A globetrotting drama about how far a person has to travel to both escape their past and understand their sense of identity and find a path for their future, writer/director Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s English-language film No Land’s Man is a story of engaging complexities, balancing moments of dark anger with overt romanticism, all driven by a balanced lead performance by Indian star Nawazuddin Siddiqui (from Gangs of Wasseypur and The Lunchbox) whose need to hide truths about himself hampers his chance for happiness.
He plays a man who because of incidents from his past quite simply cannot tell the truth about himself, and having arrived in New York in 2017 lies about his name, nationality, religion, family and his past. His deep secrets are gradually teased out in Farooki’s confident structure which is not afraid to turn the storyline on its head to veer off in unexpected directions.
The film actually opens in 2019 in Sydney, where Naveen (Siddiqui) is visiting a cliffside cemetery with his girlfriend Cathy as part of a trip to visit her Australian family. When he vanishes, Cathy searches in vain for him, and the film uses this moment to switch back two years earlier to when Naveen gets a job at a Manhattan restaurant/bar, where he first meets the warm and friendly Cathy (Megan Mitchell) who works there as a waitress.
The first half of the film is often played for laughs as the seemingly mis-matched couple start a tentative romance, and it is slowly revealed that Naveen (whose actual name turns out to be Sameer) is a Pakistani escaping persecution in the land of the free – though early on he finds himself falsely accused as a terrorist and forced to wear an ankle tracker – and that there is far more to his past than he is willing to reveal.
Aided by an accessible and warm score from two-time Oscar winner A. R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire), who is also executive producer, the film’s first half is almost rom-com in structure, but the hints of misdirection come to a head at the film’s midpoint as the story switches abruptly to Naveen’s impressive family home in Lahore where his family has been targeted by a ferocious mob as “Ahmadis” (from the Ahmadiyyah branch of Islam) and told they must leave the country.
The arrival in New York of another figure from his past means that Naveen must come clean with Cathy, with the film seeing him come to terms with his past, family relationships, religion and his love for Cathy. The arrival is brutal violence into a story that up until that point felt like a traditional romantic-drama is a shrewd move by Farooki and sees him cleverly maintaining on a film that’s change of direction makes it all the more intense and complex.
Farooki seems most at ease in the scenes with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, though the New York sequences especially are beautifully shot and engagingly playful at times. But while warm and almost melodramatic at times, the underlying message of the harsh reality of discrimination is at the dark heart of film. As Naveen says as he comes to release Cathy may be his salvation: "My life has been about surviving…now I can live, not just survive.” The film returns full circle eventually to Sydney and the uncomfortable truth to his disappearance.
Bangladesh-US-India, 2021, 101mins
Dir/scr Mostofa Sarwar Farooki
Production Dialetic, Chabial, Sun Music& Motion Pictures, Bongo BD
Producer Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, Nawazuddin Siffiqui, Shrihari Sathe, Nusrat Imrose Tisha
Cinematography Alexey Kosorukov, Sheikh Rajibul
Editor Momin Boswas
Music A.R. Rahman
With Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Megan Mitchell, Eisha Chopra, Holly Fraser, Vikram Kochhar, Andreas Pilatsikas, Christian Andrew