Rishi S. Bhilawadikar calls himself “a completely accidental screenplay writer.”
After coming to the United States to do his master's degree in 2007, Bhilawadikar landed a job in Silicon Valley after graduation.
But he found that many companies that liked his resume quickly lost interest when they found out that he was not a citizen and would need a company to sponsor him for a visa.
“I was asked to apply to a few tech incubators,” Bhilawadikar told NBC News. “But I couldn’t because they don’t sponsor visas.”
After Bhilawadikar and his friends, who were also H-1B holders, began navigating their lives and careers in an often limbo-like state of waiting for an American green card, he discovered that many American citizens didn’t seem to understand the immigration process or the fact that many of their neighbors and co-workers have been waiting in the green card line for years. It was then that he began thinking of ways he could tell his immigration story to a more mainstream audience.
“It really started off as a blog post,” Bhilawadikar said, referring to his blog Stuff Desis Like. “The contributions of Indian immigrants from 1965 to present has been tremendous, but there’s been no mainstream media portrayal of it.”
But while Bhilawadikar knew this story would make an interesting film, he quickly realized he had a problem: He had no idea how to write a screenplay.
“I had all of these thoughts and plans, but I didn’t know how to actually do it, I had to Google it,” he said. The result of his internet searching and his script revisions is the new film "For Here Or To Go," which opens on March 31. The movie, which is in both Hindi and English, follows the supremely talented tech engineer Vivek Pandit (played by Ali Fazal) and his friends as they embark on their careers while navigating the often complex and frustrating immigration system.
“I have been in this line [for a green card] for 12 years. It is not just that the process is expensive and long, it’s that you are completely beholden to your employer,” Bhilawadikar said. “You cannot get promoted, you cannot start your own company, and if you lose your job or the company shuts down, you basically have to pack up and leave the country in two days.”
The screenwriter said that has he watched many friends and colleagues abruptly leave the country or linger in positions below their skill levels, he began to see the psychological impact the uncertainty of the process had on visa holders.
“You really cannot grow, in terms of both career growth and personal growth. It just limits how you lead your life,” he said.
“Even travelling back and forth [to India for visits] can be a scary proposition,” he added.
But despite the obstacles they face because of the process, Bhilawadikar’s characters stress throughout the film how much they want the chance to stay in the United States as permanent residents.
One of the most touching scenes in the film comes when Vivek has a conversation with a Sikh small business owner in his 50s, who reveals that an old friend of his was just killed in a hate crime. When Vivek asks the man why he chooses to stay in the United States even while facing prejudice, the man simply says that he has lived his entire adult life in the United States and that it is his country too.
“It’s interesting people are calling that scene ‘timely’ now. For me, it is very heartbreaking,” Bhilawadikar said, referring to the recent shooting of Srinivas Kuchibotla, an Indian man who lived in Kansas. “I wrote it based on two shootings, one was near here in Elk Grove, California and the other was in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. These things had happened before and there are these ignorances, but I was hoping we would move on. It is so sad to see it happening again.”
In the end, Bhilawadikar says he hopes his film and stories like it will help usher a more nuanced conversation about immigration and tech in the United States.
“The film is done in a very lighthearted way, but I hope the friends and co-workers [of H-1B visa holders] learn about the situation,” he said. “These are your most productive years, most people are between 25 and 40, and you should be allowed to actually bloom and live up to your full potential.”