April 20, 2017
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New Filmmaker Tackles Tech Immigrant Story
by Doniphan Blair, with Ben Yennie
Ali Fazal, stars as Vivek Pandit, in the new local indie, 'For Here or to Go' about a tech migrant trying to carve out a life in Kali. photo: courtesy R. Humnabadkar
RISHI BHILAWADIKAR, WHOSE FIRST
feature film "For Here or To Go?" opened in theaters across the United States on March 31, calls himself an “accidental filmmaker.”
If that is the case, he has certainly stumbled on something rather timely and well-done. Indeed, the local film—handsomely-shot in San Francisco by Tristan Nyby—has garnered a 90% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was recently screened in Washington DC for Congress.
Set during the 2008 recession, "For Here or To Go?" follows the travails of a young IT gun-for-hire looking for a life as well as a job in Silicon Valley, albeit under the big guns of deportation, see
“[The film] is a combination of my experiences and observations,” Bhilawadikar recently told Ben Yennie, who has known Bhilawadikar for years and has also written for cineSOURCE.
Yennie, who is a producer's rep and author, was impressed by the unorthodox tactics, a combination of Silicon Valley innovation and standard filmmaking, used by his friend, who wrote and produced, and the director, Rucha Humnabadkar. A Carnegie Mellon University graduate who assistant directed the well-known "Hyderabad Blue" (Nagesh Kukonoor, 1998), her only previous film is the comic short “Arranged Marriage”, in 2012.
While “For Here or to Go” is a dramedy, it unveils a Silicon Valley far from HBO's eponymous series, which stars some excellent comedians, including South Asian Kumail Nanjiani, but doesn’t delve into the immigrant experience—not to mention tragedy.
Rishi Bhilawadika, writer/producer of 'For Here or to Go'. photo: courtesy R. Bhilawadika
Bhilawadikar’s protagonist, nicely rendered by Ali Fazal, is rejected by a healthcare startup, right as he’s getting his Silicon Valley sea legs, when they notice his work visa has less than a year!
After resigning himself to returning to India, however, he meets the proverbial girl and decides to fight for her by way of a visa extension, even as a mentor tells him to stop working for the colonialists and return to assist his native country.
“I was writing a blog called ‘Stuff Desis Like’ in 2008,” Bhilawadikar told Bennie ("desi" being “native” in Hindi). “It was talking about the Indian assimilation experience, following the ‘Stuff White People Like’ blog.”
“As an experiment, I started to write,” he told the online mag Quartz. “I didn’t know how to write a screenplay [but] I started tinkering with it, googled it, started to teach myself, took a few classes, and got better.”
Along the way, the character, Vivek Pandit, observes similar struggles among his friends, whose lives are on hold—they lease expensive cars but don’t buy a stick of furniture. It’s the existential dilemma of the hi-tech migrant, a story that has moved front and center with the election of a fanatical anti-immigrant president.
So pointed are these observations, Bhilawadikar met a congressman at his office, during an advocacy event about immigration issues, and convinced him to show “For Here or to Go?”.
“That’s how the screening took place. Essentially, a bill [was] re-introduced in the House that aims to fix the issue,” Bhilawadikar explained.
“Under current law, people get hired based on skill and education but get green cards based on country of birth. So there are long wait times for people from India and China—India especially!—and these wait times can be as long as 70 years! That's according to some of the latest research.”
He meets a girl, naturally, played by Melanie Chandra. photo: courtesy R. Humnabadkar
Bhilawadikar and his advocacy group support HR Bill 392 and “making the system fair and first-come, first-serve, regardless of country of birth.” In other words, moving beyond genetics.
When it comes to filmmaking, Bhilawadikar's core philosophy is to “continually test and learn, to build bit by bit, and to eliminate wasteful activities and resources,” he told Bennie.
“As independents, we have to be scrappy and be sure what we are building will work. The advice really is find your story and learn what they call ‘product-market’ fit.”
When asked about his next film, he said he wouldn't "be so linear. I would find the distribution first! Team, funding and distribution [was the hardest part about making the film]. Like any other entrepreneurial effort.”
“Quality product is table stakes these days, its how you deliver to the final audience that’s become a very big challenge. Now that I’ve been through the entire process of going from idea to production to delivery, the main thing to learn will be to think and plan on these things simultaneously.”
“This film to me is a solution to a problem. The problem is that there is no authentic mass media representation of Indians in America.”
“There’s nothing to influence popular perception and to create empathy and awareness of this very complex legal issue that affects lives. Storytelling in mass media is a required solution. It’s about solving this problem, shifting the narrative. Film is a great medium for it.”
And what advice he would give other immigrants? “Keep the passion and the curiosity. Backgrounds, qualifications and training don’t entirely determine what you can accomplish.”
Ali Fazal with his best friend, also in immigration-hell limbo, played by Rajit Kapur. photo: courtesy R. Humnabadkar
In keeping with his positivism and moving beyond genetics, Bhilawadikar doesn’t paint the immigrant as a victim: “Like with anything there are advantages and disadvantages,” he told Yennie.
“The advantages have been the sheer amount I have learned coming here and the exposure I’ve had with my higher education and work experience. You tend to come in more hungry and eager to learn as an outsider.”
But then the negatives: “Once you learn about the culture, there are some very real assimilation barriers that you encounter—socially and legally—which can make it very challenging,” especially with the current administration's immigration policies.
“[Trump] is clearly fueling a great amount of anti-immigrant sentiment. If you look different, you seem to be in trouble. Three shootings, one fatally targeting Indians. It's all very heartbreaking.”
Fortunately, “For Here or to Go?” is bringing these issues to the fore and will have some effect, given the millions who will view it: not the hard stick of politics but the soft power of art.
You can find out more about For Here or To Go? on their website or Fandango. Get your tickets on Fandango.
Posted on Apr 04, 2017 - 01:24 PM