Code-Switched, a new show by, for, and about young South Asians just released its pilot episode. Starring Sonal Aggarwal, Sabeen Sadiq, Saurabh Pande, Vikram Pandya, and Stephen George as a bunch of young South Asians dealing with work, family, and love in Chicago.
Kajal spoke with show creator Karan Sunil about representation, brown folks in media, and making the webseries he wanted to watch.
Kajal: Where did the idea for the show come from? How it came about?
Karan Sunil: My dad loves comedies and, when I was younger, we used to watch them together. One thing that I always wondered was why no one on the screen looked like my dad or my family. I was too young to understand then, but later when I grew up I realized the circumstances that didn’t let South Asians on TV.
What is it about comedy that makes it the best medium to tell stories about our community?
If you look at traditional sitcoms, the characters can be super selfish, and make really terrible decisions, and at the end of that thirty minutes, it’s all good. You know, laugh track. Let’s all come together and talk about the mistakes we made. I feel like that’s the exact opposite of what it’s like to be a brown person in this country. Even the smallest mistake we make is put under a microscope. So I looked at the model of this sitcom and decided to flip it. I wanted to take the idea of a comedy and explore real-life issues in our communities—things we don’t talk about that much, and taboos—for people to understand who we are.
I really feel like comedies and TV are really powerful in how they influence culture. Entertainment is what we go to in order to relax and in our free time. Subconsciously, it either creates comfort or a learning experience about other people. So putting characters in the show who are a spectrum of brown people will at least show those who don’t know about us what are lives are like, and will show them that we aren’t much different from theirs. It’s super messy, we have a lot of issues with our jobs, our families, finding love—just like anyone else.
It seems like relatability is a big part of what you’re trying to do. But how are you showing nuances too? The ways in which we’re also different?
We’re the products of immigrants, and the whole immigrant experience is something a lot of people don’t understand. I also feel like we, as younger brown people, don’t understand it. We’re meant to carry the baton of those who came before us, and the more we see that, the more we can understand [the immigrant experience]. So the idea came from exploring brown peoples’ lives in a more in-depth way, and also do it in a way that is light-hearted, but can tackle difficult issues.
I feel like the labor of representation is always on us as brown people, but I feel like these TV shows can depict really intimate and private moments, and they go into personal lives. How do you deal with tension of seeming perfect on the outside and uplifting the personal issues in our lives without confirming racist stereotypes?
This is how I deal with it: I think there are surface-level things people know about brown people, and they make assumptions based on it. They see a hijab, and think that the person is oppressed. People don’t get that many women choose to wear hijab for their own reasons. I think a TV show has the ability to go beyond the surface level, and go into intimate moments of certain lives. I also think relatability comes from watching people do things you do, that maybe you’re afraid or embarrassed to talk about. I want to show brown people making bad decisions.
Also with the parents—it is a show about a group of millennials, but I chose to include their parents lives a lot. We explore them as well because I feel like immigrant parents have been treated pretty badly in media, they’re either stupid characters, or really overbearing and elitist. I wanted to find a blurred balance between representing immigrants—I want to show parents who are worried about their children, and do a little backseat driving, but I also wanted to show scenes where they’re really normal by choosing detailed scenes, like “slice-of-life” moments, of their lives.
So it’s like, brown people are part of this network, but we aren’t as homogenous as people think.
Right, and that’s why I chose to make it an ensemble cast. It’s not about one character, but a group because I truly believe the brown experience cannot be told through one character, or person. I respect what other South Asians are doing in media, like Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari, but I don’t believe their experiences speak for all brown people in America. And they shouldn’t. It’s unfair to expect that they will. The variety of characters in the show will show the variety of our experiences—including our different religions and nationalities. It also shows, though, that we deal with some of the same shit. It’s kind of a paradox a little bit–showing the differences while highlighting the similarities.
So you must have faced some of challenges in terms of the industry and storyline, since both are generally are white-dominated in your field.
Yeah, we faced challenges on both the project and narrative standpoint. Casting the show was tough because there are not as many brown actors, performers, and comedians as I would like there to be. Also, because we live in a white world, I wanted to show white characters as well. I wanted to explore what our relationships with white people looked like, when they’re our neighbors, coworkers, and all that. We deal with racism, but a lot of them are our allies and friends. In a way, I gave the side roles to the white people, because I think we needed to the see the opposite of that for once and also because that’s who they are sometimes in our lives.
The industry is definitely dominated by white men, from the corporate to even the creative side. It’s tough to make any show see the light of day in the industry. The industry itself doesn’t know what will succeed always, so a lot of times they don’t want to bet on a South Asian show because they don’t know if it’ll work, since they haven’t seen one like it before. I think that’s a flawed system, because a big reason I made this show is because there is an audience for it. There’s tons of people who want to see this show, including non-South Asians. I think shows like this, one of our goals is to be a case-study, for others to look at and say, actually, this could succeed. I feel grateful to those who came before who created that first lily pad I could jump on. Ideally, more shows like this will be made. I would rather inspire other South Asian creators to make content like this than to get my show on a network.
That’s great. So talk to me about the characters and the crew you chose. How did you create these characters?
Because the show is rooted in comedy, I really wanted to get comedians I’m excited about. Comic-timing comes natural to them, and working with them made everything easier. My main goal was to make an ensemble, but the way to do that is to cast people that are very much like the characters themselves. So when I wrote the story, I held multiple focus groups in Seattle and Chicago and spoke to all kinds of South Asians between 18 and 32. I wanted to collect as much data, information, and stories as I could about the diaspora. So then I collected all those stories, nuanced, intimate stories, and I created five foundational characters out of that. And then I went and scouted for comedians who could do the roles. Once I found them, I sculpted the role around the performer. Like the character of the Muslim Pakistani woman if played by a Muslim Pakistani woman, and the Malayali Christian character is played by a Malayali Christian guy. You don’t just get a better performance [when you do that], but you also get more relatability that way.
My producer is Heston Charres. He’s not South Asian, but we came up together through music videos and short films. He’s such a big part of this project because, when I told him about the idea for the show, he was like, I want to do that. He’s my right-hand man. I think that’s one of the best parts of making this—the crew and the cast are from all walks of life.
What kind of feedback have you gotten so far on the pilot? What’s your goal for this show? What would success look like for this project?
We had no idea this was going to be as well-received as it is. Now it’s not even two weeks in and we have thousands of views, and my phone’s just blowing up with brown people saying, thank you or that they love a certain character.
We’re also powering it by the people, which is why we have a crowdfunding campaign. To me a real success would be a show that’s funded by and for the people. I would love for this to be show where we can learn more about ourselves, since we don’t really talk a lot of stuff in our daily lives. I made this show to unify brown people. That’s literally my goal.
You can support Code-Switched with their crowdsourcing goal on Indiegogo.