Film

The Impermanence of Being an H-1B Immigrant

Inspired by the personal experiences of filmmaker Rishi S. Bhilawadikar, For Here or to Go? is a timely film exploring the struggles of H-1B visa holders in the US.

A still from Here or to Go

A still from Here or to Go.

New York: For Here or to Go? explores the struggles of Bay Area Indians who are stuck in limbo owing to the US immigration system. After grinding along with a tech company for seven years, Vivek Pandit (Ali Fazal) is about to land a dream job as a key hire in a promising healthcare start-up in Silicon Valley. Unfortunately, when the start-up discovers that Pandit has less than a year left on his H-1B visa, it pulls back its offer. Pandit’s life is thrown off-kilter, and he is left a “nowhere man” battling circuitous immigration rules and his own conflicting emotions about where he belongs.

Throughout the film, Pandit and his colourful roommates – suave Sam (Samrat Chakrabarti), conflicted gay co-worker Lakshmi (Omi Vaidya), boorish Amit (Amitosh Nagpal) and a weekend visitor who lands them on the FBI’s watch list – try to wrestle with the idea of home and other key questions. Can I fulfill my dreams in the US? Am I better off here? Will I even be allowed to stay here? Or should I – or will I have to – return home?

It’s a series of existential questions that filmmaker Rishi S. Bhilawadikar, a San Francisco-based user experience designer, says he and hundreds of thousands like him who are currently in some stage of the H-1B visa process ask themselves every day. In 2007, Bhilawadikar was nearing the end of his master’s degree in Interactive Media Design from Indiana University, Bloomington, when he secured an internship in Silicon Valley.

“My master’s project, a travel planning app, caught the eye of a top startup incubator,” said Bhilawadikar, 33, who wrote and produced the film.

“They asked me to apply to them for a job after I graduated, but startup incubators don’t sponsor H-1B visas so my hands were tied. I had to forget my app and focus on finding a job that would sponsor my H-1B. That incident was the spark that set this story in motion. When you interview for jobs, the first question is not based on your skills. The first question is always tied to immigration, which is a strange way to fashion your career,” mused Bhilawadikar.

This gem of a film doesn’t miss a beat in capturing the oddities in the lives of Indian engineers living in the Bay Area. These young people lend their computing genius to Apple and Google, drive sports cars, attend Bollywood speed-dating events, rent townhouses, but live surreal lives dominated by the vagaries of the H-1B visa. In the film, Pandit’s lovely townhouse doesn’t have a stick of solid furniture which makes you wonder why that is.

“We purposely didn’t give Vivek any furniture,” laughed Bhilawadikar.

“I lived for five years with no furniture as I didn’t know whether I would stay here or go, or if my H-1B visa would get renewed. I didn’t know whether my employer would file my Green Card application. I lived through all Vivek’s uncertainties. When you don’t have a sense of permanence, why bother with furniture? Simple things like that. Immigrants are pretty much temporary visitors, and we are treated as temporary visitors for a very, very long time, to the tune of 11 or 15 years,” noted Bhilawadikar.

Writer-producer of For Here or to Go Rishi Bhilawadikar with film's lead actress Melanie Chandra.

Writer-producer of For Here or to Go Rishi Bhilawadikar with film’s lead actress Melanie Chandra.

Typically, H-1B visa holders who want to continue to work in the US after six years but haven’t obtained a green card have to leave the US for a year before re-applying for a hard-to-get new H-1B visa. In April 2016, the 85,000 H-1B visa limit set by the US Congress for the entire year was maxed out within the first four days. US immigration services now pick H-1B winners through a computer generated random lottery.

“Nobody tries to tell a story about immigrants trying to make a home away from home when they are in a state of limbo due to their visa status,” said Bhilawadikar, who screened For Here or to Go? this month for the US Congress in an effort to humanise the immigration debate.

The crowd-pleasing film underscores that Indian students who come to study in the US now have options, perhaps even better opportunities in their home country. Pandit’s girlfriend Shweta’s business magnate father Vishwanath Prabhu (Rajit Kapur) exhorts talented Indians like Pandit to return home to make their fortune. Does Pandit get tired of getting knocked around by US’s broken immigration system and come back to India? I’ll let you find out by watching the movie.

The characters in this movie seem to move freely within it, making choices and mistakes and aware, at every turn, that things could be different. Quietly understated but uber-cool, Ali provides the movie’s guts as Pandit, and For Here or to Go? is among the handful of Ali’s finest performances.