‘For Here or To Go’ Puts a Funny Face on Immigration Woes

Ali Fazal and Melanie Kannokada shoot a scene in “For Here or To Go” with director Rucha Humnabadkar (l) July 14 in Fremont, Calif. The film takes a comic look at the American immigration system. (Som Sharma photo)

By Lisa Tsering, Staff Reporter

A bright young techie moves to Silicon Valley from India — only to find that his life is thrown into upheaval by America’s byzantine immigration process — in “For Here or To Go,” a new comedy currently being shot on location in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Featuring well-known actors such as Omi Vaidya (“3 Idiots,” “Big in Bollywood”), Melanie Kannokada (spokesmodel for Bare Escentuals cosmetics), Ali Fazal (“Fukrey”) and Samrat Chakrabarti (“Midnight’s Children”), the film is directed by Rucha Humnabadkar, who has previously worked alongside Nagesh Kukunoor; and is written by “Stuff Desis Like” creator Rishi Bhilawadikar.

“It’s a contemporary urban comedy-drama, set in the diaspora,” said Humnabadkar.

A few dozen Indian and Indian American cast members mingled with a cross-cultural crew in the hillside home of Suresh Vaidyanathan and his wife, Raji Sundaram, as the actors shot several scenes — one, a tender love scene next to a swimming pool; and the other a barbecue party scene.

“I want them to relate to the struggle,” Vaidya told India-West during a short break in location shooting in the spacious home in the Heritage Heights neighborhood July 14. “Our parents came here with $8 in their pockets — but other people think it was easy!”

Added Chakrabarti, “The film portrays different shades of what immigrants are. Usually onscreen we see the fresh-off-the-boat types. But in this film, every character has a deeper secret. It really shows a different side of immigration in a real way.”

Director Humnabadkar says the film reveals the loneliness and struggle of the white-collar immigrant. “We’re still assimilating,” she said. “Anyone who has ever left home can relate to that.”

In the film, techie Vivek Pandit is juggling a job, immigration paperwork and a relationship with a beautiful young Indian American girl (Kannokada). The story is in part based on real life, said Bhilawadikar.

“The story is very current, very contemporary,” noted Humnabadkar, who was born in India and came to the U.S. 12 years ago.

That it is: the U.S. Senate is currently considering an immigration bill that in part would weigh many prospective immigrants on a “merit-based” point scale that takes into account their language fluency, education and work experience. If adopted, the new system will take effect in 2018.

Bhilawadikar elaborates: “Based on your immigration status, whether you are a student, an H1-B, or have a green card, your attitude changes and the way you look at life changes. It’s an existential crisis. The best years of your life are gone, while waiting to be accepted.”

“For Here or To Go” was written three years ago, and since then Bhilawadikar and Humnabadkar have been raising money through private investors and through Indiegogo under the moniker From the Heart Productions. Since their project has been deemed “culturally unique,” the company has attained 501 (c)(3) status, making donations tax deductible. They feel confident about distribution and festival prospects for the film, which is being shot on the RED digital camera by cinematographer Tristan Nyby, whose work appears on DisneyXD, Disney Junior and the History Channel.

The cast and crew have embraced the fact that this is a strictly low-budget affair, and don’t seem to mind. Vaidya, who plays Lakshmi, a Telugu Silicon Valley engineer with a secret who desperately needs a green card, says he will happily sleep on a crewmember’s couch if that’s what it takes to get a movie made. “It’s not about the money to me,” he told India-West. “It’s about the work. My character can’t be himself in India; he’s in search of personal freedom. It’s very interesting for me as an actor.”

Vaidya will next be seen in “Tie the Knot,” an independent Hollywood comedy from Shuja Paul that stars Tara Reid (“Sharknado”) as a frustrated young American woman who runs away to India.

Ali Fazal discussed the arc his character, Vivek Pandit, undergoes during the course of the story. “Vivek is confident about his career, and he’s the most ‘sorted’ guy you’ve ever met. But then comes a crash — with a lot of heart and emotion. It’s actually very heavy in parts,” he said.

The actor, who made a splashy appearance at the beginning of “3 Idiots” as Joy, an engineering student who kills himself, has gone on to ace comedy roles in “Fukrey” and the upcoming “Baat Ban Gayi,” among other films. Humnabadkar chimes in about the lanky, boyish actor. “I was looking for an actor who had vulnerability, and still an edge … I made him grow that stubble on his face!”

The versatile Fazal is happy to get a role with a bit of meat to it. “This time, I’m not sliding on the floor with a heart balloon. I’ve done that!” he laughed.

Amitosh Nagpal, whose credits include “Dabangg,” “Aarakshan,” and a unique adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” performed in several Indian dialects, plays Amit, a comical character who’s more than pleased to be in the U.S.

Kannokada described her role as the female lead. “I play a character born and raised in the U.S., the daughter of the head of a large tech firm, but without a mother figure. She meets Vivek [Fazal], who is working in Silicon Valley, and the two have a budding romance, but his immigration status complicates our journey.”

The breezy Sunday afternoon shoot was Kannokada’s first day on the set, and her very first shot with Fazal entailed an intimate kissing scene. “I love my costar!” she told India-West. “He’s fantastic and sweet, and the whole crew is nice. In fact, this is my first time working with a female director.” 

Kannokada — a Stanford-educated mechanical engineer with a second degree black belt in Shotokan Karate — will appear on a new MTV comedy as a series regular this fall, and has also just signed “Happy Ending,” a film opposite Saif Ali Khan.

For now, the cast and crew of “For Here or To Go” seem genuinely interested in coming together for a project that is bigger than all of them.

“The film is about what we give up for the American dream,” said Chakrabarti.

To keep track of the film’s shooting and release, visit manycupsofchai.com.

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