Overview: Faced with the realization that his visa to work in the US will soon expire, an Indian-born tech entrepreneur struggles to re-align his life in America. Many Cups of Chai Films; 2015; Not Rated; 105 minutes.
Wish in One Hand…: “Life doesn’t run on guarantees, it runs on hope.” So goes the opening line of narration in Rucha Humnabadkar’s debut feature film For Here or to Go? But hope does little to pay the bills, and even less to assuage America’s immigration department. Vivek Pandit (Ali Fazal) learned this the hard way. After living and working in Silicon Valley for 5 years after immigrating to the States, he discovers that his H1-B work visa is set to expire. His only option to stay in the States is to get a green card, a process which can take years and years for immigrants unfortunate enough to not be from the wealthier (and whiter) parts of Europe. Take his friend Lakshmi (Omi Vaidya): he’s been trying for his green card for five years with no luck. What’s worse, Lakshmi can’t abandon his suffocating job for a new one since green card applicants can’t switch employment during the registration process. So Vivek whittles away his days, struggling to find employers who will hire immigrants with dubious residency status. And all the while he wonders if maybe coming to America was a mistake in the first place. Maybe he should return to India…
Though originally released in 2015, there couldn’t be a better time for For Here or to Go? to be released here in America. As Trump and his cronies attempt to push the country further and further into the arms of anti-immigration hysteria, films like this one are imperative tools for setting the record straight. It’s a difficult, painful, and incredibly earnest examination of one of America’s fastest growing immigrant communities: Indians. Lured by the promises of careers in cutting-edge companies, wealth, success, and—in one of the film’s most heart-felt subplots—the freedom to express sexual orientations considered taboo in India. But many find themselves trapped in the ouroboros of America’s immigration bureaucracy. Combined with radical culture shock, homesickness, and periodic outbursts of anti-immigrant violence, it’s small wonder that many dream of returning to their motherland. But not all want to return. One of the film’s virtues is that it populates itself with characters on both sides of the spectrum and views their personal decisions to stay or return as equally valid. Its conclusions are deliberately ambivalent, suggesting that each individual immigrant must decide what is best for themselves. It is society’s duty not to force their hand, but to support whatever they choose.
…Crap in the Other: Unfortunately For Here or to Go? suffers from many of the shortcomings common to first-time directors. The film seems either incapable of or unwilling to maintain focus for lengthy periods of time. Consider an odd scene where Vivek goes on a date with an American-born Indian woman. While seated at an outdoor table, they pause mid-conversation to jump into an impromptu Bollywood music video. Dancers spring out from nowhere, music blasts, and the camera flies about to capture all the apparently unrehearsed, spontaneous choreography. When it’s over, the characters never speak of the scene again. Most of the scenes concerning Vivek’s love life are like this—they seem oddly detached from the film’s sense of dread and urgency. The film explains that marrying a native-born American will earn him citizenship, so we can understand why these scenes exist. But with the exception of two admittedly excellent sequences where Vivek tries a Desi speed dating service and later goes on a catastrophic blind date with a friend of the family, they add little to the film. One would imagine that they could be a metaphor—they represent Vivek’s willingness to adopt his new country, but the film does too little with it to be anything more than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it metaphor.
Overall: The best parts of For Here or to Go? have the least to do with the actual plot, instead exploring the unique culture of Indian immigrants in America. It’s the little details like how immigrants will spend their earnings on lavish cars but not buy basic furniture because they’re afraid they might have to relocate at a moment’s notice. Details like their difficulty in navigating American supermarkets (“Where’s the vegetarian food?!”). Details like the cultural differences and prejudices between native-born ABCD’s (American Born Confused Desi) and immigrant DCBA’s (Desis Confused By America). But unfortunately the film labors under underdeveloped storytelling. As is the case in so many first-time feature films that don’t make the cut, For Here or to Go? may have worked better as a short film that chopped out all the narrative chaff. I would have preferred a more intimate portrait of the immigrant community itself than just the struggles of one of their number.
Featured Image: Many Cups of Chai Films