Hollywood has until very recently portrayed Indian-Americans as caricatures (similar to its representation of LGBTQ people); there's the man behind the counter at the bodega, a woman with a thick accent, families serving strange food, recurring stereotypes and not a lot else.
But in Bollywood, things are different.
In sharp contrast, Vishaal Reddy, the creator and star of the new web series, Insomnia, was able to see people on screen who looked like him. They were everywhere in Bollywood, in roles big and small. Accessing these films, which existed outside of mainstream American culture, allowed Reddy to see that his Indian heritage was something to be celebrated. "They taught me that our bodies were beautiful, no matter the shade of our skin, size, social status, or sexual orientation."
Reddy also names Mindy Kaling, Kal Penn, Nik Dodani, Kumail Nanjiani, Ritesh Rajan, and Priyanka Chopra as evidence of an industry that is in the early stages of change. Reddy says these actors and creators are "challenging the narrative that South Asian performers can truly be multifaceted and do a multitude of things."
This multiplicity is present in Insomnia, a darkly comedic web series where Vishaal Reddy plays Nikhil Rao, a bisexual writer who secretly moonlights as an escort to help support his sick aunt. Representation for Indian-Americans, bisexuals, and sex workers is sparse; a single character, especially male, whose identity intersects in each of these areas is an almost non-existent list.
Talking with sex workers while writing the script, Reddy learned about the types of clients people have, stigmas they face, and how compensation and stories vary among everybody. "They're all entrepreneurs and have to think like business people just like everyone else," he says, also pointing out that it's one of the few professions where women will make more money than men.
It was important to Reddy that this character, Nikhil, have a sexual agency, something that the Indian-American stereotype rarely allows for onscreen. "And let's be real," Reddy says, "East Indians created the Kama Sutra...so it's not like we're not having sex."
Reddy, like his character, is bisexual, something he struggled a lot with growing up. He felt like he could be gay or he could be straight. Then he turned 21, moved to New York City, and started down the path of exploring and ultimately embracing his bisexuality. This was part of the story he wanted to tell, and he does so with a charm and intelligence that helps carry the series, which also grapples with racism, trauma, euphoria, and the universal issue of insomnia.
Watch the trailer and first episode of Insomnia below. New episodes are released every Thursday.