Mandeep is a young professional, a husband, a father to a young infant son. He’s a Brooklynite, a neighbor, a part of a local community. He’s also a Sikh-American, one who feels a certain wariness descend upon and around him as news of a terrible hate crime clouds the upcoming Fourth of July celebrations.
As tensions rise, he faces pointed stares and looks — some at his “pagg,” or turban — on the subway. His work even pulls him from an important presentation. But when he faces a direct, ugly, emotionally brutal encounter on the street, he makes a decision that proves ultimately both tragic and futile.
Writer-director Nardeep Khurmi — who also plays the lead role of Mandeep — has crafted a short drama that explores what it means to be an ethnic American in a politically and racially charged climate.
Through compelling, well-constructed writing and focused, intelligent performances, it uses film’s ability to allow others to step into another’s footsteps and understand what it’s like to have one’s existence constantly questioned and guarded against in the course of everyday life.
The script builds Mandeep’s experience gradually, first as an internal horror and anxiety when he first hears of the hate crime on the media. Then, through adroit editing and direction, the camera captures the growing web of subtle yet cutting interactions he faces, whether it’s in the way his fellow subway riders stare at his backpack or turban or the way they freeze when he enters a space. Though these actions are small, they have a deep impact on Mandeep.
The storytelling then slowly escalates the tension by taking those race-clouded judgments and assumptions and making them more intimate and personal upon Mandeep, especially when they begin to come from people he knows.
No one is consciously discriminating against the man they know, and they seem to be acting out of obliviousness or practicality — but in his performance Khurmi captures the sense of a man being slowly weighed down by a world who sees him first and foremost as his turban, and allows that to be the leading factor in how to see and treat him. When it finally builds up to an explosive, potentially violent encounter, Mandeep makes a difficult, heartbreaking decision.
“Pagg” is well-crafted, smart and focused storytelling, delivering its narrative with clarity. Its aims for understanding and compassion are clear, especially with its emphasis on Mandeep’s internal experience. Through this unwavering focus on the internal, the film captures the way subtle racism can erode away one’s sense of freedom and self-determination in the world, seeping into our very being. The only way Mandeep can regain those very American virtues is to essentially make himself invisible — but even the terrible price of self-negation isn’t enough. No matter how he accommodates himself, the narrow, insular microscope he’s under is always there, watching him with the mistrust, fear and anger that often come with unchecked assumptions.