Well-intentioned but so clumsily executed by Indo-Guyanese writer-director Shundell Prasad that whole scenes seem to be missing, Festival of Lights is about the plight of Indian immigrants from the South American country of Guyana in their daunting efforts to assimilate in the U.S. It opens our eyes to a subculture about which most of us know very little, but it is so unsteady in its focus that interest wanes.
All that most Americans know about Guyana is that it’s the place where the infamous Rev. Jim Jones wiped out a cult with poisoned Kool-Aid. It’s actually an English-speaking country the size of Idaho that borders Venezuela, Brazil and the Atlantic Ocean. Most of its citizens are Hindu and Muslim survivors of the slave trade, military dictatorships and various forms of religious and political oppression. Since U.S. immigration laws were relaxed under President Jimmy Carter, more than 350,000 Indo-Guyanese citizens have settled in the Richmond Hill, Queens, section of New York City, where they have found a better way of life for their families, opening colorful native restaurants and drawing tourists to their annual “Festival of Lights” holiday, called Diwali.
This film is the story of the struggles faced by one family, divided forever by economic hardships and geopolitical realities. Meena, the mother (played with haunting beauty and genuine sincerity by Ritu Singh Pande), manages successfully to flee government thugs with her 3-year-old daughter Reshma, but Vishnu, the father (played by popular Bollywood actor Jimi Mistry) is forced to remain behind to sort out visa problems. Living with a relative in New York, mother and daughter wait patiently for Vishnu to join them, but he never arrives.
As the years pass, the hard-working Meena falls in love, marries her boss (Aidan Quinn) and has another daughter, while Reshma (played by Canadian TV star Melinda Shankar) grows into a sullen, flashy and rebellious 18-year-old with the worst characteristics of a miserable, self-centered American teenager. As a high-schooler who forges her mother’s name to fake excuses to play hooky, she has one goal in mind—to somehow get back to Guyana for a reunion with her father, who is now a political prisoner in the middle of the jungle, surrounded by a river full of anacondas and electric eels, none of which are ever shown. From here, the journey is less than riveting. Scenes are missing and years disappear as Dad is released by the prison guards and sent to New York as a mule to deliver drugs, but instead of heading back to prison, he escapes, and everyone ends up at Reshma’s wedding, where they once again celebrate the Festival of Lights.
The transitions between time-frames are awkward, and some of the writing is wooden, but the actors are meritorious enough to warrant attention, and the basic thrust of the long-winded narrative—the hurdles faced by misjudged immigrants who work hard to make America a better place for themselves as well as their new neighbors—is worth the time and effort. Ms. Prasad is a director whose previous experience has been limited to documentaries, and her limitations are obvious. Still, she’s a good enough filmmaker that we can hope she has better luck next time.
FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS
Running Time 120 minutes
Written and Directed by Shundell Prasad