The teaser for “Surina & Mel,” a pilot about two best friends who couldn’t be more different from one another, has a genuine appeal to it. It may seem like a concept that has been done before but what distinguishes it from other comedies is that it’s two leading ladies, Melanie Chandra and Surina Jindal, are both actresses of South Asian descent.
We’ve seen South Asian women lead a comedy, whether it’s Mindy Kaling in “The Mindy Project” or Sarayu Blue in the upcoming “I Feel Bad,” and have prominent roles in shows, like Jameela Jamil in “The Good Place,” Aparna Nancherla in “Corporate,” and Hannah Simone in “New Girl.”
Friends! So proud to share this here. We had a lot of hurdles getting other people to make it, so we just made it ourselves. 👊🏽 #SurinaAndMel #browngirlsrepresent @surinaj @sameergardezi @AbiVarghese @reemasampat @anthonydimieri https://t.co/olZ3cKN1Xg
— Melanie Chandra (@melaniechandra) July 13, 2018
However, rarely have we witnessed real life friendships, relationships, families that South Asian women lead. Chandra and Jindal are changing the norm by developing “Surina & Mel.” Their goal isn’t to revolutionize television, although they’re doing it anyway. It’s to showcase well-developed, three-dimensional South Asian-American characters who aren’t defined solely by their ethnicity; it’s to prove that there is a demand for these roles and these shows.
We spoke with the duo about what it was like to produce this pilot, where they’re aiming to take “Surina & Mel,” and what motivated them to create it in the first place.
The Teal Mango: Congratulations on making the ‘Surina & Mel’ pilot! The teaser is delightful and captivating. Can you tell me a little bit about the journey it took to get to this point? How long has the team been working on creating this episode?
Melanie Chandra: We had the seed of this idea 4 years ago, but back then, a show with diverse leads like this was too ahead of its time. But we kept the project in the back of our minds because it was something we really believed in. Then last year, we came back to the pilot, shopped it around, and got a lot of “no’s” and false promises.
Surina Jindal: Most of the junior executives were really excited by the project but ultimately the decision makers said no, saying it was just too ‘niche’ of an idea. We were also strung along by another production company for 6 months, until we realized it was never going to happen. Instead of giving up on the project Melanie decided we should take the reigns into our own hands. By then, she was also 6 months pregnant and wanted to film this before her baby was born. So within a month we brought the cast and crew together and we filmed the whole proof of concept in three days.
TTM: You’ve got quite an impressive team: Sameer Gardezi is the writer, Abi Verghese is the director! It has a cool and obviously South Asian inclusive cast. How important was it for you to find accurate representation both on and off-screen?
Chandra: Extremely important. We think everyone we worked with, from our core creative team, to the whole crew, is passionate about creating more opportunities for minorities both on and off screen. And it seems as though the best way to do it is by initiating our own projects. We’ve always been so perplexed why mainstream television shows don’t reflect the real melting pot that is America. We hope our show can be a step towards changing that.
What I loved the most about ‘Surina & Mel’ and the description of it is that it’s about these two best friends who are brown and owning it, but that’s not what defines them. How much did you adapt from your own life to make it seem real?
Mel: Both of us have always felt a bit displaced. After reading the comments from our followers we know many other first generation women feel the same. It’s as though you’re not tied fully to either culture and not sure where you belong as a result.
Jindal: Our characters very much stem from our own lives. The show is actually inspired by our real life friendship. My character really does live life to her own beat and doesn’t have any time for B.S. and she’s the only one who can pull Mel out of her comfort zone. Meanwhile Mel is learning that living life by the book doesn’t necessarily mean happiness.
Chandra: Mel really is the best friend to Surina who provides her with grounding, support, and a sounding board to help her work through her challenges. We used to just call Sameer and chat with him for hours sharing random or frustrating moments in our lives and he magically turned those into something clever and funny.
TTM: I know we’ve only seen bits and pieces of it yet but can you tease something else about “Surina & Mel,” what it’s about, and why we should be looking forward to it?
Jindal: Ultimately, this is a show about friendship. We will see this odd couple duo face a bunch of absurd scenarios together. Scenarios will include being in the dating world, dealing with the NYC hustle, living life in a way that doesn’t please your parents, and learning that being an adult is freaking nuts.
Chandra: We’ll see each of their characters go on a journey of self discovery as well throughout the season, and through their ups and downs, Surina and Mel have each others backs at all costs.
TTM: What are the next steps you’re taking to ensure we get to see the pilot but also much more of the show, potentially?
Chandra: Our next step is finding the right industry partners that can ultimately get this show on the air. We need to prove to buyers that this is not only a great concept creatively, but also, that it has market value. A show like this has global appeal and rallying a community around the concept helps us prove just that
Jindal: Already we’ve gotten close to a quarter million views on the teaser video – not just from the US but largely also from UK, India, Canada, and Australia – so that is really encouraging.
TTM: Melanie and Surina, you have both worked in the entertainment industry for a while now. So not just as a viewer but also as an insider, why do you think it’s important for something like ‘Surina & Mel’ to be made?
Chandra: We think it’s so important for people to see themselves reflected on screen, and not in stereotypical ways. Authentic reflection has been lacking for the brown community since always? And even more importantly, we need to change the mindset of the way other cultures view us. We need to show that we don’t always fit into a box. As an actor of South Asian descent, what were your experiences like in terms auditioning for stereotypical roles? How much has that changed over the years?
Jindal: About 10 years ago, Indian roles were few and far between. And you’d always see the same handful of girls vying for those scarce opportunities. We’d be limited to roles as doctors, tech experts, sidekick sisters, (usually all with an accent) and then a few years later we were all getting auditions for roles fighting or being the cause of terrorism (still with an accent). Now we’ve entered an era where most network shows have a mandate of casting diverse actors, so everyone is writing in these South Asian roles, but usually they are side characters and part of a greater ensemble. The ‘token indian’ character as they say.
Chandra: And now, there so many more talented South Asian-American actresses vying for those roles. The talent pool has exploded, which is amazing. Mindy and Aziz and Priyanka have definitely pushed the needle forward, but we are still a long way away from seeing multiple leading roles for brown people in the same way we see for non-diverse actors. You can’t have more than one South Asian led show on a network. You just can’t. When is that going to change?
TTM: Growing up, who were and are some of your inspirations or role models in the industry? Especially considering there weren’t as many South Asian faces on our screens until very recently.
Chandra: Growing up, we can’t say we did have any South Asian roles models on screen. Back then, the only South Asians doing mainstream projects that we were aware of were Kal Penn and….Kal Penn. For me, my role models were more like Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts.
Jindal: For me, it was Aishwarya Rai (for her dancing), and Edward Norton and ‘Kelly Kapowski’ from Saved by the Bell.
TTM: Besides working on “Surina & Mel,” what are some of your future projects you guys are excited about?
Chandra and Jindal: When they hire us for “Guardians of the Galaxy 4” that will be exciting or as the only Indian duo in “Game of Thrones” that would be fine by us as well.