(An edited version of this piece was first published in The Indian Express.)
American television seems to have come a long way from caricaturish representation of South Asian characters, and characters who belong to sexual minority groups. However, it is still quite rare to come across shows and web series built around protagonists who are simultaneously queer and desi. Vishaal Reddy, a New York-based actor who identifies as queer, is attempting to change this situation through his web series titled INSOMNIA. Apart from writing the show, the 28-year-old Reddy plays a bisexual South Asian man named Nikhil who works in publishing by day, and moonlights as an escort. In addition to that, he cannot sleep.
Laced with dark humour, this show weaves in conversations around racial discrimination, mental health, sex work, cultural appropriation and queer loneliness. It features nudity, cuss words, and BDSM, so it is clearly not for the squeamish who are expecting a ‘sanskaari’ show. Reddy raised funds for it through a Kickstarter campaign, and the episodes were shot using a hand-held camera. INSOMNIA is available for streaming on YouTube, and it features many American desi actors such as Aneesh Sheth, Nandita Shenoy, Cheech Manohar, Kuhoo Verma and Piyali Syam. The executive producers are Milan and Dipali Goswami. The show is directed by Michelle Cutolo.
“I think that we need more South Asian characters being sexualized on screen and stage. We often aren’t painted as desirable, so I wanted to flip the script and change that narrative,” says Reddy, an Indian-American who was raised in Tennessee before he moved to Boston and New York for studies and work. He was once approached by a man at a bar, who thought he was an escort. When Reddy revealed that he wasn’t, the man suggested that it was hardly surprising because Indians apparently do not do such things. The idea of INSOMNIA was born from that interaction.
Reddy says, “I find that many South Asian characters in media are totally whitewashed or they are a caricature of who we are as people. I wanted to strike a balance with those elements because they are important to me and it’s also just how my friends, family, and I interact with one another.” His parents grew up in Hyderabad, and they ensured that he spent most summer vacations in India to keep in touch with his roots. He is grateful for their insistence on the idea that he could be an American citizen, and proud of his Indian heritage at the same time. He has been following the work of Madhuri Dixit and Amitabh Bachchan since childhood.
Nikhil, the character he plays in INSOMNIA, speaks a bit of Telugu. He eats idlis for breakfast, wears a Ganesha locket to honour the memory of his mother who chose death by suicide, and lives with an aunt battling multiple sclerosis. He leaves his job as a bartender, and takes up sex work, to pay his aunt’s medical bills. While the family has its own share of emotional drama, the show does not stereotype desi parents and elders as people who stigmatize non-heteronormative sexuality. The story of Nikhil’s coming out is not part of the show. He is depicted as someone who is comfortable with his sexuality.
“Lots of queer South Asians have reached out via social media saying that they have felt seen through the show and it truly makes me thrilled to hear that… I hope it allows further conversation about LGBTQ+ humans within the South Asian community,” says Reddy. His focus in this show, however, is on the much misunderstood and reviled B in that rainbow acronym. One of the episodes features a powerful montage sequence that shows the kind of prejudice and humiliation that bisexual individuals have to face not only among people who uphold compulsory heterosexuality but also within the queer community. They are seen as promiscuous, untrustworthy, non-committal, going through a phase, wanting the best of both worlds, or as being sex maniacs.
“We live in a society where labels give people comfort. When the label opens up the opportunity for questioning, people don’t know how to react or respond to it,” says Reddy. “Because society has built up this idea that we must be straight or gay, when people don’t fit into this box, they begin to question the mere existence of the entity. I am a bisexual man and have experienced much biphobia throughout the years but I am confident in who I am…We should allow people to just live and be themselves.”
It is significant that INSOMNIA is set in New York, a city with a rich history of queer activism — most notably the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Though it cannot lay claim to being entirely free of violence against the LGBTQ+ community, it has a vast number of bars, support groups, health services, and grassroots organizations serving this community. It is an attractive destination for queer desis, who also organize locally through associations such as SALGA. Reddy remarks, “ It is a pretty intense yet magical place. It is vibrant, messy, resilient, and beautiful all in one breath…I am also reminded that I am lucky to live in a city where queer people can express themselves in all different forms freely and openly which is a gift.”
Reddy has met meet some of the most dynamic queer people in his life through his work in theatre. They have helped him push his boundaries in terms of both his art and his politics. He is trying to build a more vibrant queer community in his life by going to queer events, putting himself out there, and connecting with people who share his interests. This is also because he felt very much like an outsider in his adolescent years.
After 9/11, as racism was on the rise, Reddy was part of an unfortunate incident wherein some children at a church yelled “Taliban, Taliban, Taliban” at him. He says, “It really mortified me and forced me to retreat into my shell. I didn’t want to be different and I just wanted to fit in. But as I grew up those experiences have allowed me to be the proud queer Indian human that I am today.”
This feeling of pride is not merely about raising his self-esteem. It has to do with owning his heritage not out of compulsion but as an act of agency. That is why, with INSOMNIA, he decided to create a show that would hire a lot of South Asian talent. “Even for my crew, I made sure that most of the people were of color and that there were many females on set. Most of my top positions were female identifying individuals. Changing the landscape of the industry doesn’t just happen on camera, but it truly begins with our crew, writers, producers, casting directors, and everyone else helping to make the project a reality.”