Film Review: Festival of Lights

Interesting drama about an Indo-Guyanese teenager suffers from amateurish acting and writing.

With few stories on record about Guyana’s tortured history with Indian culture, Festival of Lights stands out—in particular because it takes us from Guyana to America and back with a three-decade-spanning tale of familial angst. Documentarian Shundell Prasad’s first fiction film has its moments. but its thematic ambitions outweigh its artistic rigor.

First set in the late 1970s, Festival of Lights opens promisingly with a series of shots of the small South American country, followed by scenes at the modest family home of Vishnu (Jimi Mistry) and Meena (Ritu Singh Pande). After a harrowing, violent act in the neighborhood, Vishnu and Meena take their young daughter Reshma to the American consulate in an effort to flee the burgeoning terrorism against their people. Sadly, only Meena and Reshma are allowed passports to the U.S. while Vishnu is held back on the grounds that he has been involved in helping other immigrants through an illegal underground operation.

After settling in New York City, Meena finds work as a maid and later marries her boss, Adem (Aidan Quinn). Soon, she and Adem have a child of their own. Meanwhile, Reshma (Melinda Shankar) grows up in relative luxury in her Brooklyn home, but becomes a rebellious teenager. After one too many fights with her mother, Reshma moves out and comes to live with another immigrant family of Indo-Guyanese background. During this time, she becomes engaged to Ravin (Stephen Hadeed, Jr.), only to learn that her father has been jailed all these years in Guyana because Ravin’s family betrayed him.

Armed with this disturbing news, Reshma breaks off her engagement and travels from New York to Guyana to find the father she never knew. Once in the country of her birth, Reshma uses her father’s friends to seek him out and help him escape his harsh prison conditions. But will Vishnu’s becoming a part of Reshma’s life provide healing or more damage?

In too many ways, Festival of Lights betrays itself as Shundell Prasad’s feature debut. In particular, Prasad’s writing has a tired, clichéd air (“He’s not my Dad!,” Reshma yells at her mother and second husband as she arrives home from school one day). The actors seem hampered by the lines they have to speak and no one comes off very well. Every character is two-dimensional at best, and the ensemble offers little beyond the “Guiding Light” school of dramatization.

It is also surprising, given Prasad’s background in nonfiction film, that Festival of Lights avoids informing the viewer very much about Guyanese history (the Jim Jones incident is never even mentioned). Compared to Chantal Akerman’s recent Almayer’s Folly, with its similar family story—though set in Malaysia and with a much harsher indictment of colonialism—Prasad’s effort is disappointing.

The aesthetic annoyances include the fact that some of the characters barely seem to age over the decades, Ronen Landa’s original score is poorly used at times for melodramatic emphasis, and Valentina Caniglia’s exterior cinematography is adequate but she harshly lights some of the interior scenes. (Caniglia’s best sequence comes early, in the Diwali, or Festival of Lights, celebration of Indo-Guyanese culture.)

What keeps Festival of Lights at least somewhat absorbing is the story itself. Like daytime soap operas, the film holds one’s attention by maintaining a narrative of the sort where one wants to see what happens next. This is especially true in the final reel, as Reshma and her father’s friends try to free him from prison. Lacking the stilted dialogue of the earlier scenes, this build-up to the action climax comprises one of the better parts of the movie. Unfortunately, the pat ending spoils what, at this point, was starting to be a better-than-average melodrama.

In the end, Festival of Lights is less than illuminating.