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Plenty of immigrants in the US want to go home but can’t, says The Illegal director Danish Renzu

Renzu's film, which is currently being streamed at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne, shows the other side of the American dream.

Keyur Seta

It is generally believed a life of luxury awaits those who move to the United States. But this is far from true in many cases. Danish Renzu’s English-language film The Illegal focuses on the other side of the American dream. 

The film, which is centred on a young film school student from middle-class India who is forced to drop out to support his family while staying in the US as an undocumented worker, is currently being streamed at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne.

Renzu said the film was inspired by his personal experiences. “I went to the US [for the first time] when I was very young," he recalled. "I took up many jobs when I was a student. There were several international students who also did that. In that journey, I realized there is much more to the American dream. I thought America should be otherwise.”

The Illegal sees a youth, played by Life Of Pi (2012) actor Suraj Sharma, going to America to study filmmaking. Once he gets there, circumstances compel him to work as a waiter while studying. At a restaurant, he meets Babaji (Iqbal Theba) and other Asians who dream of returning to their homelands but are unable to do so.

Danish Renzu

Renzu said he had met several individuals like Babaji who had been living in the US for years. “[They have] sacrificed their lives and haven’t gone home, even now. I think that’s where the inspiration for the story came from. I felt it had to be told. We can’t just categorize them as a group of people. They are people with stories,” he said.

The filmmaker said The Illegal, a low-budget production, had its own set of challenges. “The film is shot in America, so it’s a Hollywood film," he said. "It’s always challenging. It took us such a long time to finish this film. As independent filmmakers, we just kept raising money. Even now we have to raise money to release it.”

The Illegal also features Adil Hussain, Neelima Azim and Shweta Tripathi as the father, mother and sister, respectively, of Suraj Sharma's character. 

Iqbal Theba and Suraj Sharma

Born in Kashmir, Renzu has had an interesting journey. “I went to the US when I was 18," he said. "I studied for my bachelor’s degree in America. I was then working there for a while before starting my filmmaking career.”

The filmmaker was working as an engineer and also making short films on the side. “One such short was In Search Of America, Inshallah in 2014," he said. "It did really well in the festival circuit. It also went to Cannes. It was an emotional story. We got a lot of good feedback. I realized then that maybe this was working for me.”

Renzu took the plunge when he made his next film. “In 2015, when I got an opportunity to make Half Widow (2019), I realized I should just quit my job because you can’t do both [tasks],” he said.

Related topics

Indian independent cinema