Nardeep Khurmi wrote, directed and stars in Land of Gold, a cross-country, cross-cultural road trip exploring the dynamic between a Punjabi American truck driver (Khurmi) and a Mexican-American girl he finds hiding in his trailer.
“Can you get more American,” he asks, “than two communities of color, who have been marginalized by the country they want to call home, banding together to find their piece of the pie? To give their kids something greater?”
The film arose in part from his fascination with the intersection of Indian and Mexican immigrants in Southern California, going back more than a century. He learned about their shared history in part through a chance encounter with a very good Los Angeles restaurant, he explains in the latest MovieMaker podcast, which you can listen to on Apple or Spotify or here:
“So I live in LA, and I was driving down the street and I saw this Indian restaurant, but it had a slightly Spanish name. It was this hybrid Mexican-Indian restaurant, Mexican Punjabi food in particular. And I was like, this is weird, but also makes a lot of sense. Because the flavors are very similar. And it was very tasty,” he explains.
“And I started doing research on this: Is this just a culinary thing that happened in Southern California, or what is this?”
Nardeep Khurmi on Punjabi-Mexican Cultural Crossover
He soon learned that while many people think South Asian mass migration to the United States started in recent decades, in fact it went back much further.
“The reality is the first Indian immigrants, South Asian immigrants to America, were Punjabi immigrants in the late 1800s, early 1900s. And they were loggers and farmers, blue-collar workers coming to the United States,” he says.
They interacted often with Mexican migrants — and descendants of Mexican-Americans who stayed in California when the formerly Mexican land became part of the United States in 1847. But Indian-Americans were cut off by anti-immigration laws, mostly notably in 1917.
“So these Punjabi farmers were basically stranded here,” Khurmi explains. “And if they left, they could never come back. And they couldn’t bring people over because there were quotas put on how many Asian immigrants could come to the country. So as these Punjabi immigrants started moving south, from Oregon and Washington into California, settling in Central California… it was around the same time Mexican migration started happening north.
“And what was happening was you had these Punjabi farmers, these Mexican farmers, and the lifestyle was similar. And even though they didn’t speak the same language, they lived the same lifestyle, they had the same cultural background — the family unit being important — the same type of food. They understood how to live in the same way. So they started forming these bonds and marrying and starting families.”
Driving Across a Land of Gold
Family is crucial to Land of Gold. The film follows Khurmi’s character, Kiran, who is making his last cross-country run before the impending birth of his first child. He begins to learn about fatherhood by becoming a kind of surrogate parent to Elena (Caroline Valencia). Their journey takes them across America, and through debates about life, as they face the constant threat of immigration authorities.
Khurmi was motivated in part by the family separations at the United States border that were taking place as he developed ideas for the film.
“That sort of inhumanity that I was hearing about, in terms of this humanitarian crisis, I wanted to sort of pay homage to that experience,” he explains.
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Khurmi realized he wanted to be an actor and filmmaker in high school, outside Philadelphia, while appearing in a production of Oklahoma! He played Ali Hakim, a Persian immigrant often portrayed in the musical as a wily, comedic figure.
“And it hit me. I was like, ‘Wow, as an actor, and as a brown actor, I’m so subservient and dependent on someone casting me thinking broadly, or having to have something that’s like very culturally specific to get cast. But as the writer, as the director, as the creator, I can do whatever I want,” Khurmi recalls.
His professional journey came full circle with Land of Gold: He is not only the writer, director and star of the film, but it shot in Oklahoma.
We talk about that curious turn in the podcast, and also about his time studying with the Upright Citizens Brigade, his early job transcribing video for a reality show about parking tickets, and much more.
We also highly recommend his excellent first-person piece about making Land of Gold in the next issue of MovieMaker, on newsstands in July.
Land of Gold is now streaming on Max.
Main image: Nardeep Khurmi as Kiran and Caroline Valencia as Elena in Land of Gold.