An Indian tech worker’s movie shows the anxiety of being an H-1B immigrant in Silicon Valley

For Here or To Go?
For Here or To Go?
Image: YouTube/For Here or To Go
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Rishi S. Bhilawadikar, an Indian techie now working in San Francisco, first came to the US to attend Indiana University. After getting a master’s degree in interactive media design, Bhilawadikar was encouraged to apply to startup incubators. Although his talent planning app idea drew interest, no incubator would sponsor his visa. Since graduating in 2007, he’s worked as a user experience designer at software firm SAP Labs and retail giant Walmart and, lately, with the clothing company Gap—all while on the temporary H-1B visa, which allows people to work in the US for up to six years.

To help others understand the frustrations of the experience—what he calls “that in-between state of what it takes to adopt a foreign country as your own”—Bhilawadikar decided to make a movie about it. On March 31, his film For Here or To Go will be released in theatres.

Bhilawadikar refers to himself as an “accidental filmmaker.” His desire to communicate his immigrant experience to a mainstream audience first manifested as a blog titled “Stuff Desis Like,” started in 2008. He was yearning to “tell a story that creates awareness and empathy,” he says. In 2010, he was struck with the idea of writing a movie about the lives of H-1B immigrants. “As an experiment, I started to write. I had a story and I had some characters in mind, [but] I didn’t know how to write a screenplay,” Bhilawadikar says. “I started tinkering with it, googled it, started to teach myself, took a few classes, and got better.”

The next challenge was finding someone willing to take the script to the screen. With no connections in the filmmaking world, Bhilawadikar struggled to find takers. While working at Walmart between 2010 and 2012, one of his co-workers introduced him to Rucha Humnabadkar, who had served as an assistant director and art director to Nagesh Kukonoor of Hyderabad Blue fame and had just directed her own short film, Arranged Marriage.

A Silicon Valley-based design professional by day, Humnabadkar was all too familiar with the story Bhilawadikar wanted to tell. Humnabadkar has been in the US since 2003, but only got her green card nearly a decade later. Until she did, she also had to grapple with all the uncertainties of being an H-1B worker in the US. It’s a story that I have lived,” Humnabadkar told Quartz. “Same dilemma, same conflicts, same struggles.”

Finding an employer to pay upwards of $1,000 to sponsor the visa is only the first battle. There’s little security in an H-1B; quitting the company that sponsored you or getting fired can get you ousted from the States.

By a wide margin, people born in India are more likely to work under an H-1B (pdf) than US immigrants born anywhere else. The population is often accused of providing cheap labor and driving down industry wages. However, Indian immigrants rank among the most entrepreneurial leaders and job creators in the country. In March 2016, a National Foundation for American Policy study found that among immigrants, Indians founded the most unicorns—private companies valued at over $1 billion—listed in Wall Street Journal’s Billion Dollar Startup Club, creating 14 out of the total 87 listed. The group is also more than twice as likely than overall foreign-born and native-born populations to be employed in management, business, and science and arts, according to the think tank Migration Policy Institute.

Humnabadkar says she wants the film to “humanize the immigration debate”—in part, that’s about shining a light on the invaluable contributions immigrants make to the US. “I think we really need to start telling the truth about what the relationship is between India and the US,” San Jose city council member Ash Kalra said in praise of the movie. “That this is really where the best and brightest of the Indian community have come to contribute to some of the most cutting edge companies on the planet.”

Many Americans are likely unaware of the struggles portrayed in For Here or To Go. Actor Omi Vaidya, who was born and raised in Yucca Valley, California, had no idea until he read the script. “Maybe people think [immigrants] don’t belong here or that they’re lucky, but they work very very hard and then the payoff is a sort of nice life,” Vaidya says. “But that life is not guaranteed. You get to taste it and then ultimately you may have to get sent back.” Vaidya ended up playing a Telugu-speaking Indian immigrant waiting in line for the green card.

Even though the film is a work of fiction, Bhilawadikar’s narrative draws from real life events. It’s set during the 2008 recession and discusses poignant issues like visa discrimination against Muslims and racist violence. One scene in particular will likely rattle Indians in the US today: a Sikh small business owner tells Vivek, the protagonist played by Ali Fazal, that an old friend of his was just killed in a hate crime. For Here or To Go wrapped in 2013 (it’s been making the festival rounds since), and it’s eerie how accurately it portends the February 2017 murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla and the recent deadly shooting of a Sikh man in Kent, Washington.

Racism towards Indian immigrants has always been here in the US, though, says Bhilawadikar. He drew inspiration for his script from two real-life shootings targeting Sikh men—one in Elk Grove, California, in 2011 and the other in Oak Creek, Wisconsin the next year. The recent tense political climate around immigration has been eye-opening for the general public, the writer adds, but policy think tanks, economists, the tech community, venture capitalists, and immigrant entrepreneurs have been talking about it for years.

“I was hoping we will progress as a society and things will get better,” Bhilawadikar lamented while discussing how these relevant scenes in the movie will resonate today. “The uncertainty and fear is definitely palpable.”