that ended in the Fall of 2016. And here we are, nearly 17 years later coming to a theater near you!
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