FOR HERE OR TO GO has a limited release beginning this week. Tech worker protagonist Vivek Pandit (Ali Fazal of Fast and Furious 7) struggles with immigration difficulties, and tries to decide whether to stay in America or return to India. The film raises issues of “immigration limbo”, discrimination, becoming undocumented by accident, and other issues facing legal immigrants. I interviewed first-time director Rucha Humnabadkar and writer Rishi Bhilawadikar. Though their film didn’t play at CAAMFest, it’s worth a viewing! The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Your film is being called timely in this era of increased immigration tensions. But clearly many of these tensions have been around for a while. How did you develop your script?
Rishi: It started with my own personal history. So, I have no background in film, I’m all writing. I am completely an accidental filmmaker, and I’m living the life that has been shown, although it’s not really my own story. But it’s fictional but a lot of it is from real life events. I mean, a lot of signals came together before I thought that there needs to be a screen play, or a film about this issue. First was my own entrepreneurial experience, you know. I tried to apply as a, to a startup incubator. You need an employer, as an immigrant. You can’t really do that (on your own). So, that was my first taste of it. But then there was a lot of research talking about the green card backlogs. The reverse brain drain (RC – people going back to India), about people being in limbo and not being welcome, having real restrictions with their careers and what they could be working on or trying to find in businesses. So, there’s a lot of research about that, and I was writing a blog simultaneously called “Stuff Desis Like”, which was about celebrating the assimilation of Indians in the valley.
So, it started off as a blog post that was, and I didn’t really feel like I was doing justice to the scale of the issue and the topic. There was a problem that people didn’t really understand, my bosses didn’t understand, my co-workers didn’t understand, my mom didn’t understand, what the issue was. So, I thought somebody should solve this problem by making something that is emotional, empathetic and persuasive, and somebody should make a film on it. And then I discovered that no one was doing it, so I started to write the story, I Googled “how to write a screenplay”. I actually did that in 2010.
Shoutout to Google! (laughs)
Rishi: We did that, got some links, got a studio together, and two years later I was ready to share it with the world, which is when I met Rucha and that’s kind of how it started. It’s always been timely, like you’ve said. It’s more critical now. That’s sort of, it’s trying to solve that problem of empathy, and there is already a lot of data and research about it. We know about these things, but this aspect, we were calling the film, “the untold story of legal immigrants in America”. This aspect never gets authentically represented, in the media. Or there is no authentic political representation for this set of immigrants that are highly productive, are willing to work, and create a lot of prosperity but are stuck in this limbo for years, so I thought this problem needs to be surfaced, on a more grand scale that creates awareness and empathy, and that’s why the film exists.
How did you get involved, Rucha?
Rucha: So, very Silicon Valley style, I met someone who he knew, and we worked together at the same company and they introduced us. And they said, you’re both brown and you like making films, you should talk to each other.
So, you were both working in tech?
Rucha: Yeah, we still work in tech.
Oh, you do? Okay, but you’ve gotten a number of directorial credits to your name. I mean this is your first feature, but…
Rucha: This is my first feature film, but when I lived in India I worked with Nagesh Kukunoor as an assistant director. I did that before, and then for a while I wasn’t in film making, and I’m still working at e-Bay, I still work in tech. So, to me, and to Rishi I think for both of us, this story is really from the heart, we have lived this life. We have emotionally and intellectually experienced every struggle the character goes through. And, I really believe that this story needs to be told. We need to share it with the world, we need to share it with people, and that’s what really brought it home for me and I came on board because I could relate to it and I wanted to tell the story.
The essential questions in your film are of aspiration but also ambivalence about country and place. Vivek, your main character is a DCBA – Desi Confused By America. That’s the first time I’ve heard that. Do you have personal experience with that confusion of identity and place?
Rishi: Yeah, doesn’t everybody who leaves home? Where is home? Where do I belong? I think it’s a very universal question. You aspire to find a better life, any time you leave home. It could be anywhere in the world. You do go to a bigger place because you think the ideas are better, you’ll meet more like-minded people, or whatever the reason is, you get to pursue. Yeah, I mean I certainly had the existential crisis, and this identity of, “Where do I belong?” And especially with the barriers to acceptance and with the barriers to assimilation. It’s really hard. Entire generations go by before the second generation starts to appear, like with Indians. Now they are starting to appear in the media, and in the arts, you know, the legal fields, other than the science and the technology fields. So, it takes a while to assimilate, and you do have that question, and you kind of have to, you know. Everybody has their own coping mechanism.
Rucha: I think it’s a lot to do with, also, it’s not just distance of, “Did I leave India to come to the U.S.?” It’s even, “I left New York to come to San Francisco.” So, the story is really about, you leave home, you aspire, you have dreams. And sometimes, different things get in the way, and the story focuses on the fact that a broken immigration system gets in the way of achieving human potential, and that should never be the case. We should have free flow of access of ideas and opportunities for people to achieve what they want, wherever they want. And I, myself, did go through that crisis, and I think it was mostly because of the immigration system. I was like, “I don’t need to be trapped in a particular way of life.” We don’t escape from aggressive regimes, some of us who come to the U.S. and we have the option of going back. So, I think it really depends on where you draw that balance of, “Am I still going to find the opportunities that I want, in terms of work, and everything, to go back or not?” For me it worked out, so I am here, but there was definitely a point when I was considering going back.
This film is mostly about Indian men, because you’re the writer, Rishi, but so how did you approach that as a female filmmaker, Rucha?
Rucha: Yeah, I think it’s a great question, because when I first read the script I was like, “Wow, there’s a lot of dudes in this movie.” But then I also realized that it could have also been a bunch of women, and it would still be the same story. So, as a female filmmaker, would it have been great to have a protagonist who was female, and an all-female cast? Probably, but at the end of the day I’m a filmmaker who wants to tell a great story. And that’s what I found in Rishi’s script. I found a great story, that resonated with me, that I know it would resonate with a lot of people, and friends and family, and it’s very relevant, very timely, needs to be told.
Rishi: Let me just say, it’s also representative of Silicon Valley, so if you’re telling an authentic story you can’t really have an all-female cast. Because in Silicon Valley, that doesn’t really happen. So, yeah, I mean that’s just the reality.
You do portray violence against South Asians in your film, but this issue has obviously become more pointed in recent weeks. What is your sense of how recent violence has affected the conversation about immigration both in India, and amongst immigrants here?
Rucha: I think the most I have heard is about, did it just affect H1B versus does this affect people traveling to the U.S., right? We still haven’t, from what I know, there still hasn’t been a drop in the number of applicants to the H1B. It’s mostly people cancelling their trips to come visit, from a tourism perspective, or maybe even business visits, which to me is very interesting because I think that just shows people at different stages of life, how they approach coming to the U.S. People who still want those opportunities and are ready to take the risk, to have that adventure, are saying, “Yes, these issues are happening but that’s not going to deter me.” And I think that’s the right attitude. We cannot let these circumstances and situations…we can’t cow down to it. We gotta stand up and fight it.
So, you do end up having I think, kind of an editorial message in your film. Without revealing too much about the ending, can you tell me about the process of crafting that decision?
Rishi: I am here but I am very much in the back log, and I’m living that life of uncertainty, you know, and certainly completely beholden to my employment. My existence here depends on that, as does other millions of people. We had a recent screening at George Washington University School of Law, and it was a great convergence of lawyers, policy makers, people from Microsoft, and the film. That’s what that sort of ending is talking about. The core issue is of certainty, and that limbo that people have to live in, decades of being over here. And the effect of it which the policy makers…you know, this is, the policy makers have talked about that reverse brain drain, and people wanting to be free to pursue their ideas wherever they want to. That’s what inspired me and I wanted to enhance that commentary, and this is really storytelling meets data.
And why should policy makers care about this ambivalence, or the limbo that goes on in peoples’ lives for such a long time?
Rishi: It affects America’s global competitiveness, it affects human potential. If you put people in limbo, they’re not going to be able to expand, and say, “We have a lot of experience and we want to start our own businesses or coach the next generation of people into our fields, or our businesses or help out in other ways. But we are not able to do that because we are completely profiled and shackled into this one particular role and way of existence.” So, I think that if you have people who are experienced and who are willing contributors, who are going to bring in a lot of prosperity, you should let them do that and not put a barrier to that. So, that’s why I think that policy-makers should care about it, because it affects America’s overall competitiveness. Nobody would want to live in a shackled life of limbo for 10, 20, 30 years.
So, I guess you’re pulling for both empathy and enlightened self-interest.
Rucha: Yeah, and I think at the end of the day it’s really about human potential, right? Like, if you want to achieve the best of what you can, you have to empower people to do that, and the only way you empower is by freeing up their mechanisms to achieve that potential. There is this whole flavor right now of protectionism that’s happening across the globe, with borders, and different political views in Europe, and even in India maybe, to some degree. But it’s not going to be productive if people close their borders, and people put policies in place that close trade, because that’s not the world we live in any more. It just is not going to work, and it is very important that we embrace that diversity of thought and action in people so that we can achieve the best we are here for.
Rishi: Yeah, I mean it’s a sensitive issue, we get it, but America’s innovation and competitiveness comes from a lot of immigrants, immigrant founders have a very large impact. Google – immigrant founded. eBay, Yahoo – all immigrant founders. And immigrant workers now, Google, Microsoft, MasterCard has Indian CEOs, so the potential is there, it just needs to be unlocked.
Ravi: Thank you for making such a megaphone, about these issues, to hopefully speak to a lot of people. So, thank you.
Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter at www.RaviChandraMD.com. When you sign up, you can get his free e-book on Asian American Anger. More CAAMFest MOSF blog posts can be found here and here.