By the time the credits rolled in Venba, I was in pieces. I wanted to call my mum.
In its movie-length runtime, Venba depicts the decades-long story of a Tamil couple, Venba and Paavalan, as they take a huge gamble in attempting to forge a better life for themselves in the Western world. Like many migrants, they face numerous hurdles that conspire to prevent them from getting a foothold in 1980s Canada, but their resolve is really tested when Venba gives birth to a son, Kavin.
Do they stay and attempt to weather endless hardships as minorities? Or do they return to the homeland and deny their child of the seemingly infinite opportunities for his future? How will their tumultuous life affect their son as he comes of age and forges his own identity? Venba explores these diasporic themes in an astute, focused story filled with highs, lows, and complex emotions.
In a series of vignettes, you get momentary glimpses into the lives of Venba, Paavalan, and Kavin throughout the years. Venba is a game largely filled with quiet moments and meaningful, complex conversations – often had under some level of duress – that get straight to the task of depicting the seemingly small but plentiful trials and tribulations of the immigrant experience.
Joy is part of that too, especially when it comes to embracing and celebrating tradition and culture. Each major plot beat in Venba’s narrative is framed around a cooking event, shaped as puzzle-like scenarios where you need to interpret and piece together family recipes from things like faded recipe books and poorly-translated text.
Though the dishes themselves might be unfamiliar, the method and logic behind everything are easy to unravel. The active thinking and interactions required do a good job at drawing you into the process itself as well as character mindsets, especially with the tantalising audio design – sharp sizzles, splashes and clangs really bring things to life. You might be carefully puzzling through a long-forgotten family dish with nostalgic significance one moment, and confidently whip up an intimidating banquet the next, always finding some small happiness in these little acts of love during tough times.
As the story moves on, Venba begins to also focus on Kavin and his second-generation migrant experience as he grows up in Western society, and finds himself constantly contending with his cultural identity – all he wants to do is assimilate and fit in. At the same time, Venba and Paavalan wrestle with the heartache of seeing their culture and traditions disappear with their son, a loss made far more egregious by Kavin’s adolescent hostility, growing independence, and other coming-of-age issues. It’s heartbreaking stuff.
As a second-generation immigrant myself (though with a very different background and circumstances) I also wrestled with the heartache of seeing all these trying moments in Venba, compounded and lined up one after the other, and drawing vivid parallels to my own upbringing. It was hard to not get a little teary, and it was hard not to feel a deep-seated sense of guilt welling up. Watching Kavin grow up made me recall the times in my life when I also just wanted to just eat frozen pizzas instead of whatever amazing dish my mother was cooking, or how hesitant I was to bring up my culture in a group of all-white kids during school, just to seem relatable.
And now being at a point in my life where I have a lot more in common with Venba and Paavalan, the other side of the coin was also just as mortifying. As your child grows into their own person, one of the biggest fears you have is that they will just shirk off everything you ever hoped to instil in them as they enter adulthood. I hope I never came off as rude and ungrateful as Kavin is in Venba. But I probably was, which is a grim thing to realise.
Venba can be a confronting mirror. The script is sharp and salient, and I found myself quietly nodding at virtually every new line of dialogue in some instances. The density of the themes and frequent jumps in time can leave some scenes feeling a little contrived, but no less true-to-life.
Venba’s portrayal of the complex diasporic family dynamic is spot-on. It’s a perfect portrait of the challenges and wistfulness that come with trying to live a life while being torn between two completely different cultures. I’d like to think that Venba is ultimately a hopeful narrative in the end, an emotional, cathartic celebration of it all. But whatever the interpretation, Venba is an essential depiction of the immigrant experience.
Four Stars: ★★★★
The PC version of Venba was provided and played for the purpose of this review.