Indie film talks about immigrant entrepreneurs in the US on the eve of H1B lottery

Shrabonti Bagchi March 17, 2017 4 min

“For here or to go” is a common question asked by servers in American quick-service restaurants, for customers to indicate their preference of where they want to consume their meal: at the restaurant or as takeaway.

To writer Rishi Bhilawadikar, the question, which stumps many immigrants and first-time visitors to the US not familiar with Americanisms, seems also to sum up the dilemma often faced by software professionals who set up base in the US for an indefinite period. Are they for here, or to go? The phrase acts as the title of an independent, partially crowd-funded film about Indian white-collar workers in the US, based on Bhilawadikar’s story and screenplay and directed by Rucha Humnabadkar, which is set to release in US theatres on March 31 after having done the global festival circuit.

To writer Rishi Bhilawadikar, the question, which stumps many immigrants and first-time visitors to the US not familiar with Americanisms, seems also to sum up the dilemma often faced by software professionals who set up base in the US for an indefinite period. Are they for here, or to go?  

The release date is significant, because the annual ‘H1B lottery’, the informal name for the US government’s process of giving out H1B visas based on computer-generated random selection, will take place on April 3 this year. Given the new, stricter immigration norms applied by the Trump administration and US lawmakers’ attempts to restrict the number of H1B visas given to Indians, the film’s release couldn’t have been timed better.

Bhilawadikar, who works as a user experience and interaction designer with Gap Inc in the Bay Area, wrote the story based on his personal experience as an H1B visa holder in the US and that of others, whose stories he saw unfold in real life. “I couldn’t pursue entrepreneurship as it was impossible to find a visa sponsor for being self-employed after graduating as a student back in 2007. I’m on an H1B visa and in the Green Card queue, which can take anywhere between 10-70 years,” says Bhilawadikar.

“Around 16% of startups in the Valley with immigrant founders have an Indian founder, which is incredible considering Indians form around 1.25% of the entire American population. I thought of capturing and celebrating this accomplishment” — Bhilawadikar

The dilemmas faced by young Indian software professionals who are ambitious about wanting to start their own companies form an integral part of the story. “Around 16% of startups in the Valley with immigrant founders have an Indian founder, which is incredible considering Indians form around 1.25% of the entire American population. I thought of capturing and celebrating this accomplishment,” says Bhilawadikar, who feels that though there are a variety of literary and historical works exploring the struggles and contributions of Indians in the US, there is no single contemporary representation highlighting their contribution and significance.

“There are many misunderstandings in America about the H1B worker. It’s not about the visa, it’s about people,” says Bhilawadikar. “The film humanises the lives of these people and their hopes to dispel misconceptions.”

Veteran Indian actor Rajit Kapur plays a senior Indian-American entrepreneur in the film

“A lot of immigrant entrepreneurs who take the US as a market for establishing their business face the same question from investors in the US — what is your visa situation?” says Deepak Ravindran, executive producer of the film and a serial entrepreneur, who has helped the team with fundraising, growth and distribution for the Indian market. Ravindran says there are ongoing discussions in the US for the need to legislate a Startup Visa / Entrepreneur Visa, but nothing that has got the final nod. “The O1 Visa, which I currently hold, is extremely tough to get — only 500-1000 people across movies, music, arts and technology will finally get it every year,” says Ravindran.

The release date (March 31) is significant, because the annual ‘H1B lottery’, the informal name for the US government’s process of giving out H1B visas based on computer-generated random selection, will take place on April 3 this year  

Bhilawadikar and the film’s director, Rucha Humnabadkar, plan to release the movie in India soon, as well as get it on to streaming services like Netflix or Amazon.

“This movie is (intended to be) an eye-opener for immigrant founders. The US is not the only place to start up and be successful,” says Ravindran. “There are great examples of US-born entrepreneurs like Sean Blagsvedt from Babajobs or Greg Moran from Zoomcar, who are building great companies in India, skipping this Silicon Valley bubble. You can build your dream wherever you want. The location is not important.”