Writer-Director Vidhya Iyer: Parents, Children, & Brown Love
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The release of Crazy Rich Asians marks a major milestone as the first major Hollywood film to feature a majority Westernized Asian cast since Joy Luck Club, released nearly a quarter century ago as of September 2018.
With the first three weeks of release dominating the box office and a sequel on the way, a great deal of online buzz surrounding the film is on how its success will lead to improved representation of Asian Americans in entertainment – and the long overdue end of replacing Asian characters with white ones in films and TV, as was suggested by one early prospective producer for Constance Wu’s character in Crazy Rich Asians.
However, that a film featuring a Chinese American protagonist in the world of the wealthy Singaporean Chinese elite is considered a win for representation of a highly diverse community – one that, as people often forget, includes South Asians – highlights just how complicated the politics of media representation are both domestically and globally.
One criticism of the film from Singaporeans is that due to its focus, it effectively erases the Malaysian and Indian communities there who face discrimination daily, in addition to having similar representational problems as Asian Americans in Singaporean media.
Ultimately, the burden of pressure for any singular film to represent an entire community that cannot possibly be distilled to a single film only exists due to a lack of other stories by and for that community. The only real steps toward a solution within the industry are to encourage and support these talented voices the way people do any other talented voice in Hollywood –enjoying those stories as an audience, and voting with our wallets.
Vidhya Iyer is one such voice. Having studied computer science in college, she graduated from the American Film Institute this past year and has since taken significant strides with a career in entertainment.
Vidhya Iyer on the set of Raksha, which she co-wrote, and which was named Best Film at the Delhi International Film Festival, by Barbara Doux, via Facebook.
A 2018 CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) New Writers Fellow, now working on Apple’s big scripted series contender as part of Executive Producer David H. Goodman’s team for the newly rebooted Amazing Stories, she is a decidedly down to Earth, Indian-Nigerian-American writer with an interest in exploring the “brown love” between immigrant parents and their children.
The pilot that got her in the CAPE Fellowship – called PG 30 – is a sitcom about a young Indian-American woman who enters a sham marriage with her gay male Indian-American roommate, and is forced into maintaining appearances when her roommate’s mother, the “mother-in-law”, comes to stay with them indefinitely.
“I personally feel I don’t confront my issues when it comes to my own family. I try to avoid them as much as possible,” says Vidhya, speaking to the inspiration for the pilot. “Like, if I just avoid it for long enough maybe it’ll go away.
"So, I wrote two characters who are so hell-bent on not confronting their problem that they take their lives to very, very extreme levels. Both Laxmi [the protagonist] and Venkat [the gay roommate] are very scared to be themselves; they’re not good at being authentic and confronting their families with who they really are.”
Vidhya mentions that representation of LGBTQ South Asians is important for her, making Venkat as integral to her story as Laxmi. “I have a couple of very close friends who are queer and still to this day have a very hard time coming to terms with it, and helping their parents come to terms with it. A lot of them deflect or tell themselves they’re doing their parents a favor by keeping it away from them, and I think that’s something that’s very unique to the Asian queer experience.”
While Vidhya has not faked a marriage with a gay friend to get her parents off her back – that would be ludicrous, and she says it’s too challenging to find the right gay guy to fit her parents’ expectations – the premise for the pilot was definitely influenced by personal experience.
“I was in my second year at AFI. My parents really wanted me to get married… and I really didn’t want me to get married. My mom kept sending me all these potential husbands. It was like Tinder, only with Indian engineers from the Bay Area. So, I’m swiping left on all these perfectly amazing guys with stable incomes while (secretly) dating the whitest guy ever. Then, at one point, we unwisely used the ‘pulling out’ method of contraception – which I do not recommend! – and I had a small pregnancy scare.”
While the pregnancy was just a scare, it was her reaction to the idea her parents might find out that planted the seed for her story. “My first thought wasn’t, you know, ‘Am I having a kid? Can I raise a kid?’ It was, ‘How am I going to hide a kid from my parents?’ And the next thought was, ‘Maybe they’ll be more chill if it’s an Indian kid, so I’m gonna spray tan the kid’… I definitely didn’t have a normal reaction, and thought it was funny that that was where my brain went.”
Vidhya Iyer, via vidhyaiyer.com
COMEDY, IMMIGRANT PARENTS, AND BROWN LOVE
While Vidhya and her brain are definitely skilled in comedy – she regularly performs improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles (a troupe whose veterans include Amy Poehler, Kate McKinnon, Ed Helms, Donald Glover, and Ellie Kemper) along with her own stand-up – her main vision for the show is more about exploring relationships through grounded, heightened realism instead of over the top comedy.
“I want to see the dirty, nitty gritty part of relationships with Asian immigrant parents – where you see that it doesn’t magically get better. They don’t suddenly all come on board, and everything is neatly tied in a bow by the end of your movie or show. I’ve never seen that happen or heard anybody whose story has gone that way with any of my friends.
"There’s this long period of fighting, tension… it’s important to see that that’s normal. I want to see people who are not on the same page, how they coexist, and the process – that long, drawn out, uncomfortable process of trying to get two generations who love each other but don’t agree on anything to kind of accept each other. They don’t necessarily get happy about it, but I think they learn to accept each other.”
“It’s so hard for immigrant parents," says Vidhya. "They leave everything they know behind to go to a place where they don’t know anyone, and start a new life. And they do it all so their kids can have a better life. There’s so much hard work, sacrifice, and unconditional love.
"But there is this fundamental divide – they just don’t have the same background. My parents both grew up in very remote places in rural India, and they worked so hard to get to where they are. I think those immigrant parents in most films or TV shows end up being reduced to this one-dimensional joke. You don’t see that other side of just how smart, funny they are… how much love they have to give.”
Ultimately, Vidhya finds both humor and distress in the deep, complex bond with her family – which is best described as brown love. “There’s something very intense about Asian relationships, but also just ‘brown love’. It’s this very intense thing. There’s this ride or die feeling with your family, yet there’s so much conflict because everyone is a type A personality; everyone is kind of an alpha. But they won’t abandon each other.
"I’ve been through a lot of tough times with my family. We’ll argue, get upset, cry… and then at the end we’re still laughing about something stupid. We’re not going to agree about everything, but that doesn’t change the fact that we love each other. It might be like a f***-ed-up Stockholm Syndrome version of a relationship, but still… I know at the end of the day if I need something I can call my mom.
"She’ll say ‘Oh, you’re not married,’ or ‘You’re not doing this,’ but she’ll also help me out at the same time, and there’s something very funny about those kinds of relationships. They’ll make a lot empty threats, but at the end of the day you’re their kid. We love each other, and we’ll figure out a way to tolerate each other, if nothing else.”
COMMUNITY, REPRESENTATION, AND WHAT'S NEXT
Outside of this pilot, and her position on Amazing Stories, Vidhya is keeping busy – she’s directing a short film she wrote called Jean, about a special needs caregiver, co-writing a feature script in consideration for the Sundance feature film program, as well as writing scripts for an Indian production company overseas.
Of course, none of these many projects would be possible without the community of friends, coworkers, and collaborators that she’s made as she has been working her way through the very relationship based industry.
Vidhya at her CAPE New Writers graduation
“My biggest takeaway is always the people that I end up going through these projects with. I think more than anything else, it’s the people that you meet who are at the same level as you are, trying to do the same things as you are, who really help you kind of get to the next level. You collaborate, get notes, lift each other up, and I think that’s the greatest thing.
"That was my favorite part about CAPE too," says Vidhya. "It’s a community, and it’s a community of Asian writers, which is fantastic. They’re new friends that I feel like I’m going to have for the rest of my (hopefully) long career. With both AFI and CAPE I’ve met so many people that I have great relationships with, and great respect for. It is just this community of people who are looking out for each other, and trying to help each other get to where they want to go.”
No single film or project will change things on its own, but as part of a movement – a community of people united, yet still with distinct and unique perspectives – we can get to where we want to go: enough room for many talented voices to be heard, without the burden of representing a whole people.
Follow Vidhya on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and learn more at VidhyaIyer.com.