Personal and professional woes converge in “For Here or To Go,” a film that will speak to not only every H-1B living and working in the United States but every non-immigrant who is aware that, along with traveling to the land of dreams and opportunity, comes vulnerability.
In “For Here or To Go,” protagonist Vivek Pandit, who approaches the world with refreshing openness and enthusiasm, leaves Mumbai in search of a better career in Silicon Valley. He is poised to become a key hire at a promising healthcare startup, but soon the legal realities of his immigration status upend his work, and his life.
Just as the prospect of returning home to India starts to look tempting, Pandit meets a girl worth the fight to keep the life he has built in America. Along the way, his eyes are opened to the similar struggles of his own roommates – other immigrants equally seen as “temporary workers” in the United States, who drive nice cars but avoid investing in furniture for fear of having to leave it all behind.
If all this sounds too familiar, it is, because this film, which debuts in select theaters March 31, really hits the spot in bringing to the fore the complexities of the immigration process by highlighting the struggles of H-1B workers in the U.S., such as their lack of freedom to change employers easily and the endless wait in employment-based green card backlogs.
Not only is “For Here or To Go” incredibly sharp, deeply engaging and sensitive but thoroughly entertaining as well.
Rishi Bhilawadikar, who brings the American immigrant experience to the big screen in his first feature film, confessed to India-West about “being stuck” in the green card backlog.
He said that the main driving force behind the film was the lack of authentic mass media representation of the accomplishments of Indians in America.
“Indians have had a disproportionately positive impact on the economy and integral to the running of several businesses across industries despite being a tiny minority, something to be proud of and share with the rest of America,” he said. “That fact, combined with the unfairness with the issue of green card backlogs which severely limits people’s potential, causes a lot of uncertainty.”
Bollywood actor Ali Fazal as Pandit, who is torn between his life in the U.S. and in India, sounds real and convincing. Indian American actor Omi Vaidya, as his effusive colleague and friend, Lakshmi, and Indian American actress Melanie Chandra of “Code Black” fame as Pandit’s girlfriend, are a delight to watch. But the surprise package of the film, with his witty one-liners, is Amitosh Nagpal.
Bhilawadikar, who is convinced that stories are a powerful medium in bringing about change, stressed that he ventured into filmmaking in his pursuit of humanizing immigrants, especially Indian Americans in the country. “It’s critical that in times like these we unite as a community and share our stories with others,” he reasoned. “It’s very heartbreaking to read about all the violence and the ignorance that causes it. The issues in the film have always been critical but now they are urgent.”
Bhilawadikar, who holds a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and a liberal arts degree in interactive media design from Indiana University, Bloomington, and works as a UX designer, pointed out that the U.S hires H-1B workers based on skill sets but issues green cards based on the country of birth.
“These points always get lost in the mainstream rhetoric,” he told India-West. “I don’t have a film background, I work as a designer. So to me this story solves that problem - that of generating empathy and influencing popular, mainstream perception of Indians in America.”
With no screenwriting degree, the Mumbai native basically googled the know-how of writing for a film. His experience as a writer for a humor blog, “Stuff Desis Like,” came in handy. Though he occasionally penned his thoughts on his blog, the medium simply wasn’t enough, and since he had so much to share with the world, he looked towards the “grander medium of cinema.”
“This is a contemporary story of assimilation and cultural adjustments that no one was telling, but it felt too critical not to tell,” stated the San-Francisco-based filmmaker. “I just wanted to convert the story of Indian assimilation into a film… I’m very much an accidental filmmaker.”
The profound narrative, set against the backdrop of the 2008 recession, also seamlessly integrates other topical issues affecting the day-to-day lives of Indian Americans, like violence against Sikhs, fake university scams, homosexuality, and the phenomenon of reverse brain drain.
Bhilawadikar, who not only wrote the film but also produced it, considers “For Here or To Go?” an authentic, contemporary, entertaining and an accessible piece of reference.
“I made it so Indians can take their American co-workers, their friends from other nationalities and their loved ones from India and share exactly what it means to be an immigrant,” he said.
Putting a human face to all the immigration headlines is not an easy task. Bhilawadikar, while admitting that he had to rewrite the script close to “30 times” in his effort to keep the story light, entertaining and as authentic as possible, also credited the film’s director Rucha Humnabadkar for remaining true to the words on paper.
“It really is very challenging to have ambiguity as your central premise and try to convey the point you want to make about such a sensitive public issue. But it had to be done because I wanted to make something easily accessible and fun to share,” he confided to India-West.
It took him close to six years to bring his vision to life and for support he leaned on his family, friends and co-workers, to be able to find collaborators, actors, artists, and members of the Indian community in the U.S.
The U.S. and San Francisco, in particular, hold a “very special place” in the filmmaker’s heart despite him living the life and the issues projected in the film.
“I have a full-time job and I’m in the green card backlog,” he said. “But I’m not sure I would’ve been able to pull off an entire feature film and its distribution sitting in any other place in the world.”