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AFI Alums Pitch in for Classmate’s Movie

After three years, indie writer-director Danish Renzu and producer Tara Tucker are completing “The Illegal,” a timely film about immigrants in the U.S. The saga is a testament to the filmmakers’ perseverance — and to the power of networking while in film school.

Renzu got a degree in electrical engineering from UCLA. And when he quit his full-time job at AT&T after five years to concentrate on filmmaking, a mutual friend put him in touch with Tucker, who runs Tucker/Hess Prods. with her husband, Brandon Hess.

Tucker, AFI class of 2012, roped in production designer Young Ok Lee, editor Varun Viswanath, line producer Richard King and gaffer Martin Kobylarz, all from her graduating class. Even the PA is from AFI, she says. And the indie film lensed on the AFI campus, as well as USC; in July, the filmmakers will go to New Delhi, India, to complete the film.

Renzu wrote the ripped from the headlines screenplay about a young Indian film school student from a middle-class background who’s forced to drop out and tries to support himself while staying in the U.S. Suraj Sharma (“Life of Pi”), Iqbal Theeba (“Glee”) and Adil Hussain lead the cast.

“I didn’t face the same hurdles as our protagonist does, but I went to UCLA and I had to live this new life again from that prestigious upbringing back home. It was a new start for me,” says Renzu whose father is a high-ranking official in Srinagar, India. “But I met so many people from different countries I was shocked to see the struggle they are going through and how difficult it is for them to pay tuition and living expenses. The jobs they were doing, multiple jobs, working at restaurants. There’s homesickness, there are so many aspects to it.”

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While working at AT&T, Renzu was writing on the side and trying to pull together several film projects, including “The Illegal.” But in 2015 he quit his job to concentrate full time on filmmaking. “That was the best decision I made because then I was able to pursue filmmaking full time,” he says. “It was the right decision to follow my dream.”

His father, who has written many books, supported the move, he says.

He started his first feature film, “The Half Widow,” which is set in the troubled state of Kashmir where insurgents have battled the Indian army and many young men have been disappeared. That was followed by “Pashmina,” which starred Sharma, but had to be shelved because the fighting in Kashmir made production difficult.

Since he already had a relationship with Sharma, Renzu offered him the role in “The Illegal,” which the recent NYU grad happily accepted.
“I related to the character for sure, being a filmmaking student,” Sharma says.

The actor was attracted to the story. “It’s a very sad couple of things that happen, sometimes lighthearted sometimes hopeful; that was really good. Usually these kinds of tales about immigrants are only intense.”

Working with Renzu was different from, say Ang Lee who directed Sharma in “Life of Pi.”

“The directors are extremely different,” he says. “They have their own technique and dynamic and way of looking at people. … Everything is different, the project size, personalities and outlook on the world.”

“The Illegal” is a passion project for Tucker and Renzu. They have been working on it for three years, but the initial funding fell through and they had to wait till they secured another investor.

The biggest challenge for the filmmakers is the small budget. But Renzu and Tucker say that is also a blessing. “We make everything count,” she says. The script was pared down, although you wouldn’t see it on screen, she says. Panavision donated camera equipment and many vendors were willing to work with them in L.A.

That’s not always the case, she adds. A production shoot in Minnesota, chosen for the tax breaks, made her long for Southern California because the Midwest vendors were not so willing to work with indie producers.

But that doesn’t mean there was any guerrilla shooting on their film. “There was nothing illegal about ‘The Illegal,” she says.

“He’s clearly a director,” Tucker says of Renzu. “After working with him, [I can see] he’s a director. He sees his story, he’s able to communicate to the team.”

The d.p. Is Antonio Cisneros, who first introduced Renzu to Tucker.

The idea is to finish the film in September and submit it to Sundance Film Festival, with whom the duo has been in talks. They are also eyeing other fests including Cannes, Tribeca and of course, AFI Fest. “They better take us,” says Tucker laughing about her alma mater.

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