Director: Rucha Humnabadkar

Cast: Ali Fazal, Omi Vaidya, Melanie Chandra, Rajit Kapoor, Amitosh Nagpal, Samrat Chakrabarti

An effective movie makes you uncomfortable for not knowing its world enough. It makes you want to read up a little more; it makes you want to notice the stories happening around you; it makes you want to put yourself in a position to understand and explore its conflict points better. After all, what is the act of consuming cinema if not an artistic form of speed dating? Rucha Humnabadkar’s For Here Or To Go? is almost that movie. It comes across as an NRI “origin” story, by committing to an unseen dimension of the much-dramatized ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) syndrome.

If the average Indian-American production hinges on the romantic oddities of cultural displacement, this one delves into the pragmatic “paperwork” of dreaming. Recession, visa problems, thankless immigration policies, green card applications, mass layoffs – it examines a younger phase of migration, a time when ambition and survival merge into one desperate emotion. We sense that the system just isn’t allowing its characters, led by aspiring tech entrepreneur but current software slave Vivek (Ali Fazal), to become conventional crossover heroes. They are tied down by frustrating technicalities – the kind that are considered too dry to be dramatized.

So, you see a specific situation magnified through broader stereotypes – Vivek is the stressed but hunky protagonist, his flat mates range from Punjabi to Tamilian, the white people in the film are designed to make the term “temporary alien worker” sound completely normal, his new love interest has her own daddy issues, a successful entrepreneur is experiencing patriotic withdrawals after decades of living as a ‘guest’ in America.

Each of them is a film in its own right; they are only connected to one another to prop up the primary narrative. As a result, this movie is like the perceptive young journalist who insists on over-writing a fascinating report to make it more accessible.

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I say ‘perceptive’ because Vivek’s existence isn’t the product of a scriptwriter’s overactive imagination. He wants to adopt a country that hesitates to adopt him. He wants to belong to America, to San Francisco, to Silicon Valley, but seven years in a cubicle has transformed him from a wide-eyed dreamer to a machine that hopes to be humanized by a green card. But he prefers guarantee over hope. He wants to be a part of the startup boom, but his blood-sucking employers are the only ones who might sponsor his cry for citizenship. Like many others in his world, his house has no furniture – there is a constant fear of deportation – and he resists marriage and other emotional attachments. We know why, after he spends a night with a girl who goes cold once she discovers that his visa is expiring. The scene is a little crude, but it conveys the symptoms of his “disease”.

His only friends are brown. The events he attends are Bollywood-themed. His life feels temporary, borrowed even. The movie incorporates into his flat mates the two other stages of his condition: Laxmi (Omi Vaidya), the shy South Indian on the verge of green card glory, and Amit (Amitosh Nagpal), the brash North Indian at the beginning of this arduous journey. Vivek represents the middle point, the average, of their attitude – part submissive, part excited.

Together, they form the ‘Little India’ bubble in giant metropolitans that so many of us tend to generalize – why don’t they look beyond their community? Why do they colonize entire areas? Why do they live within an invisible wall and draw borders within borders? Why do they huddle together like cornered survivors? Why are they so territorial about their own traditions in a foreign land? A story like Vivek’s, warts and all, manages to shed light on some of these clichés. It tries to give us an all-round view of this culture by planting Vivek’s struggle with different perspectives – a Sikh grocery store owner, a gay engineer, an undocumented student, a veteran millionaire who calls for youngsters to boost their own economy instead.

At times, these personalities might appear like they exist conveniently to construct a ‘plot’ around Vivek’s individuality. For example, in the middle of a “chai” date outdoors, the girl jumps up mid-conversation, magically finds a group of desi dancers and they break into a choreographed ‘falling in love’ celebratory song in a concrete campus – a clear riff on Bollywood’s destination dream sequence. Almost as if to suggest that India is a state of mind, and the heart remains immune to whitewashing. Not all of these faces are necessary, but they are relevant. Their collective double takes can be sensed when a barista typically asks Vivek if his coffee is “For here or to go?”

The reason Ali Fazal fits into Vivek’s shoes, despite those awkward movie-star swishes of expressiveness, is because his acting career vaguely reflects his character’s battle for identity. Playing an outsider comes naturally to him. He seems to be straddling two worlds – his acceptance in one overriding his potential in the other

It’s a nice little metaphor; he reacts for all of them and none of them when he twitches his eyebrow, as if to indicate that this is the moment he realizes that his desire to stay might only be a result of him not wanting to leave. He, too, is in danger of thinking the same way – why have nightmares in rupees when you can compromise on your dreams in dollars?

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Ali Fazal is an interesting phenomenon. Despite starting off modestly in mainstream Hindi cinema, his biggest role till date is a starring one, opposite Judy Dench in last year’s Victoria & Abdul. The reason he fits into Vivek’s shoes, despite those awkward movie-star swishes of expressiveness, is because his acting career vaguely reflects his character’s battle for identity. Playing an outsider comes naturally to him. He seems to be straddling two worlds – his acceptance in one overriding his potential in the other. Hence, there is a strange truth in his performance, and in Vivek’s hunger, his stubbornness, to make it big on foreign soil.

It’s effective, and it makes me want to learn a little more about an old friend who, earlier this year, was indefinitely stranded in India after the renewal of her H1-B visa took longer than anticipated. Her situation made me uncomfortable; this movie goes some way in helping me understand why. I cannot imagine the feeling of being stuck in a vacuum between two homes without belonging to either. And I cannot imagine a title more timely than “For Here Or To Go?” in context of the America it symbolizes.

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