For Here or to Go? is a difficult film to effectively critique as a white American citizen, as it is so grounded in the experiences and culture of Indian immigrants to the United States that as an outside observer there are inevitably aspects of the film that aren’t going to speak to me. And of course, that is perfectly fine; not every film needs to have people of my social and ethnic background as its prime demographic. However, it does make it tricky to determine whether what I didn’t enjoy about the film was because the film itself was poorly constructed or because it was constructed with differing cultural sensibilities. Consideration leads me to believe the former.
Vivek (Ali Fazal) is a tech entrepreneur living in Silicon Valley on a work visa and hoping to attain green card status before it expires at the end of the year. His dream is to develop a startup company so that he may excel in the American tech sector, but he is conflicted between his family and culture in India and the life he has built for himself in the States. He is forced to navigate the perils of the nonsensically bureaucratic U.S. immigration system, along with fellow Indian roommates who each have their own struggles to keep their residency and reasons to not want to go back to India.
What this film is quite good at is communicating the daily struggle of an Indian immigrant in the United States. Racism is casual wherever one goes, whether it’s the violent and overt variety or the subtler, colonially ingrained sort. Whites and immigrants from other Asian countries obtain permanent residency with ease, while Indians are placed on government watch lists and held in a limbo where their right to live here could be stripped at a moment’s notice. For some, returning to India is a hellish prospect, like Lakshmi (Omi Vaidya), Vivek’s gay coworker who can only be open about his sexuality in America. And all the while, no one in the government seeks to make their complicated system more accessible or friendly.
If the goal was to convey these hardships to a non-Indian audience, then I can only say that while the message was received loud and clear, the mode in which it was delivered left something to be desired. For having such a large cast, each with their own plot and symbolic significance, none of them are engaging as characters with the minor exception of Vivek whose depth is simply by virtue of his varying reactions to his two-dimensional castmates. Everyone is defined by their immigration problems and perspectives, which serves the film’s messaging but does not make for very compelling dramatic storytelling. This is further diminished when the film attempts to act as a comedy, but never rises above sitcom-level mundanities like a mother pestering her son to meet a woman, or awkward office coworker interactions. It’s the kind of stuff that only works with heightened expressions or great comic timing, which the grounded reality of this film sorely lacks.
I get the feeling that For Here or to Go? is trying to bridge the gap between American dramatic storytelling and Bollywood everything-for-everyone epic filmmaking. There’s even a mid-film dance number to drive that idea home. So maybe the jokes land better with the folks who live those experiences, and maybe the characters are more relatable if you can see yourself in their shoes. I recognize my privilege in never having to occupy that space, but I also recognize that the film wasn’t effective in demonstrating to me what occupying that space would be like. For Here or to Go? may have stirred my empathy, but it did little to peak my interest.