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Engineer-filmmaker Rishi Bhilawadikar on riding the H-1B rollercoaster

The Indian techie who studied at Indiana University has made a movie exploring America's byzantine immigration rules.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   19-05-2017
"For Here or to Go?" writer-producer Rishi Bhilawadikar with the film's lead actress Melanie Chandra.

In 2007, Rishi S. Bhilawadikar, was finishing up his Master's degree in Interactive Media Design from Indiana University, in Bloomington when he scored an internship in Silicon Valley.

"My Master's project, a travel planning app, caught the eye of a top startup incubator," said Bhilawadikar, 33.

"They asked me to apply to them for a job after I graduated, but startup incubators don't sponsor H-1B visas so my hands were tied. I had to forget my app and focus on finding a job which would sponsor my H-1B. That incident was the spark that inspired me to tell the story of skilled immigrants,” said Bhilawadikar.  

Bhilawadikar’s new film, “For Here or to Go?" explores the struggles of Bay Area Indians stuck in the limbo of the US immigration system. The movie follows talented techie Vivek Pandit (played by Ali Fazal) and his friends as they navigate the US immigration system. After grinding along with a tech firm for seven years, Vivek is about to land a dream job in a healthcare startup, but when the startup discovers Vivek has a year left on his H-1B visa, it pulls back from hiring him. Vivek's life is thrown off-kilter, and he is left a "nowhere man" battling circuitous immigration rules and his own conflicting emotions about where he belongs.

Throughout the movie, Pandit and his colourful roommates  try to wrestle with the idea of home and other key questions for themselves. Can I fulfill my dreams in the US? Am I better off here? Will I even be allowed to stay here? Or should I — or will I have to —return home?

It's a series of existential questions that Bhilawadikar, a San Francisco-based user experience designer, says he and hundreds of thousands like him who are currently in some stage of the H-1B visa process ask themselves every day. Bhilawadikar has worked as a user experience designer for software firm SAP Labs, retail giant Walmart and Gap — all while on the H-1B visa.

The US uses a lottery to award 65,000 H-1B visas yearly and distributes another 20,000 to graduate student workers. Finding an employer to pay over $1,000 to sponsor the H-1B 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.

In keeping with stringent country caps, Indian and Chinese H-1B visa holders normally have to wait for five or 10 years, for a green card and the freedom to change employers easily, and later become US citizens. Immigration Voice estimates there are some 1.5 million H1-B visa holders in the country waiting for green cards, many of whom are from India and have been waiting for more than a decade.

Bhilawadikar has a Master's degree in Interactive Media Design from Indiana University, in Bloomington and a bachelor's degree in Computer Engineering from Mumbai University.

Bhilawadikar, talked to Braingainmag.com about being an “accidental filmmaker" and his H-1B experience.

 

  1. You are an engineer, who has written and produced this film that takes a look at what some call America's 'dehumanized' immigration system. Tell me about your own move to the US which inspired this moving story.

    In 2005, I am came from Mumbai as a student to do a Master's degree in Interactive Media Design at Indiana University, in Bloomington. I got an internship in Silicon Valley, and my Master's project, a travel planning app, caught the eye of a top startup incubator. They asked me to apply to them for a job after graduation. Startup incubators don't sponsor H-1B visas so my hands were tied and I couldn't apply to them. Instead, I had to focus on a job and an employer that would sponsor my H-1B visa. When I look back, this incident was the spark that set this story in motion.

    As a freshly-minted grad, you feel like you can conquer the world and change things. I had studied video game design and done some pretty cool stuff in my Master's, but reality sunk in after graduation. In 2007, I took a job in Palo Alto that would sponsor my H-1B visa. When you interview for jobs, the first question is not based on your skills. The first question is always tied to immigration, which is a strange way to fashion your career.
     
  2. There are three different pieces of legislation that have been introduced in Congress — all with the goal of curtailing the H-1B program. Do you think it was important to wrestle with the theme of immigration and bring the plight of the Indian American immigrant to the big screen against this backdrop?

    This issue has always been very important, but there's greater urgency right now for us to tell this story from a humanistic angle. It's not so much about H-1B visas as it is about backlogs and wait times. You get hired on a H-1B visa based on your skill, but you get accepted on a green card based on your country of birth. That is the unfairness of it.

    The number of green cards that can go to people born in each country is capped at a few percent of the total, without regard to how large or small the country's population is. People from India and China have it especially rough because of the country caps. There is a massive backlog of Indian-born people in the green card line, given the size of India's 1.3 billion population and the number of Indians in the US waiting for green cards.

    The other problem stems from the fact that while IT companies are aggressive in using the H-1B visa program, companies in other sectors are usually lukewarm to the program.

     
  3. Does your film underscore that immigration is vital to the American canon? The film's protagonist Vivek gets knocked around by the immigration system until he just goes back to India to start his successful tech company.


     
    There's a lot of data around how much immigrants contribute to American innovation and global competitiveness. Half the startups in Silicon Valley have an immigrant founder so the film is a commentary on what keeps America competitive. Waves of immigrants have come to America and built great companies with their hunger, grit and brilliance.

    Professor Vivek Wadhwa, a tech entrepreneur and academic, has done a lot of research around this phenomenon called "reverse brain drain." People who have studied in US universities with great qualifications go back to their home countries to start their own ventures for whatever reason family reasons, immigration restrictions. A lot of entrepreneurs and students that are unable to get their visas sponsored are returning to India. This thought played out in my head, too: "Maybe I should go back to India to pursue some of my ideas." 

    America should be making immigration easy for people who are willing contributors to the economy and have a proven track record of adding to the prosperity of the country.

     
  4. As immigrants we all wrestle with the idea of home and your film tackles the subject head-on. One gets the distinct impression that you are saying that Indians who come to study in the US now have options, perhaps better opportunities in their home country.

    Well, no one should be knocked around and allow the immigration system to dictate their life. Rajat Kapoor's character talks about "reverse brain drain" based on research conducted by Professor Vivek Wadhwa.

    When anybody moves from one place or another, they move for a better life, to fulfill their potential. But immigration can also be very restrictive, and it can limit that potential. So the film asks, "Is this really the best place for you to fulfill your potential?" And it really depends on how you look at it.

    For my generation, when you set foot in the US for the first time, there's always some part of you that thinks, "This is temporary. I will come back home at some point." But as life moves along, you get sucked in, some of us go back and some don't. Some are always in a dilemma caught in between.

    The US is also full of opportunity. I have a full-time job as a UX designer and I’m in the green card backlog. But I’m not sure I would’ve been able to pull off writing and producing an entire feature film and its distribution sitting in any other place in the world.

     
  5. Your film shows how impermanent H-1B visa holders feel while they are in America.

    Nobody really tries to tell a story about immigrants trying to make a home away from home when they are in essence in a state of limbo because of their visa status. In the film, the protagonist Vivek Pandit’s townhouse doesn’t have a stick of furniture. I actually lived for five years with no furniture as I didn’t know whether I would stay or if my H-1B visa would get renewed. I didn’t know whether my employer would file my green card application. I lived through all Vivek’s uncertainties. When you don’t have a sense of permanence, why bother with furniture? Simple things like that. Immigrants are pretty much temporary visitors, and we are treated as temporary visitors for a very, very long time, to the tune of 11 or 15 years.
     
  6. How has your film been received?

    We have got a lot of support from the Indian American community. The movie has also received widespread media coverage and reviews in the mainstream US media. We have had two film screenings of "For Here or to Go?" for the US Congress.

     
  7. How did you raise funds for the movie?

    Filmmaking is a pretty hard journey. This is a contemporary story of assimilation and cultural adjustments that no one was telling, but it felt too critical not to tell. I just wanted to convert the story of Indian assimilation into a film. I’m an accidental filmmaker. The Indian community definitely rallied behind the "For Here or to Go?" team. People aligned with the story and that is how I was able to turn the story into a script and finally into a movie. We bootstrapped and I created these proof points to show that there is merit in telling this story. People gradually started getting being the movie.

     
  8. What would you tell students who wants to come to America?

    There's a lot of information out there and students must do their homework on US schools and job opportunities. It's important to do your due diligence: research it, talk about it and think about it. Make an informed choice about uprooting yourself, and coming and adopting a different home. Watch "Here or to Go?." It might help!
 
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