Hassan Ahmad, an aspiring young filmmaker from New Delhi, had no idea of the difficulties he would face when he decided to leave behind his middle-class life in the Indian capital to chase his “American dream” in the United States . The protagonist of The Illegal , from 34-year-old Kashmiri director Danish Renzu, is forced to drop out of film school after encountering problems with his student loan and starts working full-time in an Indian restaurant as an undocumented migrant to support his family. Played by Suraj Sharma of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi fame, Hassan serves as a proxy for the more than 1 million migrants who arrive in the US each year, Los Angeles-based Renzu told This Week in Asia . “The film is about people who come to the US with the American dream but eventually understand the true side of America only when they start living here,” he said. “I want the audience to acknowledge that each illegal immigrant has an individual story that we can relate to.” There were 10.35 million undocumented immigrants living in the US as of July 2019, according to the New York-based Center for Migration Studies, a non-partisan think tank. Of these, around 611,000 came from India – the second largest population behind the 1 million or so who were from Mexico . In December, outgoing President Donald Trump extended a freeze on new H1B and other visas popular with technology workers until March 31, citing the coronavirus pandemic ’s impact on the US labour market – a move that the Maryland-based non-profit group South Asian Americans Leading Together says is bound to affect the number of undocumented migrants of Indian origin in the US. Advocacy group the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum has urged the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden to ease the restrictions and provide green cards to university students, especially those studying science and engineering. Renzu, who studied engineering and then screenwriting at the University of California, said it was only after arriving in the US that he realised there were two Americas – the one that people construct in their minds after watching Hollywood films and following US pop culture and the other “real” America that is harsh and unforgiving. Although Renzu has successfully pursued his own dreams, he said he met many migrants along the way who were not so fortunate. “This film is for them,” said the filmmaker, whose earlier works, In Search of America, Inshallah and Half Widow have received recognition at San Francisco’s CAAMFest and Cannes Film Festival. As well as Hassan, The Ilegal touches upon the lives of four other immigrants to the US who work with him in the same restaurant, including an Iraqi and a South Korean . One of the four is Babaji, played by Iqbal Theba, an empathetic elderly Indian waiter who acts as a father figure to Hassan, leaving an indelible mark on the film. Unable to go back to India for more than 25 years because the restaurant owner confiscated his passport over an unpaid debt, Babaji dies in his sleep one night – never having had the chance to return home. “The exploitation of the restaurant workers that is highlighted in the film is the reality of an immigrant’s life in the US,” Renzu said. “I have met many such people in restaurants in real life and heard their stories of pain and hardship. Even now, when I visit those restaurants, I find the same people working there only to pay off their debts.” In the film, Hassan also falls into debt after the restaurant owner loans him money – first to pay for a medical emergency at home and again for his sister’s wedding. Renzu said the pressure to act as a “provider” for the family back home is part of the reality of the immigrant story. Towards the end of the film, when Hassan spots another enthusiastic young Indian migrant to the US being inducted by the restaurant’s owner, he sees a mirror image of himself and realises that the “vicious circle” he started on five years ago has begun again. Asian-Americans hope for less racism under Joe Biden But despite the uncertainties and disappointments, he does not give up on his dream and the film ends on an optimistic note with Hassan holding a script for a film called The Illegal that features his immigrant colleagues from the restaurant. On camera, they narrate the trials and tribulations they have faced in their journey to pursue their “American dream”. The Illegal was first released in cinemas across the US last month before being made available on streaming platforms including YouTube and Google Play from January 12. It won the Discovering India jury award at the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image’s Mumbai Film Festival and the critics’ choice award at the Vancouver International South Asian Film Festival in 2019.