Fifteen minutes into Festival of Lights you come to the discouraging realization that you know every infuriating plot beat that will follow. In the opening moments, Vishnu (Jimi Mistry) is faced with an impossible, heartbreaking decision: to let his wife, Meena (Ritu Singh Pande), and their daughter, Reshma, move from Guyana to the United States without him, or to allow them to remain in their home country with the possibility that they’ll come to harm as a response to his (murkily implied) political activism. Of course, that isn’t a choice, and so Meena and Reshma soon end up in New York City, living in cramped quarters with relatives.
Meena lands work as a cleaning lady, and her boss, Adem (Aidan Quinn), immediately seems to empathize with her, an understanding that we know will eventually be revealed to have roots in sexual interests. At this point, writer-director Shundell Prasad makes a crucial and considerably ill-advised elision, jumping ahead 13 years to 1983 to reveal that Meena has married Adem and that Reshma (now played by Melinda Shankar) has grown into a gorgeous problem case who clearly resents her mother for committing what she perceives as multiple acts of abandonment: of her father, her culture, and most especially her.
In other words, Festival of Lights is a conventional mother-daughter melodrama that could’ve starred Joan Crawford in her heyday. But the Crawford films, crude as they could be, usually had a neurotic energy; they were often genre films that would sometimes pack quite a bit of behavioral insight, whether it was intended or not. Prasad works in the opposite manner; she appears to believe that she’s making a critique of gentrification as opposed to an old-fashioned weepie, and so she slows every scene down, draining them of any potential energy, in an effort to accentuate subtexts that are already obvious.
Prasad’s self-consciousness also has an ugly side that’s unusually insidious for films this preachy and relentlessly dull. The film revels in a racism that’s currently fashionable in pop culture: Anything that’s American or white is inherently shallow and bad, and probably a perversion of a once greater, purer ideal. Prasad never invites us to empathize with Meena, who probably marries Adem out of panic, flattery, and loneliness. We never see the struggles that would almost certainly characterize Meena’s early life in the States, and so we’re allowed to see her unquestioningly through the teenage Reshma’s eyes as an opportunistic phony. Adem, with the exception of one moment near the end, is a stereotype of a rich, jowly hypocrite—the kind of man who can lecture without irony about the wonders of capitalism during a time of economic distress. Reshma, meanwhile, is a self-absorbed twit who isn’t allowed to display reserves of inner awareness until she rediscovers her roots, via another cheap ellipse, and discards her (American) frivolity. Vishnu, on the other hand, is Guyana Incarnate, a living testament to suffering purely and virtuously. This hopeless film essentially embraces conformity, as long as it’s the conformity of the director’s choice.