The 3rd I International South Asian Film Festival is back this year with dates in San Francisco (Nov. 9-11) and Palo Alto (Nov. 18). Visit https://www.thirdi.org/ for the full schedule and ticket information.
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Three web series — Brown Girls, Bullet Bride and Bad Indians — will be featured as part of a collection called “Bad, Brown, Bride: 3 Desi Series,” on Nov. 18, with Bay Area filmmakers in person, at the 15th annual 3rd i International South Asian Film Festival in San Francisco and Palo Alto. Each of these features has something dynamic and unique to offer in the world of short form visual storytelling, and all three series handle the theme of subversion from cultural convention in starkly different but equally entertaining ways.
In this Emmy-nominated series written by acclaimed artist Fatimah Asghar, and directed by celebrated Chicago artist Sam Bailey, formality is immediately done away with and fascinating disarray takes over, starting from the opening shots of the first episode and never relenting throughout the series.
Roommates Leila (Nabila Hossain) and Patricia (Sonia Denis) are two 20-something women of color in Chicago, navigating life, love and work with all the absurd pitfalls that crop up, sometimes through no one’s fault but their own. What sets Brown Girls apart from other shows about young women carving paths for themselves in 21st century America — adding to the fact that the series exclusively features people of color — is the incredibly strong writing and seemingly effortless humor that the lead actors bring to each scene. Nothing feels forced or overwrought in the Brown Girls world, a world of queer romance, Pakistani-Muslim family obligations, and fierce friendship in Chicago’s near southside neighborhoods.
“The earnest, often comedic conversations that happen between Leila, Patricia and their friend Victor, inside those apartment walls, are the glue of the series.”
In this series, mise en scène is just as critical to the storytelling as dialogue. From hosting house guests to attending house parties, the settings these characters find themselves in are deeply reflective of their fictitious communities, most likely because they are largely based on the everyday lives of their creators. Essential oils litter Leila’s bedroom dresser and sunlight filters through a tapestry hanging from the window, shedding light on a rainbow flag sticker fastened to a corkboard, which is festooned with pictures of the smiling faces of friends.
The earnest, often comedic conversations that happen between Leila, Patricia and their friend Victor (Rashaad Hall), inside those apartment walls, are the glue of the series. The supportive friendship amongst these three is what the audience gets to circle back to, after any one of them faces a setback in their personal lives, and we look forward to experiencing the chosen family dynamic they’ve found in each other.
Luckily, the promise of seeing more culturally realistic stories by and about women of color isn’t far away, as Brown Girls was picked up by HBO to be developed into a longer series. Currently, every episode of the web series can be streamed online.
Bullet Bride, from the Bay Area-based Playground Pictures, starts out as a seemingly typical cat burglar comedy, but only for the first few scenes. As the plot begins to unfold, the viewer is forced to do a double take as expectations are trumped with an irreverent, campy humor. Following the ominous opening scene of a desi bride — decked out in all her shaadi regalia — frantically bursting into her southern California home to hastily pack a suitcase and being confronted by two armed strangers, a flashback takes us to the house just one hour earlier, to when the thieves first break in.
The cliché comedic trope of “odd couple” criminal duos is intellectually elevated in Bullet Bride through the inclusion of culturally specific commentary on the desi community. One of the guys takes off his shoes to show respect in the Punjabi home he’s invading, while the other guy admonishes him for diminishing other South Asians into categories of either “whitewashed” or “FOBs.” The juxtaposition of this completely innocuous exchange occurring during a robbery is delivered with satirical ease by actors Joda Singh and Ik Jagait. The dynamic between these two is reminiscent of the ne’er-do-well buddies from action comedies that were popular in the late 80s and 90s (like Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys).
“The cliché comedic trope of ‘odd couple’ criminal duos is intellectually elevated in Bullet Bride through the inclusion of culturally specific commentary on the desi community.”
The series’ also makes a substantial commitment to dismantling the “damsel in distress’” predicament of the bride herself, played by Shetal Waters. We witness her back-story through her own eyes at the top of the second episode, and it’s clear that she’s motivated by more than simply the desire to escape a loveless marriage.
Bullet Bride is poised to be a fun, campy send-up of tired Bollywood archetypes — the conflicted bride-to-be, the pining boyfriend, the jealous and possessive groom, and the clownish henchmen — except that these motifs are turned on their heads by characters who are quite self-aware, reflective and perhaps even remorseful about their behavior.
Simultaneously entertaining and thought-provoking, this desi culture-skewing, and culture skewering, web series deserves a watch, not only for desis who will absolutely relate to the inherent contradictions of living a “traditional” desi life in 21st century America, but for any American viewer who might need their stereotypes about the seriousness of South Asian American visual culture debunked.
This series is a great example of when successful television formulas are smartly adapted to reflect actual people, rather than idealized and romanticized relationships. Through their nuanced portrayals of Neal and Lena, two South Asian Americans in their early thirties looking for love and personal validation in L.A., Shawn Parikh and Devanshi Patel make a hilarious and loveable pair.
“There are a few gut-busting moments in the show when characters seem to speak as if they are the consciences of every second generation desi.”
The pilot for Bad Indians has been likened to Will & Grace, but the comparison doesn’t do it justice. Neal is more than a stereotypical nance (the flamboyant gay character from Hollywood’s colorful, homophobic past) and Lena isn’t just a hopeless narcissist. Even when she’s complaining about a date directly to viewers during one of the first of many brilliant fourth-wall-breaking moments, it’s easy to sympathize with Lena’s quiet desperation for something more than a good Indian man to bring home to the family.
There are a few gut-busting moments in the show when characters seem to speak as if they are the consciences of every second generation desi, and embody everything we wish we could say in response to the probing questions about our careers and love lives from nosey aunties, rude uncles and overbearing parents. But both Neal and Lena’s narratives remain distinct throughout the first two episodes, and viewers become privy to their individual struggles and triumphs through endearing vignettes of their day-to-day lives.
Lena works at a small boutique, where she sneaks her originally designed, handmade jewelry onto the accessory racks for some exposure. Neal runs into a fellow struggling actor — also desi — who he feels obligated to suck up to, but who he blames for stealing his limelight. The trivialities of daily life become sardonic observations through Neal and Lena’s quarter-life crisis lenses, and viewers get to ride along on this sarcastic, ultimately delightful voyage.
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Anjali Misra is a Chicago-based nonprofit professional and freelance writer of media reviews, cultural criticism and short fiction work. She earned her MA in gender and women’s studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she spent nine years as a student and community organizer, focusing on inter-ethnic solidarity, interracial coalition building, and gender justice. She is an avid sci-fi media fan, and Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan is her patronus.