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Indian-Mexican restaurants inspired 'Land of Gold,' an intersecting immigrant story

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The filmmaker Nardeep Khurmi was driving through Los Angeles when something caught his eye.

NARDEEP KHURMI: I love trying new food, and I started seeing these Indian Mexican hybrid restaurants in Los Angeles. And I immediately was like, I have to try them. Also, how does this exist? Why does this exist? It makes complete sense that you would mix Indian and Mexican food together.

SHAPIRO: That juxtaposition of cultures started him thinking about different immigrant experiences.

KHURMI: It was, like, this, like, really perfect distillation of the American dream - these two kind of disenfranchised communities coming together to, you know, form their piece of the pie.

SHAPIRO: He explores these two immigrant experiences in a new movie called "Land Of Gold." Khurmi wrote, directed and stars in it. He plays a trucker named Kiran with a pregnant wife at home. And on a cross-country haul, he finds a Mexican American girl named Elena hiding in the back of his rig.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LAND OF GOLD")

KHURMI: (As Kiran) Clean up after yourself. You do what you're told. This is my truck, my business. Understood? Understood?

CAROLINE VALENCIA: (As Elena) Understood.

SHAPIRO: This story has a generational element, too.

KHURMI: There's so many things that we have to worry about with kids in general. Like, just even going to school, you have to worry about, is your kid going to come home today? Now you throw on the BIPOC experience onto that or the undocumented experience onto that, and suddenly, it becomes so much more fraught. And I really wanted to explore these themes of, what is it to be brown in America? And what is it to kind of heal from generational trauma and sort of leave something for the next generation that's more hopeful?

SHAPIRO: If the genesis of the idea came from seeing Punjabi Mexican restaurants, you really wove that into the plot.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LAND OF GOLD")

VALENCIA: (As Elena) What is it?

KHURMI: (As Kiran) Food.

VALENCIA: (As Elena) What kind?

KHURMI: (As Kiran) Indian food.

VALENCIA: (As Elena) Maybe there's something...

KHURMI: (As Kiran) Hey. Just roll it up like a burrito, OK?

VALENCIA: (As Elena) You know burritos aren't even Mexican, right?

KHURMI: (Laughter) Yeah, I love that scene. Well, yeah, you know, for me, culture is so wrapped in - up in food. There's this sort of misnomer that BIPOC communities are monolithic. And even within our communities, we don't really know much about the other one unless we, like, strive to learn about them. So I always think it's funny that, like, this Indian guy and this Mexican girl can be communicating but coming from completely different languages. So him saying roll it up like a burrito is his own ignorance but also kind of, like, makes sense in this weird way and...

SHAPIRO: Right 'cause she says burritos aren't even Mexican.

KHURMI: Right, exactly, which is its own complicated thing 'cause it's like, well, are they or aren't they? And, you know, food and faith - there's, like, a big section in the film that kind of talks about Sikhism and Elena's Catholicism. I think that plays such a role in what makes these characters who they are. So it just made sense that they would be sharing those aspects of themselves to each other as they're getting to know each other.

SHAPIRO: Another detail in the film that I was surprised to learn is real is that at truck stops along interstates in Middle America, there are Indian restaurants and Sikh temples. And is that because there are so many truck drivers from South Asia?

KHURMI: Yeah, yeah. So, you know, in India, in Punjab, the trucking industry in India is very much, like, run by Punjabis. And if you go to, like, you know, different pockets of South Asian sort of immigrants, you'll see posters of, like, hey; want six-figure salary? You want to control your destiny? Get a job as a trucker. So, like, that blue-collar trucking lifestyle is very much in our blood. You know, I have family members who are truckers as well.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

KHURMI: So, yeah, it just makes sense that, you know, if you've got this community on the road - that there would be people to service this community. So these roadside restaurants - they're called dhabas. They've kind of popped up all across America at these inflection points, and they serve really tasty Indian food.

SHAPIRO: What does that word mean?

KHURMI: Dhaba - it's like a - I would say it's like canteen. And if you go to these dhabas - and we explored this in the movie a little bit - it's all walks of life that are there because the truckers know if you want a good, healthy meal, go to the dhaba. Don't go to the fast-food restaurant across the street. It's quite cool.

SHAPIRO: When the movie begins, Kiran's wife is about to give birth to their first child, and he takes off on a trucking trip across the country and meets this character who becomes almost like a surrogate daughter to him. What do you think the intergenerational kind of parent-child dynamic adds to the story?

KHURMI: You know, when you're talking about generational trauma, I think there's a couple ways to explore it. And a way that I don't think I've ever seen it being explored is, how does someone move on from their traumas to then pass on better stuff to their kid, right? And I think for me, the film - Kiran kind of leaving his wife in the lurch in the beginning - you know, like, that's not a good thing to leave your wife when she's about to give birth.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right.

KHURMI: Yeah. Don't advise anyone doing that. But, yeah, you know, he's clearly grappling with something. And that's this entire history that he's come from - what his father and his mother suffered from and that he's burdening. There's that scene where, you know, Elena asks about God, and Kiran responds specifically with a line about, you have a choice of how to respond.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LAND OF GOLD")

VALENCIA: (As Elena) Why does God let bad things happen?

KHURMI: (As Kiran) Maybe there isn't a reason. The universe is constantly expanding. Stars form. Galaxies die. None of it is good or bad. It just is. Things just happen. The only choice you have is how to respond.

And I think Kiran being presented Elena in the film - it's his opportunity to choose how to respond, finally, 'cause he's going to have to respond with his own kid. But now he's been kind of brushing that aside. And it forces him to kind of confront a lot of those generational traumas and the things that he's been shouldering and burdening and trying to find a way through that to realize that he can be the father he wants to be. And those things that happened to him, happened to his family, the things he witnessed don't have to define how he raises his child in the same way that Elena, who's dealing with this, you know, irreparable trauma and - you know, she's been separated from her family. That doesn't have to define her. And Kiran kind of going through this as a sort of older man is trying to find a way to show that to Elena - that she can be more than her trauma and can move through that and still be a vibrant, hopeful, joyful human regardless of the things that we go through.

SHAPIRO: After you pitched this story at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2021, you won the Untold Stories prize, which came with a million dollars, mentorship, a distribution deal. And I wonder if the thrill of winning that prize is in any way tempered by frustration at the fact that these kinds of stories are untold, that we don't see them on movie screens more often.

KHURMI: Yeah. Wow. I've never heard that question posed that way before. I will say yes. When we were pitching, there were five finalists, five beautiful films to be made. And it is disheartening that, as a filmmaker, I have to win a million-dollar prize in order to tell my story. But the upside of it, I think, is that executives and producers and studios and financiers are starting to realize the merit of these stories. It's kind of, like, a messed-up way to have to say it. Like, oh, we have merit, right? But I think people are starting to change in the sense that they see that audiences value them. And it's just a matter of people finally being able to give these filmmakers and these storytellers the green light to tell these beautiful stories.

SHAPIRO: Nardeep Khurmi wrote, directed and starred in the movie "Land Of Gold," now streaming on Max. Thank you so much.

KHURMI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHADOW SONG")

GABI FASTMAN: (Singing in Spanish). (Singing) Love may come. You just won't know from where. Las madres will know what to do. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Zamora
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.