“Growing Up Smith”: It’s better to stand out than to fit in

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"Growing Up Smith" DVD cover

Smith, played by Roni Akurati, has immigrated to the United States in 1979 with his family in the film Growing Up Smith. With an already arranged wife in India, pending marriage upon adulthood, Smith can’t help but recognize his passionate crush on his neighbor, Amy (Brighton Sharbino).

Amy’s dad, Butch, (Jason Lee) plays an integral role, not only in Smith’s development, but also in Smith’s developing worldview. As young Smith navigates the disciplined parenting of his father, Bhaaskar (Anjul Nigam) with Butch’s portrayed carefree lifestyle, Smith begins a journey of reconciliation, merging his native culture with the culture he’s immigrated into.

Scene from the movie "Growing Up Smith"
Scene from the movie “Growing Up Smith”

The film takes place in 1979. It is directed by Frank Lotito and explores childhood nostalgia in suburban Oklahoma while navigating today’s cultural relevance of racism, immigration, and the acceptance of others. Writers, Anjul Nigam, Paul Quinn, and Gregory Scott Houghton, tell a beautiful story in the film about the immigration experience. The film is for those immigrating, as well as for the community who open themselves to a potentially unfamiliar culture in their midst.

Undoubtedly charming, Growing Up Smith brings light to the extraordinary value of harvesting cross-generational and cross-cultural relationships. In light of a tense, American political climate, often compromising our hope for the wide acceptance of others, I highly recommend that Growing Up Smith be next in your movie queue.

To help us understand even more, I had the opportunity to talk to actor and writer, Anjul Nigam.

Johnny Walsh: Let me tell you, I watched the movie and I was a puddle of tears by the end of it, I was really moved.

Anjul: Thank you so much, it’s been long in the works, over ten years!

JW: Ten years! Can you tell me more about that?

Scene from the movie "Growing Up Smith"
Scene from the movie “Growing Up Smith”

Anjul: Let me give you an idea of the journey. About 15 years ago, back in 2000, I got a script to attach me as an actor. They reached out to me to play the role of the kid in Growing Up Smith, but it took 17 years to get it made, so I ended up playing the dad.  I was attached to play the dad by Greg Scott, who had written the first draft of the script basing it on his adventures with his roommate, who would share experiences growing up in a small town in Oklahoma back in the 70s [as an immigrated Indian]. Greg ended up writing a script called Good Ole Boys based on Ramesh’s childhood, and from that he attached me as an actor, I took charge of the script, and rewrote it from the perspective of myself, having grown up as an Indian immigrant from Connecticut. From there, I ended up bringing on board Paul Quinn, who came on board to co write and direct [and] completely identified with the story as well.

From 2004-2014 began the journey of putting the money together. Once we got the money, just as we go into pre-production, Paul is ill. So my producing partner, Frank Lotito, he and I had met 20 years ago in 1995. He and I actually hit it off, and 15 years later he hit me up on Facebook and said “Hey I’m producing now, I don’t know if you remember me.” One thing led to another, Frank was coming to the States to shoot a movie he was producing, and I brought him on board to produce the movie with me. When Paul got sick, Frank stepped up to the plate. Sadly, Paul wasn’t able to complete the job, and ended up passing away before seeing the completed movie.

JW: I was admiring your previous roles, and I remember a few of the scenes in Grey’s anatomy in particular. In Growing Up Smith, you play this very unique character: hard working, funny, longing to integrate into North American culture, but having a hard time doing so. What makes your role as Bhaaskar different from others you have done?

Anjul: I think there are several aspects to that answer, as an actor of a certain ethnic persuasion. Every ethnicity or nationality goes through a certain progression to integrate into the American melting pot. There is a perception about them because they haven’t fully immersed themselves. As they grow in numbers, that immersion process allows the melting pot to start recognizing each race or nationality or ethnicity. They’re not just engineers, they’re not just doctors, but more than that; they are human beings that have three dimensions.

The first wave of Indians started coming in the 1960s and 1970s. When I moved out to L.A. in 1989, we were just beginning to make appearances in television and movies. Most of the work I got was not three-dimensional characters; they were characters that what I deem “He Went Thatta Way” roles, defined on Westerns in the 1950s. You would have the Native Americans be approached by the good guy saying “Hey, where did the bad guy go?” And the one line that the Native American actor would have would be “He went thatta way” and that would be it. The more I began to work in the industry, the more I had opportunities that were three-dimensional.

JW: In the spirit of equality, you would hope that roles wouldn’t have color, but of course sometimes you need to have a certain type of actor or race or background to portray a character the best way.

We, as human beings, are always making class distinctions. We celebrate the rich from the poor, the young from the old, the men from the women. As artists, we often seek and strive to be able to cross those class distinctions, but at the same time, it’s such a complex topic. The important aspect is for us to be aware of it. We need to take the moment to step back and say, “what is it that differentiates classes from us” especially in the cynical times that we’re in, with the political divide and social divide we have entered… It’s so important for us as human beings to step back and look at the other side to say “what is it that they’re fighting for, what is it that they’re backing, what is their need, that they’re fighting so passionately for, let me at least try to understand that.” Whether I accept it or agree with it that’s not the point, I do need to accept it as a compassionate human being. Once we start doing that, the gorge that is dividing us will start becoming smaller.

JW: That’s incredible, So your role isn’t as much different than others as much as it is a stand for all of the things that you believe in, all those methods of bridging the gap in our social or political divides. 

Anjul: As an actor I think the role is significant, substantial and three-dimensional. As a writer my contribution is to tell a story that is universal, and the three [universal] themes that we hit upon are first love, childhood heroes, and fish out of water in a small town. Those are universal themes, everyone has at least gone through one or more of those.

JW:  Young Smith, Roni Akurati, really struggled with his relationship with his father, but you could see a beautiful depth to his relationship with his mother, sister, of course Amy, and also Butch. My favorite quote in the movie was, “I killed an animal without being provoked, but Butch had cleansed my soul.” What are we, as viewers, to take away from Young Smith’s relationship with Butch?

I think we [as people] look for heroes. I think the relationship is about Butch finding a way to pacify Smith … and I think that is [where] the relationship and the bond evolves. When you have a perspective of twenty years removed, there is a tendency for us to look at things from rose-colored glasses, and that’s “nostalgia.” This movie is told from that perspective. We want the audience to leave with a sense of optimism about life, and one way to achieve it is to tell the story from a nostalgic perspective where you’re seeing the good in everything.

JW: My favorite scene in the movie was when you were trying to tie in Indian culture with North American humor, cracking a joke about the Hindu god Ganesh, which so obviously went over Butch’s head. Growing up, having had to integrate into North American culture once yourself, where did humor and laughter play a role in the way you connected to others?

Anjul: You know, I think as people, whether you’re from a different background or not, it’s your choice how you handle your life. You either approach things with humor or as a victim. The more you apply positivity to something and start viewing things with a glass half full, I think you can get through challenges in life better.

JW: Today’s culture faces so much tension in racism, immigration, acceptance, etc. Smith experienced extraordinary bullying in the movie. In light of the diversity and conflict in our world, what can Smith teach us about acceptance?

I’m hoping that by watching this film, people take away from it something that is about tolerance, and when we take the time to look at what other people’s needs and wants are, we begin to come to a position of acceptance. People start off in this world, hopefully, from a compassionate position, and sometimes we get jaded in our upbringing and our environment to believe that ”those” groups of people are bad people. What it comes down to is that the environment may teach us we live that a certain class of people are not the kind of people we should be mingling with, and we start becoming jaded as human beings. Let’s pull back the negativity and let’s see ourselves as the compassionate human beings that we really are. In order to do that, we have to take a moment to understand the other side.

JW: What do you think that Paul would say about the final product of Growing Up Smith?

(Laughs).Paul always talked about tolerance. I think he would applaud the final product that we’ve created.

JW: A fun fact!

In the movie, placed in 1979, Anjin’s character, Bhaaskar, often refers to “The Betsy.” Betsy was a “neighborhood girl” that Bhaaskar’s daughter often says she is “studying” with with as a front for seeing her American boyfriend. As it turns out, after finishing the movie, Anjin discovered that in 1978 there was a movie called The Betsy starring Tommy Lee Jones. Inadvertently, The Betsy just so happened to make several appearances in Growing Up Smith, making Bhaaskar’s struggle to integrate into American culture all the more authentic, and even hysterical!

For more visit http://growingupsmithmovie.com/