An open letter: Help “For Here or To Go?” reach American audiences

Authentic mass media representation of the Indian American narrative is vital for influencing popular perception, especially during times of hostility toward immigrants.

Dear Indians in America

I write to you as first generation immigrant from India, Bay Area resident, tech worker on a visa and accidental filmmaker.

Let me start with a quick introduction: I am a proud Indian Army kid that grew up all over India in military cantonments. I owe many of my strengths to that upbringing — adaptability, grit, respect and appreciation of others especially those that are more knowledgeable and experienced. All handy and transferable qualities for life as an immigrant.

In 2005, I came to Indiana University in Bloomington for a masters degree. Since graduating, I’ve been working in the Bay Area as a UX designer — a specialization uncommon in the Indian diaspora. I ventured into an uncommon field at the time because I was inspired by a preceding generation of Indians that were able to pioneer in unique fields. I knew it was possible in America. I carried with me a strong sense of confidence about being able to not just survive, but excel in the field of my choosing because others had already done it. There were some great examples to look up to. Today, I see a new generation of Indians joining design and am sure in some way my peers and I inspired them to do so.

We’ve come to this country in notable numbers post-1965 and accomplished a whole lot. We are leading companies like Microsoft, Google, Pepsi and MasterCard, while pioneering innovation in fields like medicine, academics and , rocket science. A majority powers technology and engineering departments across various industries. Second generation Indians are present in a variety of other fields from politics to media, art, entertainment, philanthropy and business. According to research 16% of the startups in the valley with immigrant founders are Indian — which is incredible considering Indians form less than 2% of the entire American population as told to me by Vivek Wadhwa during the making of my feature film “For Here or To Go?” This intel ad says it all.

To come to a foreign land and make such large intellectual and economic contributions is no easy feat. We are frequently cited as the most economically successful minority in America. Isn’t this reason to be proud and share these accomplishments with the rest of America and indeed the entire world? Shouldn’t we use this fact to create a positive perception of our community?

Those were indeed some of the questions that struck me when I began, what was then, a simple blog post about Indian assimilation and accomplishments in the U.S. Few days into writing the draft, the scale of it didn’t feel right- there was so much to cover and it needed to be much more grand in its expression. I abandoned the draft at the time thinking my post wouldn’t do justice to this topic because of its potentially limited reach. I wanted a livelier, much bigger celebration but thought it’s better left for someone professional from the media to portray.

I was mistaken. My co-blogger Kesava chose a great tagline for our blog back in 2008 which was staring at me for the longest time but kicked in to inspire me only 3 years later. It’s by Mira Nair, the celebrated Indian-American filmmaker who said, “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will”.

Indeed. Not only did the words feel true, they also gave me an idea for the medium of expression for the thought I had- cinema. The grandest of all storytelling mediums that humans have created so far. With the power to captivate, transform and become etched in collective memories. No other platform comes close to delivering such a simultaneous, shared experience at scale.

With that, I googled how to write a screenplay in Jan 2010. Today my first film will be released in theaters on March 31, 2017. What transpired in this time is nothing short of a miracle.

After several attempts, it became amply clear to me that neither Hollywood nor Bollywood would tell this story, far less do justice to it. I leaned on my family, friends and co-workers, to be able to find collaborators, actors, artists, backers, good samaritans and members of the Indian community in the U.S. Special call out to my parents Suhas and Vibha Bhilawadikar as well as my aunt Geetanjali Kulkarni who provided unconditional support, remotely from India. And to my friend, and director Rucha Humnabadkar who agreed to get onboard with me to bring this daring vision to life over the past half decade.

This is not just an independent film — a label typically given to films devoid of big studio involvement; it is a grassroots entrepreneurial effort — devoid of any film fraternity involvement or backing. I had no background in film — rather, this is a product of vision, passion and persistence since 2010 with contributions from over 600 artists and community members like yourselves. American in the mind and Indian at heart.

I’ve hustled, stumbled, scrapped, muscled and willed this film into existence — like any other immigrant would in trying to establish their business. The result — entitled “For Here or To Go?” — has received high praise from screenings at the U.S. House of Representatives, Indian Embassies in the U.S. and seventeen film festivals over four continents.

The story of Indian assimilation and accomplishment has been told, it’s now time to get it heard. Without you it is not possible.

I wrote the story to celebrate the Indian immigrant in U.S .And without authentic media representation- which is a problem my film aims to solve — a world of misconceptions will continue to grow.

This letter is an appeal to unite as a strong, impactful minority we are and help get our story heard. My friends Brad Feld, Dave McClure and the self-organized advocacy group (SIIA) are doing just that. Every Q&A has been enlightening for audiences of all nationalities. A practicing 20 year veteran of immigration law came up to me after one such screening at NYU entrepreneurial institute and told me he finally understands why his clients are anxious all the time. An elderly Indian gentleman at the Indian Embassy in DC told me this was the truest representation of Indian immigration he had seen in his 50 years here.

Perhaps the immigration issues of today don’t affect you, or you will differ in your stance on the story or characters — whatever be the reason, I request you to put aside those for a moment and consider the overall impact The fact is, although a variety of historical and literary works explore the life, struggle and contributions on Indians in America, there is no single contemporary representation highlighting the importance and contributions of the Indian diaspora. “For Here or To Go?” does that in a light-hearted, simple and comprehensive manner that can be easily referenced in the future. And it tells it at a very important and pivotal time for all immigrant nationalities.

I’ve believed in the importance of this story for over seven years now. Stories persuade. Stories unite. Stories have the power to change hearts and mind. I hope my story changes your mind and I can convince you to join me and my friends Brad Feld, Dave McClure, and Unshackled Ventures, in this effort of bringing “For Here or To Go?” to over 100 locations in America and the rest of the world where the Indian diaspora has had definite impact.

Time is short — we release March 31, 2017. I urge you to take action from things I’ve listed below. Thanks for your time and support!

Rishi

What can you do? Lots of things!

1. Donate to crowdrise campaign where Brad matches upto $25K

2. Help me spread the word in your office and communities by joining my mailing list

3. Sponsor bringing to your city for $5K by making a tax deductible donation here

4. Write to me with ideas of how to spread the word

5. Save the Date- March 31 and go to the screenings with friends and co-workers

6. Share this letter with your Indian and American friends!

7. Follow and share the film on Facebook and twitter