Immigration has long been a hot-button issue in national politics. But far away from the multiple election cycles, the social issues of immigration are often overlooked. From struggles to resilience to success, the stories and experiences of immigrants in the U.S. are as varied as immigrants themselves who view this country as a beacon of hope. But not all stories have a happy ending, as underscored by Indian American filmmaker Danish Renzu’s new film, “The Illegal,” which captures the struggles of immigrants in the U.S. and stars Indian American actor Suraj Sharma.
The gritty, timely and deeply humane tale, while exploring what it means to chase the elusive American Dream and at what cost, also sheds light on the plight of undocumented immigrants.
“The film gives a human face to the undocumented workers in the United States and shows an empathetic approach towards the plight of immigrants. The story focuses on the trials and tribulations on their way to live the American Dream. With so much chaos and hatred around at this time, I think this film does a great job of not only bringing people together but also stressing on unity, empathy and humanity,” Renzu told India-West.
The narrative follows the journey of Hassan, an educated, middle-class student from India (Sharma), who comes to America in hopes of a higher education and a dream, but with an unfortunate twist of fate, becomes an illegal blue-collar worker in the city of his dreams.
According to the plotline, he’s forced to work in a restaurant to survive and the struggle of living inside a system set up for his failure challenges him to look within to find inner strength, overcome obstacles, and never give up.
The film, starring Iqbal Theba, Schweta Tripathi, Adil Hussain, Jay Ali, Danny Vasquez, Farshad Farahat, Neelima Azim, William Moses and Hannah Masi, urges the audience to consider the people they barely acknowledge during the course of their busy day.
Sharma told India-West that the film’s subject drew him to the role, noting it is an important story to tell and listen to.
“The script was beautiful and insightful. The story of an immigrant in America trying to chase his dreams and coming face to face with the complications of immigrant life in America touched home,” the “Life of Pi” actor told India-West. “The alienation he feels juxtaposed against the kindness he finds in a few was something I wanted to explore. Renzu spoke about the story with great passion and wanted to shoot it in a very poetic fashion and this made me gravitate towards the project even more.”
Being an immigrant himself, said Renzu, his personal experiences definitely helped shape his script. But what really prompted him to pursue this was the realization that people often analyze the lives of immigrants through rose-tinted glasses but fail to see beneath the shiny façade.
“I realized there is a lot more to an American Dream and it wasn’t just the glitter and success stories of people who have immigrated to this country,” said the Srinagar-born filmmaker. “Yes, the American Dream is real, but it isn’t just how it’s presented. There are also stories of people who couldn’t make it and had to sacrifice a lot to their families. There are individuals who gave up their dreams to be able to provide for their families. I found that very inspiring.”
Renzu said Sharma, who fit the character to the T and has had a similar student life journey like the protagonist, was always the first choice for the role.
Recalling his prep for the film, Sharma said he spent a lot of time chatting with restaurant workers in New York, especially South Asians.
“I heard their stories and had always found it bittersweet and fascinating. I channeled this for the role,” Sharma, a native of Delhi, told India-West. “I mostly prepped by listening to those in a situation like Hassan’s and trying to understand the weight of the decisions they face such as sending money home, wanting to visit family but not being able to, being taken advantage of, struggling to keep their dreams alive, and suffering for the sake of their families’ well-being. It is a great responsibility to be true to these struggles and I hope the small part I played did them justice.”
He added: “Also, being from Delhi and coming to America to study film was something that Hassan also does. This was very useful and, of course, very close to home.”
The coronavirus has upended the plans of many, including the release plans of this film.
“It indeed was very difficult for an indie film like ours. We had to hold on to the release and lost many opportunities delaying the premiere of the film,” said Renzu.
The film has been winning accolades ever since it began streaming Jan. 12 on several online platforms, including Amazon (https://amzn.to/35yJGPc), YouTube (https://bit.ly/39pgFqD), FandangoNow (https://bit.ly/3i5e7BG) and Google Play (http://bit.ly/2Xyls3h). It is also available on multiple cable providers such as Dish, DirecTV, Comcast and Spectrum.
Sharma admitted that being an Indian American actor in Hollywood comes with its own set of trials and tribulations but feels “blessed” that he’s had a richly rewarding journey.
“I have seen growth and change in myself and the country’s culture as a whole and even in the tumult of politics and culture, it has found a way to inspire,” Sharma told India-West. “America is going through what some might see as a rebirth and I see it as a blessing to have been able to engage with it.”
He continued: “In terms of cinema, there has been a significant amount of upward mobility for Indian creatives in recent years through both the diversifying of the screen and the preproduction table. All we need is more writers, directors, actor, producers and creatives of Indian descent to put their ideas out there because space has been created for their voices to be heard and this space is growing quite fast.”
During the pandemic, Sharma shared that he focused on improving his culinary skills, refined his music production abilities, penned songs and short stories, and got a little better at using his camera.
Excited about his upcoming projects, the gifted actor, who’s had starring roles on shows such as “God Friended Me” and “Little America,” said: “I hope 2021 will be a year of rejuvenation and insight!”
After watching the film, Sharma said he hopes people take away a sense of familiarity: “A slight understanding of the lives of immigrants and move away from blanket statements and the demonization of illegal immigrants,” Sharma told India-West. “I hope the audience sees that the thoughts and beliefs that drive us are all usually the same, even if the circumstances and outcomes are different.”
Renzu added that it’s a film about not giving up irrespective of the circumstances one is in.
“Not just success stories should be celebrated. One must also look at the stories of the ones who couldn’t make it and empathize with their struggles and choices they make, and also still find inspiration to pursue their dreams and never give up,” he said.