Nardeep Khurmi’s debut feature Land of Gold is a profound, superbly acted meditation on home, life and family – not just the one we’re born into but the one we make for ourselves.
Land of Gold begins with a family getting together to celebrate an impending birth, that of our protagonist Kiran (Nardeep Khurmi, also the film’s writer and director) and his wife Preeti’s (Pallavi Sastry, of Master of None, also one of the film’s producers) baby girl. As Kiran’s mother (Riti Sachdeva, of The Night Of) reminisces about their memories together, in that house, she talks about Kiran’s father, Gurinder (Iqbal Theba, of Glee), and how he held his son when he was born and told him, “The whole world will be yours. And I will give it to you.”
But things haven’t gone exactly that way for Kiran, not only because he grew up suffering the consequences of the mistakes of others, but also because, as a first generation Punjabi-American, these American Dream ideals do not apply to him and his family. Kiran’s world is a world of responsibilities, where you have to weigh every possible consequence of the actions you’re about to take, and where you can’t afford to be distracted or have a bad day, as you might lose everything within mere seconds.
Winner of the 2021 AT&T Untold Stories program, which led to its funding, distribution, and world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Land of Gold doesn’t waste any time introducing us to Kiran’s world, and to the childhood memories that still haunt him everyday, for better or worse. When we first meet him, he has just told his 37-week pregnant wife that he has accepted a last-minute trucking job to Boston: Preeti doesn’t want him to leave, as the baby could be born any time, but Kiran goes anyway because they need the money.
At least, that’s what he tells his wife. As we watch Kiran alone in the truck, unable to stop thinking about his own father and the time he spent with him as he was growing up, we realise that much more is going on beneath the surface, and that our well-meaning protagonist might not be as untroubled as his family thinks he is.
And it’s precisely in that moment, when Kiran is lost in his own head and thinking of fatherhood – not just as a father-to-be but also as a son – that he suddenly discovers that a 10-year-old Mexican-American girl is hiding in his truck. And so, after debating whether or not to take her to the police and trying to get her to talk, or at least understand whether she speaks English at all, he lets her stay. And, after finding out that the girl’s name is Elena (Caroline Valencia, of Little Voice) and that she’s trying to reach her uncle in Maine, he finally asks the question: “Are you undocumented?”.
Of course, like Kiran had tought, the answer is affirmative, which makes their trip a dangerous journey, but also one that they both need in order to process past trauma and find the answers they’re looking for. Kiran is worried he won’t be able to be a good father to his unborn daughter because the only example of a father he’s ever had – his own dad – was flawed to say the least, because his father had troubles of his own to deal with; Elena is burdened with guilt that doesn’t belong to her, and having real difficulties trusting anyone after having lost too much at such a young age.
Our two protagonists have very different backgrounds but, as their journey progresses and the threat of the I.C.E. becomes more and more real, we witness a beautiful exchange of cultures that touches upon anything from food and music to upbringing and religion, and realise that there are also many of things they have in common, starting from how they’re perceived from the people around them.
We’ve seen many films tackle the theme of immigration in America, and the beauty of Land of Gold is that it’s neither preachy nor manipulative. It’s in its quiet, intimate moments that its message can be grasped, from strangers judging them in silence wherever they go to police officers who either instantly assume that Kiran doesn’t speak English or blatantly disrespect his culture, taking a “quick looksie” into his trailer while asking him about the difference between chicken tikka and tikka masala because “I love them both!”. These are only a few moments in a film that subtly and constantly reminds you that the opportunities and responsibilities that mark Kiran and Elena’s existence, as well as their respective families’, don’t look the same as everyone else’s. But this is not the only message that Khurmi has for us.
Later in the film, Kiran has a touching conversation with a father who doesn’t always know how to communicate with him, and who remembers his son as a child as someone who “walks like he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.” This description still applies to the Kiran we meet in the film, and, by showing us this incredible, instant connection that forms between Kiran and Elena – two strangers who are both in desperate need for help, the filmmaker reminds us that, even in this harsh, unforgiving reality, there’s also a glimmer of hope. There are still some good people out there, and if we’re smart enough or simply willing to listen and open up, we can recognise them and learn from them, and they’ll help us carry some of that weight.
What actually happens in the film is best left unspoiled, as Land of Gold is also a film that hits you hard when you least expect it to, with a good dose of reality that reminds you that life is not a fairy tale, especially for people like Kiran and Elena. Thanks to an exceptionally well-crafted script that allows for moments of intimacy and reflection as well as tense, fast-paced scenes and unpredictable twists, the film is never boring and always engaging, and its stunning cinematography (Christopher Low) enables us to take in the landscape and effectively immerse ourselves in the narrative.
But the heart of the film resides in Nardeep Khurmi and Caroline Valencia, who demand our attention as Kiran and Elena regardless of what they’re doing, their superb performances making their already well-rounded characters even more human, and turning us into emotional wrecks with simple glances. The supporting cast is equally effective, with the ever-excellent Iqbal Theba delivering an unexpectedly heartwarming monologue as Kiran’s father in one of the most memorable scenes of the film, and Pallavi Sastry and Riti Sachdeva flawlessly embodying the best human values, such as resilience and solidarity, whether they’re sharing a scene or talking to Kiran and Elena on the phone.
Land of Gold is not only enthralling from start to end, but it’s also immersive and intimate, effortlessly entertaining, suspenseful, unpredictable, and meaningful in more than one way, so much so that it’s hard to believe it’s a debut. Khurmi’s drama is a meditation on life, home, family, love, the bonds we form with strangers, and the memories and trauma that haunt us and shape us into not only who we are today, but also who we might become tomorrow.
Ultimately, the film teaches us to be brave and appreciate what we have, reminding us that, no matter how many mistakes we’ve made in the past and how many we’ll make in the future, we still have “the choice in between” – those little, meaningful moments that can give us joy and make us feel safe in the midst of chaos and uncertainty. Land of Gold is a story that feels deeply personal, and a gem of a movie that will leave you with a very specific feeling, as you look through your own memories and find your own “choice in between”. I can’t wait to find out what the director will do next.