Interview with an Artist: Abi Varghese

“Interview with an Artist” is a recurring Lucky Penny Mag feature that allows us behind the paintbrush, tablet pen, and camera to get to know a unique artist. For the segment’s fourth installment we talked with Abi Varghese, an Indian-American director and filmmaker known for the Malayalam sitcom Akkara Kazhchakal.

abi vargheseAbi Varghese. Photo courtesy of Infamous Coconuts. 

We spoke with Abi about his newest series Brown Nation, which premiered on Netflix in 2016 and holds a 99% Rotten Tomatoes audience rating. Brown Nation is an easygoing comedy set in New York City, focused around main character Hasmukh’s (Rajeev Verma) struggling IT business. Shenaz Treasurywala (Dehli Belly, The Big Sick) plays Dimple, an aspiring artist and Hasmukh’s wife. Desi viewers will also recognize Omi Vaidya of 3 Idiots fame in the role of Balan, the eager new employee at Hasmukh’s office.

Brown Nation tells the story of the average Indian-American, and it does it so easily and authentically that you wonder why it took so long for this to happen. While some portrayals of brown people in North American TV and film are lazy, some are simply diversity tokens, and others are necessary but hard-to-watch lessons in history and social issues, Brown Nation is a simple, light-hearted sitcom that doesn’t white-wash its characters or rely on stereotypes and tropes. Hasmukh and Co. speak with realistic accents, sometimes exchange quips in hometown languages, and eat dhokla, but they also end up in funny, tricky situations and engage in bona fide sitcom shenanigans, making Brown Nation a show that actually represents the brown nation.

Read on for our conversation with Abi to learn about how Brown Nation came together, and where it’s going.

How do you describe Brown Nation?

Brown Nation is a comedy about a family in New York, a situational comedy about everyday events that happen in our lives. It’s about a guy that struggles to make ends meet with a dysfunctional family and a weird office.

Where do you draw inspiration from for Brown Nation and in general, as a creator?

I think most of the stuff that we get inspired from is our own family, and our own situations happening around us. I’ve seen a lot of people like Hasmukh in Jersey, in New York, that are struggling to make a business happen but it’s not happening. Family situations, my life, and something from the other two creators’ lives are all inspirations.

Brown Nation reaches an in-between audience that might feel too Indian for America/too American for India. How did you achieve that balance in writing the story?

That’s a good question… we aren’t your typical Indian sitcom or your typical American sitcom, so when we were pushing it to networks, it wasn’t connecting. When Netflix came on, we really found our audience. We never aggressively wrote towards [the in-between audience] – we just wrote with ourselves in mind. Although we live in an Indian household, we have Caucasian, Arab, African-American friends, and Brown Nation reflects that. Another thing we wanted is to give authenticity to our characters, so instead of using mainstream names like Raj, we went with a Gujarati name like Hasmukh – it’s an older name, but it means “a happy, smiling face”, which reflects the character.

We also incorporated all the languages we hear – Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Malayalam, Tamil – so to make it authentic, we tried to make sure that those languages don’t just get converted to English, and when there’s a Tamil guy on screen, he speaks a bit of Tamil.

So, Brown Nation is really fluid, and you and I can see that, but do you ever feel like the show gets boxed into certain categories? I came across a Times of India piece that referred to the show as “India-themed” which is so weird and vague, I don’t even know what that means…

“India-themed?”

Yeah. 

Well, that’s the first time I’m hearing that, but we do get boxed in. We get compared to Master of None, as a slapstick comedy, and I never thought of it that way. It’s definitely been pigeon-holed as an independent production, which is fine because I guess that is kind of where we are.

It feels like all at once all these different things are happening for South Asians – Master of None, Quantico, The Big Sick – what are your thoughts? What does Brown Nation bring that these shows don’t?

I think it’s a great thing. I’m a fan of Master of None. But there’s tons of other stories that could be told – even my experience, as a four-year-old in the nineties in America when there weren’t that many Indians here, I don’t think that story has ever really been told in a comical and lighthearted manner, but there’s opportunities now that could open up. Brown Nation taking off on Netflix could give people, independent productions, the chance to get their stuff out there, things that we might not have been able to before.

What was the process of getting Brown Nation to Netflix?

It’s been a long process, because Brown Nation is an independent product. We funded it using private investors, completed it, then sold it. It was never requested by a bigger channel, because we knew at the time that this kind of show wouldn’t be requested. We had a story, and we had to push it out. We knew it would be the fastest way to get something like this out there.

So, after it was done, we spent about a year searching for a place for this, and we got rejected by a lot of people. But Netflix launched in India in January 2016 and they found that the show catered to an audience they were reaching out to, and it worked for them.

Speaking of Indian audiences, you’ve got some recognizable Bollywood faces on the show. What have you been hearing from India? Is there a big reach?

Netflix doesn’t really give out any info on the audience, but we manage audiences through social media, and we’ve been getting a lot of traction from the metro cities in India, the Middle East, London… and it really helps that the show is in 190 countries,  because it sends a message of even though this is an independent thing, our world isn’t confined to India.

Right. I feel like if Brown Nation had ended up on an English network, it might have defeated the purpose of the show. It’s reaching this in-between audience and one network like that wouldn’t have worked the way Netflix does. 

Yeah, I definitely agree with that.

What is the name Brown Nation supposed to signify?

In the beginning, everyone was telling me “no, it’s a little too aggressive” but I never thought of it that way. I just felt like it was kind of empowering to brown people, a cool catch phrase that worked. When we pitched it out to Netflix and everyone was saying “no” to the name, I thought Netflix might too, but they didn’t say anything. It was an easy sell, and the name sticks and resonates with people.

Looking back at all the work you and your team put into season one, what do you think you have learned about writing and creating?

We did learn a lot. One of the best things I learned is that when you write for a film, it’s pretty solid, and your characters are done. You know the outcome from the release date, if it worked or didn’t work. But with a TV show, it’s a little bit easier, because you have time to build characters a little more. You can make up for a weaker episode. The audience will allow you to work with wiggle-room.

With our old series, Akkara Kazhchakal, we learned a lot about how to write Brown Nation. When we write the second season, we’ll know our strengths – what is the joke, how long is the payoff, things like that.

Speaking of the second season, what’s the news on that?

We’re waiting on Netflix to renew us – it really just depends on that. There’s a good likelihood based on the social media traction, but we just need the “go” from Netflix.

Last question – other than Brown Nation of course, what new or underrated TV, movies, or web series would you recommend to people?

Pitchers is a good [web series] from India. And I’ve really been getting into Fargo, and it makes me want to explore more mystery in what I make, within the South-Asian realm of course.

You can watch season one of Brown Nation on Netflix and support it on social media via Facebook and Twitter. Catch the trailer below.

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