Shruti Saran, Shilpi Roy, and Shonali Bhowmik are part of a revolutionary wave South Asians are experiencing right now when it comes to on and off-screen representation. Each of them has hustled hard to create their own web series and each of these three offers a poignant, unique perspective.
Creating an entire web series is no easy task. It takes more than just the motivation to successfully branch out into the world of pop culture. Luckily, a web series is not just a great start to launching your skills and creating a name for yourself, it’s also a platform that continues to prevail on the Internet today. It lets the creators tell a meaningful story while creatively controlling the narrative of it. For the following three women, they know all of it all too well.
Saran’s “Gym Buddies” is set in Texas and follows two best friends, Aparna and Quinn. The latter is roped into joining a gym by Aparna after she is dumped and they embark on their misadventures while trying to attain a healthy lifestyle.
Roy’s “Hipsterhood” is about two hipsters, Cereal Guy and Faux Fur Girl, in Silver Lake who are too cool for each other and too awkward for themselves. Majority of the dialogue takes place in their heads as they obsess over what to say and do.
[Shonali Bhowmik/Phot Credit: Seth Olenick]
Bhowmik’s “Shayla Hates Celebrities” is about the celebrity-obsessed Shayla, who quits her dead-end corporate job to venture into a new career.
All three of them are leading the charge by fostering a new era of content with their work. We spoke to them in a round-table discussion about the world of web series, how it frames their work as a South Asian woman in the industry, and what inspires them to keep going.
The Teal Mango: Creating/starring in a web series or short films sounds like a daunting task because you bear the responsibility for the entire narrative. At the same time, that reason is also more freeing because you control what you put out there. How has the experience been for all of you?
Shruti Saran, “Gym Buddies”: It was really daunting in the beginning! Especially since my connections to the Austin film community were pretty limited when I started. However, now that I’ve done it once, the idea of producing another series feels way less overwhelming. After you’ve been working on a script alone, getting a bunch of creative people together and working with them to make the script a reality feels so good. And I loved being on set. As a writer, I didn’t expect to love it so much, but now I feel like I found two new loves in directing and editing.
Shilpi Roy, “Hipsterhood”: You really hit the nail on the head. When I created “Hipsterhood” in 2012, web series’ were just starting to be popular so I didn’t have a lot of examples of what worked and what didn’t. I really felt like I was walking into it blindly, especially because the story-telling device of using majority voice-over to get my characters thoughts and emotions across had never been used to the extent that I had planned on using it. But, I also realized it was the one medium that I had full control over and all filmmakers know that having full control over your work is very, very rare. So, even though it was nerve-wracking to conceive and create in what felt like a vacuum, it was also pretty thrilling to do exactly what I wanted and know that my success or failure would be mine and mine alone.
Shonali Bhowmik, “Shayla Hates Celebrities”: I fully embrace the creative process when it comes to making my own web series. It is the reason I do the work. I see it as an opportunity to further develop my writing, directing, producing and acting skills. I also think this type of creative project gives me the chance to hone in on my authentic unfiltered voice. It’s a great tool for self-discovery which becomes the inspiration for my future projects. It’s only when I sit down and reflect on all the work I have done, all the work it took to complete a web series, that I can feel overwhelmed and it can become daunting when looking towards my future projects. Still, my overall approach is to take a deep breath and keep moving forward.
TTM: As South Asian women, why was it crucial for all of you to be part of this new age pop culture of web-series. What are the stories you want to be telling through this medium?
Saran: It’s important to use whatever tools you have at your disposal in order to get your work out there. Web series are also a really accessible way to put South Asian women and diverse stories on screen. I really admire people who are creating content that seems crafted specifically for the web, but my wheelhouse is episodic narrative, so I’m always thinking in those terms. I love science & technology and female-focused stories, and a lot of the stories I tell seem to revolve around those elements, so the stories I’d tell online would probably be in that vein. I’ve always wanted to create a web series in the style of “Last Week Tonight” that exclusively covers topics in science. I’d also like to continue putting South Asian women on screen and I’d love an opportunity to work with my sister, Richa, again. She’s an incredible artist, actress, and musician, and wrote the score for the “Gym Buddies” musical episode.
Roy: Web series’ are a great playing field for women of South Asian heritage for several reasons. The barrier to entry is very low and there are no negative consequences to “failing” – you simply learn from it and move on. While my first web series focused on white people in my very white neighborhood, making it made me realize that what I really wanted to do was tell stories about those of South Asian descent like myself as well as other people who are under-represented in the media. There are so many writers who can tell authentic stories about white people. Right now in the TV industry, though, there are only a handful who have the opportunity to tell authentic stories about brown people and I’m one of them. Beyond that, as an Indian-American, I fight stereotypes every day. People think I’m either Native American or straight from Bollywood. I’m neither. I’m actually very American, but with a little more masala. There are very few representations of “me” on screen but I know there are a lot of people like me out there and I want to write stories where they can see themselves in my character.
Bhowmik: Some of the main goals that I achieved from creating my web series were to respect and honor MY own creative voice and artistic vision, while also recognizing that I need not wait for anyone else’s permission to share my art. As a South Asian American woman, I recognize that I have to forge my own path as an artist. Each one of us has a singular voice and while my ethnicity does inform my work, it doesn’t define me.
TTM: Lots of web-series, over the last few years, have been gaining momentum and even turning into TV shows. The best examples are “Broad City” and “Insecure,” which also incidentally tell stories about women with a fresh perspective. What impact does their success have on your own goals?
Saran: It’s definitely motivating that episodic web series are seen as viable proof of concept for premium-length television and that the web can serve as an experimental training ground for up-and-coming writers. It’s also validating to see that networks and studios are finally starting to realize that female-focused stories and female creators are worth putting money behind, especially when women have already demonstrated that they can tell good stories and build an audience with limited resources. The best part about watching creators like Issa Rae go from creating web series to “Insecure” is that you can literally see the tremendous amount of work she had to put in to get to a cable pick up. It’s right there on the Internet, timed and dated. Same with the “Broad City” ladies. Ilana and Abbi consistently churned out episodes for two years before getting picked up by Comedy Central, and some of those episodes are still available online. So, as a writer who is still very much trying to break in, to be able to see where someone started and watch how they iterated over time is really motivating, especially when I’m feeling down or frustrated. No one gets this job handed to them. It is way too fun of a job! While getting picked up would obviously be an awesome outcome for “Gym Buddies”, now that I’ve made the show, I see how it was a really important and necessary step in my evolution as a writer, independent of any huge success. That said, I do hope “Gym Buddies” leads to bigger and better opportunities for everyone who contributed their time and talents to the project! If that happens, it will have been worth it.
Roy: While my web series didn’t turn into a TV series, I was able to sell a TV concept because of it! I’ve actually sold two ideas now and am in the middle of writing another pilot for TV. A web series is an amazing “proving ground” for anyone who’s looking to get into TV. I think at this point, most web series creators make their series hoping that they’ll be able to turn it into a TV show. I want to give a word of caution on that, though: web and TV are different formats. I never tried to make “Hipsterhood” into a TV show because stretching episodes to TV length would have killed the charm of the show. It works really well on the Internet; it would not work so well on TV. The opposite is true as well: it would be difficult to take a TV idea and turn it into a web series because web series generally need to move faster than a TV show does. This is not to say that it can’t be done. It just means that you need to make your web series the best it can be on the web, and when it’s time to create the TV show, know that there may be elements of your web series that you’ll need to change to make it work for that medium.
Bhowmik: Both “Insecure” and “Broad City” were created by women who were and still are creating art on their own terms. It is wonderful to witness their success and it’s also an affirmation that success often comes from believing in your own voice. I see no other way to create art. I found success after making short viral comedy videos with my comedy group Variety Shac with Andrea Rosen (“Episodes”), Heather Lawless (“Stone Quackers”), and Chelsea Peretti (“Brooklyn 99”). Our success led to Amy Poehler working with us and creating two network television pilots. Comedians like Fred Armisen (“Portlandia”), John Early (“Search Party”) and the creators of “Broad City” have, in fact, said that Variety Shac has inspired their work and that is an amazing honor.
TTM: Who are some of your inspirations and role models from the industry. Especially while growing up, it must not have been easy to see fellow brown folks or brown women on any screen.
Saran: I didn’t have a television until I was about twelve. My parents weren’t against it or anything but we moved to America when I was seven and my mom saw that I was reading a lot and keeping myself occupied with creative projects in my free time and didn’t want to wreck that by getting a television. When we finally did get a television, I remember watching a lot of “M*A*S*H” (because that’s what my parents watched) and “Boy Meets World”, “Home Improvement”, and “Clueless”, which ran back-to-back on Fridays. Also, my dad listened to a LOT of car talk so I suppose those were my early television inspirations growing up. And, yeah, there were not a lot of brown folk on TV in the nineties. By the time I started screenwriting seriously, I was much more focused on the people behind the camera. Many screenwriters describe a moment when they “realized” that someone was writing the dialogue that the actors on screen were saying. For me, Amy Sherman Palladino’s rapid-fire dialogue in “Gilmore Girls” was that moment so she is a definite inspiration. Dan Harmon, too. “Community” was the show that made me want to write for television and the first show I ever specced. I also love Mindy Kaling. Her episodes on “The Office” are some of my favorites and I have her personal essay “Mindy Kaling’s Guide to Killer Confidence” bookmarked. “New Girl” creator Elizabeth Meriwether is great as well and I loved seeing how the writers discovered, catered to, and wrote for the actors over the course of the season. Max Greenfield’s character Schmidt truly felt discovered on that show. Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom (creators of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) are also huge inspirations. Actually, the third installment of “Gym Buddies” is very “Crazy-Ex Girlfriend”-inspired musical episode. And, I really admire Matthew Weiner and Vince Gilligan. I loved Mad Men. That show is an incredible lesson in building character arcs for every single character. And, I think “Breaking Bad” is perfect. I remember marveling at how the writers would seemingly dig themselves into a hole story-wise and then, miraculously, extricate themselves in every single episode for five seasons.
Roy: Watching Gurinder Chadha’s “Bend it like Beckham” was a pivotal moment in my life. I was actually at a convention for South Asian college students, and I saw it in a theater full of South Asian people. The movie itself was great but when I saw Gurinder at the end and realized that she seemed like a normal person just like me, it suddenly made me realize that I could also be a filmmaker. It was an ‘if she can do it, I can do it!’ kind of thing. I’d been trying to figure out what I was really excited and passionate about for some time and watching this movie really helped me commit to filmmaking even though I’d only had the most basic training. Gurinder Chadha is a constant source of inspiration and I’ve actually met her!
Bhowmik: My influences come from the world of comedy. Wanda Sykes and Whoopi Goldberg made me laugh as a kid but more recently Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey are women who have created work in line with my goals. Another aspect of loving what I do as an artist is performing live comedy. As a result, I have become a part of a great community of comedic actors who inspire my work and who are also eager to create original content. Many of them, including Wyatt Cenac (“People of Earth”), Eliot Glazer (“Broad City”), John Early (“Search Party”) and Sunita Mani (“Glow”), have been very supportive and have appeared in my web series. In terms of brown folks or brown women on the screen, as a child, I didn’t witness any on the Hollywood big screen, but there were fantastic Bollywood movie stars who made a great impact on me. I loved Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Kahn, Madhuri Dixit, and Kajol. I recently had the good fortune of acting in a film with Priyanka Chopra (in 2019’s “Isn’t it Romantic?” alongside Rebel Wilson, Adam Devine, and Liam Hemsworth) and it was a great lesson for me. She brought no ego to her work and was a delight to work with.
TTM: What are some of your upcoming projects that you’re excited about?
Saran: I’m writing an Indian family comedy and working on a global finance drama. I’m so excited to get back to writing!
Roy: I’m finally keeping that promise I made to myself all those years ago to create stories about people like me and for people like me! I have a new project called “Ring,” a rom-com about an Indian-American woman who goes on a surprise blind date but gets tangled up in a stranger’s failed wedding proposal! It’s a story about trusting yourself and following your instincts. It also explores the nuance and complexities of interracial relationships and some of the preconceived notions that we all have about members of other races. Inter-racial marriage is very prevalent in the South Asian diaspora, but most of us also come from traditional families where it’s frowned upon. When I was dating my now-husband who is white, I really had to stop and ask myself if this was something I wanted to do, but not because of family or societal pressure. I realized I was putting pressure on myself because of what I had internalized about race while growing up. This movie explores all of that while still making you laugh, of course! And, I am grateful to be selected for the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women with this project. It’s a highly competitive, prestigious program that only selects eight female directors out of hundreds of applicants each year. I’m hoping to use this program and this project to launch a TV show. You can learn more about it here.
Bhowmik: I am currently working on a comedy series pilot with comedian Katina Corrao that I am very excited about and I will release more episodes of my web series “Shayla Hates Celebrities” in April 2018. I am also a musician and am currently in the final stages of finishing my third full-length album with the band Tigers & Monkeys and it comes out in June 2018. I am developing a series with Christy Karacas, the creator of the Adult Swim Network’s upcoming animated series “Ballmstrz 9009” and the hit show “Superjail!” The show will combine the South Asian-American female experience with elements of 70’s Bollywood and the 80’s “Ramayana,” a serial dramedy that is out of control.