A sobering look at illegal immigration from Punjab to Canada soon turns into an formulaic woman-on-the-run movie. But until it does, Sanjay Talreja’s Punjabi/Hindi Surkhaab is a sincere and well-intentioned exploration of the perils and pressures involved in clandestine border-crossing.

The phenomenon of human trafficking is told through the kohl-laden eyes of Jeet (Barkha Madan), a former judo champion. Jeet has arrived in Canada from small-town Punjab to visit her brother Pargat (Nishant Bahl) on false documents, in exchange for which she is carrying contraband for a tout (Naresh Gosain) and his hot-headed nephew Kuldeep (Sumit Suri).

As we follow Jeet from the airport to the restaurant where Pargat washes dishes for a living, her past unfolds in flashbacks. Unemployed despite her sporting glory, Jeet is forced by circumstance to flee her village. Her mother (Vineeta Mallick) sells her jewellery to pay the tout, as much countless poor families in Punjab to ensure a better life for their relatives.

Trouble (and overplotting) follows Jeet as soon as she sets foot on Canadian soil, forcing her to dredge up reserves of bravery and improvisation. She has a most eventful first few days in Toronto, dealing with a kidnapping, extortion and harassment from Kuldeep, and it soon becomes clear why she has been made a judo expert rather than, say, a javelin thrower or a kabbadi player. Since the plot kicks in so early, there is simply not enough time to record Jeet’s impressions of the big city or share her feelings about what she makes of her new surroundings.

The acting ranges from functional (most of the cast) to overdone (Suri). Barkha Madan looks the part, but her expressions are stuck in the narrow zone that separates wary from watchful. As her heroine gets more and more resourceful, the movie goes further away from its self-declared goal of exploring the human ramifications of the immigration trade. Many immigrants will identify with Jeet’s plight, while others can only fantasise about her ability to transform herself from puppet to stringpuller.