“The first episode is NSFW”
The email came with a warning, but I somehow managed open the YouTube video in a pub, where I was working, with no headphones.
The loud grunting and image of a Stormtrooper fucking Darth Vader filled my eyes and ears, and I was hooked. I forgot where I was, staring eagerly at Darth Vader taking it in the ass with such stride. Good on you Darth, I thought. It took a few seconds before others around me noticed what was happening and I wondered if they all thought I was casually watching porn in a pub.
The rest of the episode is just as intriguing – it takes us on the journey of depressed bisexual Indian-American insomniac, writer and sex worker Nikhil (played by the show’s creator Vishaal Reddy). It has a similar vibe to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag – there’s uncomfortable truths littered throughout, either through conversations or when Nikhil’s breaking the fourth wall.
“So many comedies that I admire, Fleabag, The Office, Chewing Gum, Parks and Recreation, break the fourth wall. I love the concept and I wasn't sure if it would fit the tone of the show. As I kept developing it, I wanted Nikhil to have three different personalities: one where he's with his family and friends, one when he's escorting, and one when he's speaking the truth. The break is meant to signify to the audience that they are in on his inner most thoughts. The audience is the only group that truly knows how he feels about a situation or human. It felt like a great way to bring people together and truly feel like they see themselves in the character.”
And it really does allow you to gain a deeper connection with the character – you know not only what he’s thinking, but he reaffirms at times what you are, too. Watching as a bisexual Indian woman, there were way too many moments when I felt very seen.
“Growing up, I never really saw similar looking brown bodies on screen or stage so I just thought that was a norm. It wasn't until I really started coming into my own artistry, culture, and sexuality that I realised the importance of a variety of stories. South Asian characters are often the least dynamic ones in our media and I was frustrated by those portrayals when I know our people to be vibrant, smart, complicated, messy, and well...human. I wanted to also bring opportunities to people who might not have them presented otherwise. Growing up as a bisexual Indian-American, I would loved to have seen a show like this for me. Hence, why I created it.”
We don’t see ourselves as multi-dimensional – we don’t have mental health issues, we’re not bisexual and we definitely don’t enjoy sex. We’re not allowed that much depth, so when we do see it, it’s important it’s done well. Reddy was prepared to write with depth as he, like many South Asians, is a multifaceted person.
“I struggle with depression and anxiety. Being a creative is hard! Being a human is even harder! Everyone goes through times of feeling less than, worthless, or not your best self. And that's okay. But it was important for me to have a lead South Asian character still live his life, see his friends, go out, drink, have sex, go to work, etc. but also still struggling internally
I don't mean to generalise, but as a South Asian person, we take so much stock in appearance and making sure everything about ourselves are so put together that we don't actually take the time to be honest and real about the issue that are pervasive in our own communities. I wanted Nikhil to be a complex depiction of how mental health can take a toll on a human and how this person acknowledges it and takes steps to remedy his poor state of mind.”
I was pleasantly surprised to see conversations around sex work with a South Asian man, without any stigmas outside of hijinks involved in sitcom narratives.
“Sex work to me is fascinating because we are living in an age where many humans are in this industry, it's a key part of their livelihood and survival, and they are fighting for the decriminalisation of this work. They’re fighting to just be seen. There are so many political and socioeconomic conversations to be had about this work and with INSOMNIA, we hope to tap into those while also dispelling stereotypes that often plague these stories. I got to interview sex workers in preparation for this part because I wanted a variety of experiences to be shown in the show. There were truly remarkable conversations that we had and I hope that we shed lights on the good, bad, and ugly aspects of the profession, while also showcasing the complex value judgements that society places on these workers. These individuals were some of the sharpest and smartest humans I've ever met and they truly take ownership and pride in this work. That to me is just the beginning of a good story.”
The second episode introduces us to his “asshole” Aunt Meera, who deals with MS and during their heated conversation, we find out that Nikhil’s mother has passed away. In a rare moment that discusses the difficulties of families, we see unexpected reactions from both, reminding us that bereavement is not a simple concept. “Grief is something that I've experienced. It's something that my family members have experienced. Grief manifests itself in so many different ways. And I've always been a fan of art that makes a person laugh and then a moment later will make you cry. That to me is representative of life. It's not an easy thing to talk about honestly and openly, but it must be done, especially in South Asian communities. Grief is something everyone has dealt or will deal with and we wanted to be honest in why this character is the way he is. We wanted to show the nuances of how grief affects not only your relationships but also your mind and mental state. The grief aspect was a large part as to why Nikhil breaks the fourth wall and talks to the camera. I wanted the audience to be the only people to truly feel his pain even through the comedic elements of the show. They are the only one's that fully see his truth.”
There are six episodes of INSOMNIA, all between 8 – 12 minutes long. Despite the short episodes, Reddy manages to create 3 dimensional characters – you learn more about these characters in the short episodes than you do in many of the TV shows trending on Netflix. This shows to great writing and execution. There are times you see the performances waver – these actors are great, don’t get me wrong, but you find yourself imagining what a larger budget and casting choices would do for this show. It’s a luxury that larger productions have, which make them well rounded on the side of production and rarely on writing. Maybe a big production team needs to hire Reddy to write something for them, because our representation isn’t just from what we see on screen, but from those who are writing our stories.
“Our ultimate goal is to get this onto a larger platform and television network where we have more resources to tell more stories. Additionally, my production company (Reddy Set Go Productions) hope to produce more South Asian specific content! There's so many incredible South artists trying to tell stories on screen and stage. So, let's change our own narrative and share these with the world.”
Check out all episodes on YouTube and watch the trailer below.