At a time when the fate of H1-B visas, building border walls, and hate crime occupy the minds of many Indian-Americans and most Indians aspiring to live in America, there’s a movie for that – one that humanizes with spoonfuls of humor, the complex connections between the personal and the political.
“For Here Or To Go?” which comes to theaters March 31, is a penetrating look at the multitude of issues most immigrants face as they adapt to the new country – how important life decisions of love, marriage, and which continent to call home, hang in limbo; of loving parents with high expectations; different generational experiences; even one’s sexuality. Those who made the movie told Desi Talk they hope it leads to a national conversation and hopefully, a more sympathetic understanding of the situation of high-skilled immigrants coming to America.
American in mind and Indian at heart, a young and ambitious Silicon Valley software engineer Vivek Pandit, loses an opportunity at a promising job in a healthcare start-up when they realize his work visa has less than a year remaining. The story moves with Pandit as he battles forces beyond his control to get his visa extended and learns of the varied struggles of his own roommates and those around him. Pandit is played by Ali Fazal (Furious 7, 3 Idiots, Bang Baaja Baaraat, Always Kabhi Kabhi, Fukrey, Sonali Cable, and upcoming films Khamoshiyan, and a U.K. production with Judi Dench, Victoria and Abdul).
Addressing micro and macro issues from being first generation American or gay, to cultural displacement, globalization, and American competitiveness, this 105-minute movie is also as ambitious as its protagonist.
The film mirrors the experiences of first-time filmmakers – Director Rucha Humnabadkar (Hyderabad Blues, Rockford, Bollywood Calling), and Rishi Bhilawadikar, screenwriter and producer.
“For me it is a personal journey reflected on screen,” said Hyderabad-born Humnabadkar, who earned her Master’s degree in Communication Planning and Information Design from Carnegie Mellon. She could as easily have been Pandit. Meanwhile, in India the landscape has changed over the last few decades with many more opportunities opening up for women and youth. “I wonder if I would leave (India) now,” Humnabadkar contemplated.
Ultimately, the film is about being able to realize your dreams anywhere in the world, but it is the promise that America in particular holds, she said. For instance, in a place like Silicon Valley where 25 percent of the start-ups are created by Indians, and nationwide 16 percent according to business and technology analyst Vivek Wadhwa.
Imagination Meets Democracy
“This is where the drive and imagination (of immigrants) meets the democracy of ideas,” Humnabadkar said.
Mumbai-born “army kid” Bhilawadikar learnt scriptwriting because he had so many stories to tell. He came as a student and has been on a work visa since 2008 awaiting the elusive Green Card. His Masters in Interactive Media Design from Indiana University in Bloomington, combined with his entrepreneurial experiences, and his ongoing blog “Stuff Desis Like”, drove his decision to scale up his work to the cinematic level.
“I felt somebody should make a film about the contributions Indians have made, going into various societal avenues – from leading Google to small pop-and-mom stores, creating more jobs etc.,” he told Desi Talk.
He wanted to show “How your immigration status affects your relationship to this country,” spanning the period since 1965 when immigration rules were relaxed allowing thousands from India to come in what was then characterized as the “brain drain.”
Melanie Chandra (Code Black, Brown Nation, The Brink) who plays Melanie Kannokada (which is also her maiden name) was born and brought up in the Chicago area and did her Masters in Engineering from Stanford University. Her role is tailored to fit a first-generation American who begins to understand not only what her immigrant boyfriend (Vivek) is going through, but also her father’s experience as a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur wanting to give back to India. Rajit Kapur (Making of the Mahatma) as the father, Vishwanath Prabhu sensitively portrays the strong, restrained, emotional and fully formed personality.
That is the strong point of the movie. Every character is complex and developed, with a back-story that is quickly revealed without fanfare in an economical and effective way, including the stories of the serious and playful roommates played respectively by California-born actor/director Omi Vaidya (3 Idiots, Arrested Development, The Office) and, also multi-talented, lyricist, playwright and actor Amitosh Nagpal (Besharam, Piya Behrupia, Dabangg, Phillum City).
The film has been well received at numerous film festivals and private showings.
Professor Neil Ruiz, an expert on high-skilled workers and foreign graduates at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., told Desi Talk he had a special showing of the film for his students. “It was very good and it brings out a lot about the complications around H1-B,” Ruiz said.
“Stories have the power to transform people,” Humnabadkar told Desi Talk. And ultimately, “This film is for people other than the Indian community to see the challenges” some immigrants face – immigrants on temporary visas who like millions of others, power the American technology industry but lack any proper political or media representation, the movie-makers say. Now they have it on film.