Start in Pa. high school band proved to be golden for director making film debut

Tribune Content Agency

PHILADELPHIA — Back in 2003, filmmaker Nardeep Khurmi was up on stage in Downingtown West High School, playing Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler in his school’s production of Oklahoma!, when he paused for a minute.

The school had picked the show so he could play a part which, he said, was an honor. But it made him question his place in the industry as an aspiring Indian American actor. “It kind of hit me at that moment where I thought, ‘I’m so subservient to what’s available.’”

“And I just was like, ‘No, there are stories I want to tell,’” Khurmi said.

The director-actor’s years in Downingtown influenced his debut film “Land of Gold,” which went on to premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival and is now streaming on Max.

The film tells the story of an unlikely father-daughter-like relationship between a Punjabi American truck driver Kiran Singh (Khurmi) and a young undocumented Mexican girl Elena (Caroline Valencia), as they journey to Boston and confront generational traumas together. The relationship, as Khurmi illustrates, may remind audiences of Joel and Ellie in HBO’s The Last of Us but it takes place in the every day reality of living as an “other” in America.

“The Last of Us had zombies — we have cultural oppression,” Khurmi joked.

Khurmi’s parents grew up in Punjab, India, and moved to Switzerland in 1985, where he was born. His father’s pharmaceutical job led them across the Atlantic to the U.S., landing in New Jersey in 1990 and then later establishing roots in Downingtown during the blizzard of ‘96.

Growing up in the “white suburbs of Philly” without a South Asian community, Khurmi remembers being one of very few brown kids in the Chester County borough.

As a kid, he decided that if he could make people laugh then they wouldn’t bully him — he would be the “funny guy” who excelled in the arts, not the Indian kid with “weird, smelly” food. And it worked. Khurmi played trombone in the school band where he found a community of lifelong friends. Being a part of band and choir led him to take the first steps into his acting and filmmaking career.

It wasn’t until he saw the works of filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan that Khurmi thought “Oh. There is a path… Our journeys kind of parallel each other because we’re brown kids from the woods of Pennsylvania who went to NYU to make films,” he said.

The armor he created for himself as the “class clown” in Downingtown is something Khurmi wanted to explore with Kiran. “You start judging yourself and you start judging this rich culture you come from simply to survive and just live,” he said. “Not being an active member of the Sikh community and hiding himself behind hats and clothes and things like that — he’s (Kiran) built an armor.”

Khurmi has dedicated his work to spotlighting the hyphen in his identity, one of an immigrant “growing up in the boonies” who hid his culture but embraced it through storytelling.

There’s a line in the film where Elena asks Kiran about God, and why would God do bad things. “And Kiran says, ‘You have the choice of how you respond to things,’” said Khurmi. “I think as people of color growing up in America, we often have to make that choice on a daily basis.”

When “Land of Gold” played at the 2022 Philadelphia Film Festival, his high school teachers and classmates came out to support his debut, along with the South Asian community.

“I had to fight my parents to be able to do that and convince them that this was worth it. It’s only I think recently that they were like, ‘OK, we don’t have to worry — it’s on HBO now.’ The next hurdle is to go win an Oscar like Daniel Kwan,” he laughed.

“Land of Gold,” directed by and starring Nardeep Khurmi, is available for streaming on Max.