When Jeet (Barkha Madan), an Indian former Judo champion, fails to find a legal means to travel to Canada to see her brother, she seeks out the aid of a local trafficker (Naresh Gosain) in desperation. But Jeet's journey takes a wrong turn when she and her fellow travellers are diverted to a remote location and must fight the criminal underworld to survive.

Barkha Madan guides tense immigration tale.

REVELATION PERTH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The tragedy of international human trafficking is writ large on the face of Barkha Madan, the lead actress in Sanjay Talreja’s debut feature, Surkhaab. Viewers should seek out her wonderful performance in what is her first lead and, most likely, last role; since filming wrapped on this Indian/Canadian co-production, the strikingly beautiful and talented actress was ordained a Buddhist nun and will now serve her faith. She attended the film’s Australian premiere at Perth’s recent Revelations Film Festival in her ceremonial robes and sans the flowing locks she sports onscreen.

Madan’s Jeet always appears entirely believable and grounded

Madan plays Jeet, a strongly independent Punjabi woman and former judo champion who lives comfortably with her mother (Vineeta Malik) but longs for a new life in Canada with her brother Dan (Reeza Sholeh). With legal passage beyond her means, she employs the services of charming but devious facilitator of illegal passage, Balbir (Naresh Ghosain), who, along with smiling heavy Kuldeep (Sumit Suri, a standout), controls the trafficking of refugees to all corners of the globe.

Jeet’s woes begin as soon as she arrives with her designated contact a no-show and her group denied their forged passports and subsequently ferried to a remote location. Fleeing as the others are taken, she undertakes an odyssey to find her brother, all the while unwittingly becoming a pawn in a smuggling racket that forces her to outwit underworld forces.

The B-movie plot mechanics are kept at bay for the film’s first half thanks to the swift, skilful editing of Archit D. Rastogi, who intercuts past and present events with precision. The film’s second half is not so adroitly handled, devolving into a rather too rote conclusion for the plot’s primary MacGuffin and a public standoff that feels perfunctory and familiar.

Where Surkhaab finds its greatest strengths is in the human interplay and its portrayal of the very real problems faced by the vulnerable, disenfranchised, and exploited. In contrast to the story, Madan’s Jeet always appears entirely believable and grounded; the actress makes every emotional beat stick in a commanding performance (one which, admittedly, leaves some of her cast mates behind).

Talreja’s take on refugee abuse doesn’t quite have the hard-edge of Dee McLachlan’s local effort The Jammed (2007), despite his fluent, unobtrusive style. In its more sharply focussed moments, however, it is still a tense, moving indictment of the cruel trade in human lives, as well as a tour de force role for an actress so in touch with the human condition she has devoted her life to improving it.