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Star turn: From Kashmiri engineering grad to filmmaker

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Danish Renzu knows the struggle many international students face — and he’s brought it to the big screen. Source: Danish Renzu

Danish Renzu, Kashmiri filmmaker, knows the struggle many international students face — and he’s brought it to the big screen. His feature film, “The Illegal,” is about a young, middle-class Indian student who had to drop out of film school to support his family while staying in the US. After winning a string of awards at film festivals, it was shortlisted in the Best Picture category in this year’s Academy Awards, earning him praise and a special congratulatory Instagram post from Bollywood royalty Preity Zinta. 

 

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The film is modelled after Renzu’s personal experiences as an international student at UCLA. While studying for his electrical engineering degree, he worked at a restaurant and as a math tutor. “I graduated from the college but there are people I know of who have been working there at restaurants for 20-25 years. They had to drop out of college because they had to provide for their families back in their countries,” he told Firstpost.

The film is dedicated to them, who he describes as “unsung heroes.” We caught up with the UCLA graduate to learn more about his journey thus far, his personal experience as an international student in the US and what advice he has for those who want to follow in his footsteps:

What do you like most about the US?

Being able to create an independent voice and the freedom to choose your own future.

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The film “The Illegal” is the result of the Kashmiri’s career shift from electrical engineering to being a filmmaker. Source: Danish Renzu

You left a job with AT&T to focus on filmmaking. Where does this passion stem from? Is there a personal backstory behind this?

I always wanted to be a filmmaker. I grew up making short films with my cousins and family. However, coming from an Indian middle-class family, engineering was an obvious choice I was steered towards.

I never took filmmaking as a full-time position until I graduated in the US and landed my first job. While working for years in the telecom business, I developed a hobby of making short films and alike during weekends which ended up with a chance to produce my own feature films.

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Half Widow is another independent Indian drama film directed by debutant Danish Renzu and tells the story of a woman from Srinagar in Kashmir, who tries to find her husband who is abducted by the Indian army. Source: Danish Renzu

What are some of the hardest challenges you’ve had to face?

I made two features both independently produced, so raising funds from very early on in the  process to finally getting them made to release was full of challenges and obstacles. 

Share three of your most favourite movies.

From the most recent ones, I loved Jojo Rabbit, 1917 and the very recent Nomadland  which won an Oscar. The simple storytelling told via up-and-close personal points of view made the stories very universal and engaging.

Tell me about your hometown. Where would you take me or show me?

I come from the conflict-driven valley of Kashmir (also known as Heaven on Earth). If you visited, I would take you for a “shikara” (boat ride) by the spectacular Dal Lake. The breeze, the sounds and the entire experience is breathtaking and unforgettable.

After winning a string of awards at film festivals, “The Illegal” was nominated in the Best Picture category in this year’s Academy Awards. Source: Danish Renzu

What’s one thing from home you missed and how did you substitute it in LA?

Food for sure, especially Kashmiri cuisine. I do not know of any Kashmiri food in LA, so I had to connect with Kashmiri people to be able to get that food. I also ended up cooking for myself (first time cooking!) to have the taste of my home food. 

Walk us through your latest film “The Illegal.”

“The Illegal” is a journey of an immigrant in the US and the experience of an international student and his choices he makes for his family back home. It’s a visceral journey of a man who has to choose between his dreams and family due to financial constraints: is it possible for a middle-class student from an ordinary family to go to a top film school in the US? The film is just that and more.

What skills do you think your uni experience taught you that you keep to this day?

Multi-tasking and staying busy all the time. Basically, being productive and not wasting time. Furthermore, my entrepreneurship qualities come from my uni experience. 

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Renzu has taken on the responsibility of telling the stories of people caught in unexpected circumstances and hopes that more people around the world can empathise. Source: Danish Renzu

What advice do you have for international students looking to go to the US?

Plan it all out before starting a new chapter in the US. From housing to food to nearest restaurants and possible options, plan it all out so everything will be much easier from the start.

Do you have any tips to budget for a student abroad?

Have roommates, multiple jobs on campus (when you are busy you end up doing well in your studies too), and go to community college for a couple of years in uni because it cuts a lot of costs.