Danish Renzu’s ‘The Illegal’
In his latest film, The Illegal, director Danish Renzu endeavors to bring a human face to the undocumented workers struggling to survive in the United States, an issue that too often dissolves into political posturing instead of workable solutions. “We cannot just call someone ‘illegal’,” Renzu told a Seattle audience when his film played the opening night of the Tasveer South Asian Film Festival last month. “Everybody has a story.”
The film’s protagonist is the fresh-faced Suraj Sharma (the plucky star of Life of Pi), newly arrived in the U.S. from his native India, ready to seize his dream; UCLA’s film school has accepted him. But that dream quickly turns sour. When his uncle’s family admits they’re too poor to house and feed him, they leave him on the street with nowhere to go. Then Babaji (Iqbal Theba), a kindly worker at an Indian restaurant, takes him in and recommends him to his supercilious boss (Ricky Wood). Wood quickly offers Sharma an under-the-table job, a place to stay, and a loan whenever he needs one. And before he realizes it, Sharma finds he’s essentially signed up for indentured servitude while still carrying a full load of college courses, He assures his family back home that his life in the U.S. is just fine.
As Renzu emphasized in the post-screening Q&A, he wanted to create a character-driven story that focused on the lives of the undocumented, not the legalities. Thus, there’s no debate about immigration policies, no ICE raids, no authorities carting people without proper ID being to a detention center. In a sense, the undocumented in The Illegal are already in prison. The elderly Babaji yearns to return to India to his family, but the boss has confiscated his passport until he can pay off his accumulated debt. A family crisis interrupts Hassan’s studies, but returning home will mean abandoning any hope of becoming a filmmaker—not to mention that he’s fallen into debt with his employer as well.
It’s a sympathetic portrayal of people who came to America in search of a better life, only to have things go horribly wrong because of the vagaries of fate. Sharma, Renzu’s first choice for the role of Hassan, is perfectly cast, full of the idealism and naivety of youth. Once his uncle’s family decides they can’t support him, the sensible thing would be to go back home. But as a young man on his own for the first time, Hassan can’t surrender his newfound independence, and elects to stay despite his trepidations. Sharma has just the right mix of innocence, anxiety, and resolute determination. Theba also gives a sensitive performance as the understanding Babaji.
Renzu’s film tells its story very much from an outsider’s perspective. He shows the Americans as being either hostile (the restaurant owner) or clueless. Hassan finds a girlfriend in Jessica (Hannah Masi), who blithely assures him “Everything always works out,” unaware of the very real difficulties Hassan is facing. In fairness, he never completely opens up to her about his troubles either. That Renzu drew on his own experiences in co-writing the script (he also attended UCLA’s film school) adds to the authenticity of the story.
The Illegal provides no easy answers, though Renzu offers a glimmer of hope offered at the end, at least if you stay and watch the credit sequence. There’s a tendency for us to view the undocumented as a group, and not as individuals with their own unique histories. Renzu’s film puts you in the shoes of one such individual, letting you see things through his eyes. And it’s more than just a plea for empathy. It also provokes the question: if faced with the same situation, what would you do? Not everyone who comes to America is going to make it. But Renzu’s film underscores the fact that the dream of American success is a powerful one indeed.