Review: 'For Here or To Go?', Immigration Headaches Get Lost In Translation

Even before the havoc and chaos unleashed by the current administration's blind groping, immigration policy in the United States was badly in need of reform.  Political rhetoric has associated the subject with illegal immigration and the (mostly imaginary) image of cheap, unskilled laborers crossing the (usually Mexican) border, but the legal immigration system is a mess that's poorly understood even by those people living within it.  It's this Kafka-esque limbo that writer Rishi Bhilawadikar and director Rucha Humnabadkar explore in For Here or To Go?, particularly as it affects the Indian-American community.

Vivek Pandit (Ali Fazal) is a smart young Silicon Valley engineer in the country on an H-1B visa for temporary workers.  And that "temporary" label spreads to apply to everything else in his life.  It's hard to put down roots if you don't know how long you can stay on the ground.  Some, like his co-worker Lakshmi (Omi Vaidya), apply for permanent resident status, but Vivek doesn't try to start that process until less than a year remains on his visa, for reasons the script never really makes clear.

It's a risky position, as his roommate, Ravi (Gaurav Dwivedi), finds out when he goes back to India to get a visa stamp and his sponsoring employer folds, leaving him stranded.  And Ravi's sublessee, Amit (Amitosh Nagpal), is in an even more tenuous situation: on his L-1 visa he can't even apply for a different job while he's in-country.  And when Amit lets his acquaintance Gurmeet (Gursimran Singh) crash in his room on weekends, it opens them all up to suspicion by however you say La Migra in Hindi.

Meanwhile, the other side of the debate is the rising sentiment that maybe highly-skilled Indian workers should return to India to solve problems there.  This is advanced most directly by the founder of Vivek's American company, Vishwanath Prabhu (Rajit Kapur), with the push-back that these workers have had to use American immigration to escape a corrupt system at home in order to succeed in the first place.  The birth-pangs of India as a modern economy are not easily solved, and it's to Humnabadkar and Bhilawadikar's credit that they even bring up the topic to be discussed, but they seem to stop at mentioning its existence rather than truly wrestling with the issue.

This superficial treatment carries over to the half-dozen other threads running through the movie.  And the fact that there are so many of them might play into why they each get such glancing treatment.

Of course there must be a romance angle, so we have a love interest in Shveta (Melanie Kannokada), complete with a Bollywood-style dance in the form of a flashmob interrupting their date.  There's also the woman Vivek's mother wants to set him up with, and the woman he declined to marry before leaving for America, now about to marry someone else.  One is Swetha and one Shweta, and I can't recall which is which, which seems to be part of the joke, I think.  The foibles of Dating While Indian were largely captured better by Meet the Patels, but the intersection of these issues with the particular instability of life on an H-1B visa seems like more fertile ground that For Here or To Go? only scratches the surface of.

Not unrelated to that point, Lakshmi is in the closet.  Though he misses his family, he finds it more comfortable to stay in the United States than risk their disapproval.  Again, an entire movie could be spun out of this one premise, but it only gets two or three scenes.

And then there are the weird coincidences.  Though Vivek meets Shveta at a Desi speed dating event, it turns out that she's Vishwanath's daughter, and she's also in a photography class with Lakshmi.  None of which has any actual impact on any plot.  There's not so much as an awkward reveal of the fact that he's dating the daughter of the man telling him that letting his visa expire might not be such a bad thing, and the fact that there might be a conflict of interests doesn't even come up.

This is undoubtedly a perspective and experience that is sorely lacking in our cultural dialogue, and I'm glad to see someone trying to bring it forward.  But at the same time I'm not sure that For Here or To Go? knows what it wants to say on the matter.  Or, indeed, what it can expect from the audience it will reach.

Rating: 2 out of 5