He’s a Bengali-American stand-up comedian (no daak nam here) hailing from Dallas and co-host of MangoBae, a raunchy podcast where anything goes – sex, religion, family, racism, cancel culture, ISIS – along with fellow comic and friend Pranav Behari.
Once on track to enter medical school and become a doctor, Usama switched gears to pursue his true calling: making people laugh. He has appeared on BET’s “50 Central,” Showtime’s “Desus and Mero,” and this year he performed on “America’s Got Talent” and struck a chord with the audience, judging by the nearly 3 million views his audition racked up.
Earlier this year, we sat down for a Zoom interview. If his South Asian upbringing wasn’t made apparent by the heavy wooden furnishings (completely with canopy bed) decorating the bedroom from where he sat in his parents’ home in Texas, it’s certainly clear by the decibel at which he responded to his mother in the background.
Forgoing the stability of a doctor title for a career track with undefined success metrics may seem like a daring move for a first-generation immigrant. But, according to Usama, it was the best decision he could have made for himself.
On the outside, we’re seeing the inspirational story of someone who strayed off the beaten path to pursue their passion. What I hear is that you were set to go to medical school and turned to comedy.
He just looked at me.
“You’re, like, revisiting my old trauma.”
On the bright side, you’re exploding on social media and you’ve got monumental experiences under your belt. Obviously, transitioning from one of the most traditional career paths for brown people to pursue probably couldn’t have been easy. Tell me your story.
“I was always on the med school path. My whole life, I was doing stuff my parents wanted me to do. The moment the MCAT ended I was like – this is the last thing I have to do for my mom until med school starts. In this interim period, let me see what I actually wanna do. I told my friend about this, and he was already doing comedy. He said yeah you can do comedy in Dallas! And it blew my fucking mind – you can do comedy?
The arcs when you’re desi, it’s very much through a wall. You think other people can do it, but even the inkling that you can pursue that…it wasn’t like ‘don’t do it’ – it was more like, ‘what do you mean, stand up?’ What is that?”
Nevertheless, he took the plunge. He describes his first foray into the spotlight.
“I was the worst comic in the world. I had Bin Laden puns. It was horrific. But it worked really well – I probably killed because my energy was just so nervous and intense, and it paraded through the writing and shocked them into laughing.
But that first reaction was so powerful. Something ignited, and I said ‘okay let me just see, secretly’. Because, first, when a Bengali finds his thing, you can’t tell anyone about it because not only are your parents not gonna like it, your friends will be like what are you talking about? You’re not funny. It’s not just ‘Desi parents shitting on us’ – we like to make it ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ But really, the entire engine is geared for you to not do this.”
It was like your trajectory pivoted once you took the MCAT. Did you have any desire to do comedy prior to that or prior to checking off that last box?
“I was funny with my friends, but I was a shy kid. I was terrified. The first time I remember making a group of people laugh…you remember Julius Caesar by Shakespeare? This would be way more inspiring if this was Rabindra Tagore.
It was the Brutus speech, I did it with a very affectatious British accent, very racist, and I remember everyone was dying. That was the first time I remember a group of people laughing because I was a shy kid. But doing that got laughs and I was like, ‘this – whatever this amorphous feeling is, I want that forever.’
And it was only the offhand comment to my friend after the MCAT when I said ‘hey I wanna do comedy,’ that made him go, ‘hey I do comedy already.’ That was fortuitous, and he locked me into that path.
I was terrified to tell anybody about it, so I kept doing it secretly. Eventually, I watched this documentary right before I had to go to med school.”
“It’s about this 85-year-old sushi chef who’s the best in the business. The way he described it was, ‘My whole journey, my whole reason for being is this thing that I can give my life to. I can walk the path of someone who has this purpose day in day out – and I did, I gave my life to this and my entire being was devoted to this singular purpose of getting better at making sushi.’
That clicked – that idea of living for a purpose that isn’t acquisition-based. Desis, we are very acquisition based. ‘Get this, get that, achieve this, achieve that’. The Indian dream and the American dream are very much the same thing; it’s acquiring to get status. It’s not a bad thing, it works for a lot of people and helped us out of so many things. I would never want to bash the dream of the immigrant parent. It’s the reason I can do what I do right now.
But the idea of walking a path for the sake of getting better at one thing and nothing else? That blew my mind.”
The notion burrowed its way into Usama’s head, sealing his fate.
“The last day before I had to defer med school forever, I popped some shrooms to see what would happen. I thought the shrooms would tell me the truth. The shrooms told me, that Usama if you don’t do this, you’re gonna regret it for the rest of your life. The next day, I told my parents I wasn’t going to med school.”
Confidence didn’t save Usama from his parents’ wrath.
“I’ve never seen such a difference in face – the U-turn of emotion. I was like ‘Ammu, Abbu, medical school korchi nah. Comedy korchi!’ My mom started screaming, my dad did the head in the hand thing. My mom started throwing things around.”
I would imagine that they wouldn’t even take you seriously.
“That’s the fear with Desis. They sing and dance all the time, but they don’t know the world. They don’t know the mechanisms by which to succeed in this idea. So that’s what they were fighting against. But looking back it’s like, they weren’t trying to inflict pain upon you, it’s just a world that they didn’t know. They were trying to protect their kid from something that could bring them a ton of pain.
If I had known what I know now, six years ago, I wouldn’t have done it. The level of pain, the level of bullshit, trauma. But that’s the choice. You’re a naïve kid, but it’s such a pure purpose to give your entire life to something.”
There’s no clear-cut path to success in a creative endeavor. With the path to med school, the route is outlined and then you’re eventually there. With the creative process, its zigzagging and you still don’t know if there’s a result at the end.
“But here’s the thing, you don’t know if you’re gonna get cancer tomorrow. So what is this idea, set your life up so you can get a life tomorrow? You have no idea what’s going on, you don’t know what’s gonna happen in five minutes. It seems like such a Western idea, or it seems like a flippant thing. But if you plan for everything, you’re not gonna engage in anything.
There’s no real insurance in life. Insurance is a complete bullshit concept even at its most stable. It doesn’t make sense to me. If I die penniless, it’ll be with a smile because I went for something. Everything after that moment in saying I’m going to go to New York and do this has been bonus. It seems like a very privileged thing to do, a luxurious thing to do.”
It’s so nuanced. It’s not like our parents didn’t want to pursue their own dreams. It’s really this whole transitional process, and I think that our generation is the first generation to bridge the gap between this old world and the new world.
“Part of having a better life is self-actualization and the ability to make your own choices. What they did was bring their 70s, 80s ideologies and tried to enforce this upon us. Meanwhile India and Bangladesh are growing, America’s growing, and our parents have this time capsule of thought that is locking their brains. Our parents were so badass, the greatest generation. But you wanted a better life for me, let me have my better life.
You came here to survive; let me make us thrive. Let me make a stamp on this culture. There was no stamping of culture for them. They came to survive, they grew the most badass people in recognition. Now, we have this opportunity to make a stamp on this American landscape of culture.”
We talked about his upbringing in Dallas.
“There was fear growing up – it paid to be quick thinking at home, but it paid to be quick thinking at school too. Brown kid after 9/11 in South Texas, that’s a whole different thing. They’re not super sensitive about where you’re coming from so the status is completely low for Brown people down South, at least twenty years ago.
You have Islam on this side, the mom whopping your ass and creating all this tension on that side. You have the school being antagonistic and throwing you in the bottom of the totem pole. All I had was other Indian kids who were just as nerdy and just as scrawny as I was, and we would just joke around and play games.
But what we’re going through in our lives is kind of what Italians, Irish people from 1940s could understand in New York, that same level of ‘what the fuck am I?’”
What was the immediate experience in moving to New York like? What are some of the things that took you by surprise in this journey and what are things that were unexpected but both good and bad?
“Immediately, what I loved about New York was that you can do four sets in one night. For six years I was doing 2, 3, 4 shows a night, every night, going out, getting better. I loved that so much here – you get as good as you wanna get at your craft. There’s every opportunity to get better at something.
But what was bad was, you buy one smoothie and your fuckin’ wallet’s gone.
It was very expensive. There’s no budgeting, there’s no financial ability, I had no idea what I’m doing with anything, I didn’t have any sort of money. My friends raised some money for me before I moved to New York, but I spent it all in like two days. It’s insane how expensive the city was, and I wasn’t ready.”
We turned to the story of his early days navigating New York City by encountering every newcomers’ first nightmare: finding housing.
“The first place I stayed at was this dingy ass place in Bushwick. I got kicked out one day out of nowhere because the guy I was subleasing from was subleasing from someone else secretly, and that guy got into some trouble. One day I get into my place and it was locked: I couldn’t get back into my own room.
So I’m sleeping on my friend’s couch and I ask him, hey do you know anywhere that I can stay?”
Enter the crack den.
“He said, there’s this one guy who lives in a crack den in Canarsie. I’m like, crack den? What do you mean people just doin’ crack? He’s like, ‘…just a crack den, like crackheads chill there.’
It was a foreclosed house. It had no water supply, electricity was being siphoned off a different house, unbeknownst to ConEd. The bottom floor was a straight crack den, just debris everywhere.
Upstairs, it was a cleaner house. I had one room in the middle that was pristine. I stayed in this room with no rent, saved my ass a ton of money. For water I would go to Planet Fitness and I would get jugs of water and bring them back. I would use that water to microwave spaghetti, to brush my teeth, to wash, everything.
But I never thought it was a harsh life: every day I was waking up and I wasn’t even staying home. I would leave at 9AM, work all day, do PostMates all day, delivery drive – delivery walk, all day. Do comedy from 5-1, come back home, pass out, rinse repeat.
I lived with no income, but I was so happy, every day was so full, every day was beautiful and purposeful.
I couldn’t tell my mom – she had no idea about what I’ve done. She still has no idea; if she did, she would cry immediately. They’ll know one day. It’ll break their hearts a little bit. But it’s what happened, it’s what it was. New York can give you a lot really quick. It’s the only city that can give or take based on what you give into it. So, I gave whatever I could to New York.
If I fail, it’s not gonna be because I didn’t go for it all. So, I did it – I kept going, got a tutoring job that paid better. Started making some actual money… But those couple of years, that’s the worst part of New York. The poverty’s right there, it’s right behind you. You’re just one mistake away.”
How did you come to explore or define your style of comedy? What does your routine look like when you’re writing jokes or being inventive?
“The bravest thing you can do is be yourself. Because that is the scariest thing – to bring your entire humanity for everyone to see. Don’t go out, in – go in, out.
The comedy can be described as rambunctious, a little mischievous, high energy. Kinda like if your raunchy smart best friend was just goofing off with you.
When you’re in stand-up, that’s when the real toughness comes in. Starting the dream and choosing it is one part. But sticking to yourself while you go for that dream is a whole different game. In the beginning, you’re so bad at what you do that all you wanna do is survive. But in that survival era, you could pick some very bad habits because all you wanna do is not have everyone hate you.
All you want to do is be accepted by the people who are good at what they do, more than everybody else. You don’t give a fuck about anything else except the love and acceptance of your peers. And sometimes, the stuff you do might go contrary to what they accept, but it’s totally in line with who you are, and it’s so imperative that you stay true to yourself, even if you’re bombing your ass off.”
People in the creative process get that advice often – be yourself, stay true to yourself, but when so much of what we consider to be progress is contingent on what the audience reception is to you. How do you avoid being pigeon-holed with all the other people who do this?
“South Asians get pigeon-holed pretty quick. We’re attaining respect now, after years and years of struggling in this business. We still have a chip on our shoulders, especially new comics, because growing up we were not lauded in any way in terms of our desi-ness, in terms of our culture. And now it’s celebrated because we did it, we’re making it like that.
But the issue with stand-up and any sort of good art is that if it just stays in your experience, it’s not gonna be something that’s actually used by the masses of people. You have to work on that Venn Diagram and think, where does my experience relate to these people? If you don’t do that second part, you’re just gonna be talking about your parents with nobody understanding what the fuck you’re talking about.
Your journey is important but make it a joke – make it something that’s usable for everybody.”
You’ve spun a lot of things that could’ve served as a disadvantage to your favor. Growing up in Texas in a post-9/11 world, with the name Usama can’t have been easy. Even being Bangladeshi – Indians have found some success in comedy, but not Bengalis just yet.
“I love Bangladesh with all my fuckin’ soul. My parents took me to all the onushtans (events), every function, your boy was at. You don’t realize until later that it’s such a powerful thing. When you’re a kid, the least cool thing you could do was go listen to the singer that’s in the theater when your parents took you to the onushtans. But now you look back and you’re like, that was the most beautiful part of my life.
The idea that we even have to say this is who we are – how can they respect us if they don’t even know who we are? We just gotta show them on a map, this is where Bangladesh is. They can’t even fathom how much our parents did to get Bangladesh on the map. They just think it’s all India. People died for the line to be Bangladesh.
I think it’s on us too. When someone says you’re Indian, it’s like No, I’m Bengali. My Dad is from Calcutta, so I’m technically half nationalistically Indian, half Bengali. But ethnically, full Bengali.”
You do standup, but you also have your podcast MangoBae and have an active online presence. How do you find your niche, and do you feel compelled to test all the avenues or is it best to stick to one?
“Let that Desi idea of diversifying your portfolio stay in. Be smart about what you’re doing, don’t just have the artist mentality– let’s make some money off it, let’s be smart about it. Part of that is diversifying and going into every possible medium. But in those mediums, be yourself…
The podcast MangoBae, that was me and my best boy Pranav, also a hilarious standup comic. We were like okay – a lot of brown comedy online is very sterile. It’s kinda like minority comedy for white people. Easy, never rocks the boat, very ‘whites gave us this fake box.’
So, all these hidden boxes that encapsulate us, we said let’s just make the rowdiest, most rambunctious, the most heartfelt, every emotion on a thousand, and just be the funniest, most loving podcast with no limits, the way you hang out with your best friend. Like if you were hanging out with your best friend, and your conversation would not get you arrested, they’re not your best friend.”
When did MangoBae come to life?
“So we were on shrooms…”
Okay, just how close did you get to your crack-den roommates?
(laughs) “We were on shrooms, and the MangoBae name came from the shroom trip. We were both eating dried mangos and I was kinda like, Pranav you’re my bae. And he ate a mango and was like, you’re my Mango Bae. And I’m like fuuuuck. It was really powerful.
With comedy and New York, there’s only so much that institutions can do. I was getting frustrated with the comedy institutions, and I felt frustrated that they were gatekeepers. And I was tying my journey and my success within the success of these institutions.
But that’s the wrong way to think about it – that’s an out-in mentality. Like, once they give me the ‘thing’, I’ll be happier – but I had to de-entangle myself from tying my journey to an institution. And MangoBae was like a cry against all that bullshit. It’s completely ours, our thing, no one can touch it.”
What has the reception towards MangoBae been like? I’m curious about whether there’s one particular episode or topic that made it skyrocket or rubbed people the wrong way.
“The biggest one was the Hasan Minhaj episode. I knew Hasan from doing comedy before, we would do the same shows. We just started this new podcast, super fledgling, and 8 episodes in I was like, ‘what if we just hit up Hasan?’ And Hasan was like ‘yeah, for sure.’
We put some Muslim clips up and got heavy backlash. Fundamental Muslims, that was a weird thing we had to deal with.
But for one of the Hasan clips, we joked about drawing Muhammad (PBUH) – not actually doing it but just the idea of doing it – and they descended. We knew that them going crazy meant that we were hitting something, we were doing something real. Not flippancy or blasphemy, we were taking a stand for joking about anything. Finding the funny in anything.
The idea of these Muslims warping what is considered decorous or acceptable, it’s bullshit where everyone’s self-policing. We’re like fuck that, let’s just do things that make us feel like we’re creating something for the world.”
Has there ever been a moment in the last five or so years where you’re like, what the fuck am I doing?
“Every day in New York is pain. Every day is a setback. Every day you’re fighting against your own self-doubt, your own fear of what’s gonna happen. You’re just going off this idea that you’re good at something or you can be good at something, but it’s terrifying. It’s an insane thing. There aren’t actual ‘moments’, just an overall hum of fear every day at the back of your ear. A constant, holy shit what am I doing? That’s all the time.
But the difference between successful artists and unsuccessful – people say it’s hard work, but I think it’s mental evenness. Can you channel a negative thought into a positive thought? Because that is what you’re gonna be doing all day. That’s what modern life is. It’s just constant negativity, constant anxiety, constant self-hate, loathing and fear. That’s the new normal.”
Obviously, things are different now with this months-long quarantine. How has this pandemic affected your work?
“In this time, I’m not hustling every fucking second of the day. It’s let me sit down and read some theory books on comedy and screenwriting. Let me equip myself with more lateral skills that will help me get better. Take this moment, because it is a special moment that we’re going through.”
There’s an uptick of South Asians doing this kind of thing, but not nearly enough. So, what advice do you have for those looking to pursue these things against the grain, facing adversity, lack of support, lack of wealth?
“Don’t pursue it just because you wanna pursue something against the grain. Don’t follow a passion because you think it looks cool. Because the level of pain involved with any sort of artistic dream is so great and so intense that if you don’t love it with every ounce of being, it’s not worth it and you’re gonna waste years of your life.
Only do it if you cannot live without doing it. Then, you’ll transcend culture, you’ll transcend all things, which is its own power, and you will break the mold. You will buck the trend. Just by doing what you wanna do.
Just, really, find out what you want. That’s the hardest thing in Desi culture. There’s so many layers between you and what you want. Break those down and ask yourself what you want. That’s the first step, then follow that with all your heart.
What I’m saying is, do shrooms. That’s all I’m saying.”
For any of us who have siblings, the relationship with them can be one of the most fulfilling ones. And also one of the most bloody frustrating. No one can quite stroke the fire like someone who knows you extremely well, or sometimes not, but have a familial bond with that neither one of you chose. In “Polite Society,“directed by Nida Manzoor, sisters Ria Khan and Lena Khan’s loving, sweet, and sometimes tumultuous relationship takes center stage.
Played delightfully by Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya, respectively, the evolution of their relationship is one of the film’s greatest and simultaneously weakest points. It’s also pretty cool to see two South Asian actresses in an action-comedy movie — how refreshing it is to mention the art of choreography and praise it in regards to fight sequences vs. dance sequences for a film centered on two South Asian women — that itself shows progress.
Set in London, Ria is an aspiring stunt woman who already shows massive talent in martial arts. She looks up to her older sister Lena, who is enrolled in art school and, also holds remarkable potential in a somewhat less traditionally acceptable field. Their relationship starts off as supportive and sweet with no inclinations of jealousy or resentment that sometimes plagues sisterly bonds. But this also means that they are quite protective of one another, almost to the detriment of their well wishes for each other.
This all happens when Lena gets engaged after dropping out of art school. Ria feels betrayed. They were supposed to be on this journey together in fighting for their dreams. Ria decides that she knows what’s best for her sister and enlists the help of her friends to rescue the damsel in distress from her own wedding. Her deep animosity towards the prospect of Lena getting married is also fueled by Lena’s fiancé and his mother acting extremely suspiciously. The twist that ultimately brings the two sisters back together is both shocking and weirdly somewhat progressive in the motive behind the villain’s origin story. But the twist, unfortunately, is too ambitious for the movie as it tacks on another genre and theme earnestly, but still clunkily.
“Polite Society” tackles not only what it means to fight for one’s dreams but also what it means to have just one ardent supporter. As Lady Gaga famously said, “There can be 100 people in a room and 99 of them don’t believe in you but all it takes is one and it just changes your whole life.” Well, Ria’s Bradley Cooper was her very own sister who seemed to abandon her, and her faith in her, when she chose a different path. For Lena, the film opened up the question of marriage and the weight it bears in the life of a South Asian woman. Ria’s lack of understanding of the pressure it places on Lena is the start of the change in their relationship — the start of Ria’s coming of age and the start of Lena settling firmly into her adulthood.
Standouts from the cast include Ria’s best friends, played by Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri, who commit to the story and characters with such hilarity and conviction. They add the lightheartedness and playfulness the film needs, and it is refreshing that never once do they use Ria’s cultural background as a way to make fun of her or dismiss her.
It is also heartening to see Lena and Ria’s parents being some of the most supportive South Asian parents seen on screen. At the end of the day, it is not the external family pressure that impacts the decisions made by the sisters but rather their own satisfaction, or lack thereof, with their own lives that become the driving force of their actions.
“Polite Society” is written and directed by a South Asian woman for South Asian women, and is definitely worth a watch when it releases in theaters this April.
For the Singh family, Chandan Fashion has always been bigger than simply a bridal showroom. Located in the heart of Gerrard Street, a bustling Little India in Toronto, the bright blue and pink building can be spotted from a distance. Over the years, Chandan has garnered attention from customers from all over North America, even as far as California and Virginia.
For Chandan and Roop, who work alongside “Mom and Dad,” Chandan Fashion is a family business and a way to showcase the beauty of South Asian culture while playing a helping hand in allowing every bride and groom to feel special on their big day. Chandan is their legacy and one they hope to be able to showcase the beauty and intricacies of throwing that “big Indian wedding” on their new CBC show, “BollyWed.”
“BollyWed” follows this tight-knit family through the joys and difficulties of running a multigenerational business. Throughout the variety of clients, discussions of new generation business practices versus old generation, many lehengas, and plenty of laughs, this is one whirlwind journey through the marriage industry.
Brown Girl had the opportunity to interview Chandan and Roop Singh, who were incredibly down-to-earth and a joy to speak to. Here is the interview down below!
What was the inspiration for opening Chandan?
Chandan: My mom and dad started the vision back in 1984 — they started the business. I have a store in India that was started by my grandfather which my father worked in as well, so it is kind of multi-generational of being within this industry of clothing and fashion. My father had a dream of starting what his father did in India, in Canada. While visiting friends in Toronto, my father knew that the Gerrard Indian Bazaar was the right place for them to start, it was the largest Indian market in the Northern America area. He rented a space for two years a couple of doors down from where Chandan originated and then in 1986 we had the opportunity to purchase the corner unit and grow it from one floor to two, to now a four-floor showroom.
Roop: And it should be noted that 1986 is also the year that Chandan was born, hence the name of the store. Chandan Fashion.
Many cities have their own versions of Little India. What was it like growing up/operating in Gerrard Street East? What do you think makes Gerrard Street unique?
Roop: It is funny you say that because even now when we have people traveling to Toronto, checking out Gerrard Street is on their itinerary. So we get a lot of clientele that are visiting from out of town whether it be visiting for the day or weekend. Some of them will sometimes get a hotel nearby for about a week and do their entire wedding family shopping with us.
Chandan has literally grown up in Gerrard Street, but I grew up in Toronto as well. I spent a good chunk of my own childhood in Little India on Gerrard Street. Growing up in the 90s, it was the only Indian bazaar in the greater Toronto area, so anyone who wanted to meet members of their community, have really good South Asian food, shop for upcoming events, or celebrate Diwali or Holi, this is where [they’d] go. This is where my mom would take me on the weekends and I remember popping into Chandan Fashion when my mom needed an outfit. In that way, our childhoods are connected over Little India and I feel like a lot of first-generation kids will sympathize with me, when we wanted to feel a little bit at home, that is where we would go.
How did you get the “BollyWed” opportunity on CBC? What is it like working with your family? What roles do you all play in the business? How do we get to see this in the show?
Roop: It has been quite a journey. It wasn’t necessarily such a drastic transition because already the family was very close-knit in the sense that they are working day in and day out. We do our social media together and our buying together, go to fashion shows. So naturally things we were already doing as a family were just translated to the TV. That is what I love the most about the show, it is just an authentic following of what we do on a daily basis as a family and as a business. It has been a great experience and something that we are super grateful for. It was actually seven years in the making and I’ll let Chandan tell you how “BollyWed” came to be.
Chandan: It started out in 2014. I was at a wedding show and I was approached by the executive producer, Prajeeth and we shot a shizzle. He had an idea of a wedding show with a family narrative and I had been watching ‘Say Yes to the Dress’ extensively. I knew that there was this really interesting market and this fascination with South Asian outfits and bridalwear given that it was so colorful and the beadwork was so ornate. There was a lot more interesting subject matter, especially if we tie that into a seven-day-long wedding and you tie that into multiple events and families. That is more prevalent in South Asian culture: what the mother-in-law thinks, what the mother thinks. But five to six years went by and we got 22 rejections over that period by almost every network imaginable. I was always excited that we were getting rejected because I knew that eventually, we would get a yes. Eventually at the end of 2021, around the end of the COVID era, the production company reached out asking if we were still interested in the show. I said it was never a question of ‘if,’ it was a question of ‘when.’ From the get-go, I knew that this show would be picked up, I knew it would be a success. In March 2022 we got greenlit. We had this amazing journey of seven months of continuous filming. It has been an amazing journey to be able to represent South Asians on television in a way that has not been done before. I like lighthearted programming and I am glad that we were able to influence the show because of our lives and make it a lighthearted family show that people can watch. But we still get to have important discussions.
Roop: I love that Chandan mentioned this. We get to showcase a lot of pivotal subjects in today’s society. For example, we made sure that inclusivity was showcased across all 10 episodes and that is something that I give credit to our directors and producers, they did a wonderful job showcasing how inclusive not just us as a business, but as a brand and as a family we are. These are values that have been instilled in us, that when somebody crosses your threshold and comes into your store, it doesn’t matter what their background is, their color, or their orientation, that is irrelevant. It is something that we don’t factor in, we just consider that this is the patron, the client. There is no judgment — not in our store, not in our family. And I love that we were able to share that on a big screen for everyone to see. That was one reason why it was so important to do this, but the other reason has a lot to do with Chandan and his childhood.
Chandan: So for me, I was born and raised in Toronto. I went to a very small school where I was the only South Asian for a long time in that school. I was the only Punjabi kid, the only kid with a turban, and eventually the only one with a beard, so I noticeably stood out compared to all my peers. My father with his best intentions sent me to a really small school, a private school, that he could not afford to pay for. Where at times the check would bounce every month, but he had a very strong belief that if he provided me a quality education [so] I would keep something really dear to him —keeping the belief in religion — I wouldn’t cut my hair, I wouldn’t cut my beard, I wouldn’t conform to society. He wanted to give me the best chance to succeed as is, [but] the unfortunate truth was I was bullied, I was picked on. I wouldn’t tell him, but people would grab my jurra, my turban, and my hair. And as a kid I would just let it go because you do not want to go home and tattle to your parents, but also because I knew how sensitive of a topic it was to my dad. And I think that my experience would have been different if people didn’t ask me every month, ‘How long is your hair? What do you keep under that?’ All these questions made me feel really uncomfortable, but the other kids also asked because they had never seen anyone like me. If I had grown up with a show like this, I would not have felt so alone, such a strong desire to belong. This is one of the reasons I really believed in the show, I really wanted to have representation. Even if there is just one other kid who watches this show and grows up in a suburb where there aren’t many South Asian kids; if he is able to turn the TV on and see my dad with such a thick accent — English isn’t his first language — but he still owns it so confidently. Or they see a guy like me with a turban and a beard and see that frankly he still has such a hot wife.
Roop: But beyond that, this gentleman with a turban and thick accent, they are such normal people. They love takeout, they like to play tennis, and they could be your neighbor. Other than their outward appearance, they are very much like you, very similar.
Your support in styling Priyanka for their drag performance was inspiring and refreshing to see. How do you change your styles/designs to foster inclusivity?
Roop: I think that goes back to what I was saying about how Mom and Dad have fostered this universal approach to our clientele. We do not look beyond their needs. I think it is also important to note that some people had thought that we had Priyanka come onto the show to make it more interesting, but their relationship with the store spans over the past five to seven years.
Chandan: Twenty years. Priyanka and their family have been shopping at the store for the past 20 years since they were kids. When Priyanka started exploring the world of drag, they came and said they needed a costume that they would be designing. It also wasn’t even any of my peers or me that made that connection with Priyanka, it was actually my dad, the older generation. He said, ‘Don’t worry beta.’ He actually corrected himself and said, ‘Beti, we will be there for you.’ And he got them a really nice sari and lehenga which they converted into a costume that won the first season.
Roop: And Priyanka put their own spin on it and created something amazing. Only because we were the designers of those pieces could we tell that that is a piece from our lehenga. They did such a fabulous job with it.
Chandan: I think we sometimes think of the older generation, like our parents, as being more conservative, but I think that it is a one-sided narrative. Not all of the older generation is as conservative as we think. And my dad just took it as a paying customer is a paying customer. It doesn’t matter what their orientation or beliefs are, and that just naturally unfolded into the story that we are sharing. He did not treat it as a big deal.
For our readers currently planning their weddings, do you have any pieces of advice on how to balance all the heavy details of wedding planning without losing sight of why they are doing it for?
Roop: One thing for the bride and groom is not to lose sight of themselves in all of this. I’ve been there and done that. You plan this extravagant seven-day affair, you have all these people flying out to your wedding, and you feel this really heavy responsibility to make sure that all these guests are taking time out of their lives to celebrate your union. And like myself — and I am guilty of this, which is why I want to tell my fellow brides — [you] tend to make it less about [yourself] and more about everyone else who is attending. And yes, of course, everyone is important and I owe them respect for joining us. But remember what you want in the heart of heart, if you want a small wedding, go for a small wedding. If you want a big wedding, go for a big wedding. If you want the seven-tiered cake, go for it, if you just want cupcakes, go for that. At the end of the day don’t forget what makes you happy. Don’t lose sight of it, just be authentic to yourself.
Chandan: Oftentimes in the wedding industry, people are really looked down upon. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, you are spending so much for this wedding!’ Or, ‘You are obsessing over these details!’ If it is important to you, it is okay. I would not let judgment get in the way of doing what you want whether it be a small intimate 20-person wedding or a having a 1000-person wedding. This is your moment. The biggest thing I hear is, ‘Oh, it is only for an hour.’ But, if you have a photographer, nothing is for an hour. It is for a lifetime. Those moments last a lifetime. If it is something that you hold near and dear to you, you will cherish it. I wish people would stay true to themselves.
Roop: Yeah, agreed. Be mindful of what sparks joy in you and let that be your compass. The most important piece of advice though: At every function please request that your caterer create a to-go container of the meal at the event for you and your partner to enjoy after because often, and it is so sad to hear this, the bride and groom will eat last at their own event or not at all. And you spend all these months planning [an] extravagant menu and then you don’t even get to eat your own wedding cake. Hah! That happened to us!
Do you have any future plans that you feel excited about sharing with Chandan?
Chandan: Yeah! I would say concrete plans are in the pipeline. In the first episode of ‘BollyWed’ [you] see that we come to the realization that there is just not enough space and we would love to expand into another space.
Roop: And this is where you get a lot of the new generation, old generation beliefs. Because mom and dad believe that the family should stay very close-knit and together to run the one location. And Chandan has the belief that [the] true success of a business is when it is scalable, and has multiple locations nationally, globally even. In Episode 10 you get a conclusion, but we will let the readers watch it for themselves!
You can now watch the inaugural season of CBC’s “BollyWed” on CBC TV every Thursday at 8 p.m. EST or stream it for free on CBC Gem! And that’s not all from the Chandan Fashion team! They’ll soon be featured in an Instagram LIVE chat with Brown Girl Magazine, so stay tuned!
March 20, 2023March 29, 2023 3min readBy Rasha Goel
Award-winning commercial real estate and land consultant in Arizona, Anita Verma-Lallian, is venturing into the world of entertainment with her newfound production house, Camelback Productions, making her the first South Asian female in the state to do so. Verma-Lallian is a woman used to paving her own way, and now she’s committed to doing it for future generations.
Through her production company, she aims to contribute towards greater South Asian representation in mainstream media with a focus on storytelling that’s relevant to the community. In a conversation with Brown Girl Magazine, the real estate maven spoke about what inspired her to shift from investing in land to investing in creative dreams.
Tell us more about Camelback Productions and what your hopes are for the company?
The intention is to help communities that are not being represented in the media. As you know, there are a lot more streamers looking for content so that presents an interesting opportunity for people to tell stories that are otherwise not being told.
For us it’s important to tell these stories that aren’t being told, and tell them in the way that we want them to be told. With South Asians, for instance, the roles typically given are stereotypical. There are only four or five roles we are playing repeatedly. I want to show the South Asian community and culture in a different way.
You come from a business and investor background. I am curious to know what catapulted your interest towards establishing a production company?
Good question. There were a few things that inspired my interest. I was looking to diversify the different opportunities we offered our investors. We’ve done a lot of real estate, so we were overall looking for different investment opportunities. And then, at the time when I started exploring this, the real estate market was in this wait-and-see for many people.
Everyone was sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens next. There was a slowdown at the end of 2022 which is when I started looking into this more. Film seemed like it was kind of recession-proof and not really tied to what’s happening in the economy, which I thought was refreshing and exciting.
Also, overall, I observed what was happening in the industry with there being a push to see more South Asians in the media. The timing felt right, and I think we’re moving in the right direction.
Good stories and good quality scripts. We are looking at all types of content — movies, docu-series, comedy shows, and reality shows. We’re open to anything that has a good message.
On a personal level, what hits home for you with this production company?
Growing up I always loved film and TV. We watched a lot of Bollywood movies because that’s what we related to and I always loved that. But I did feel there wasn’t a lot of representation of people that looked like me. Being able to change that — especially after having kids, and a daughter who wants to go into film — is important for. It’s a contribution for future generations. It’s important to me that as they grow up, they see people that look just like them.
Is there a significance to the name Camelback?
Yes! Camelback Mountain is a very iconic mountain in Phoenix.It’s one of the most famous hikes we have here and a relatively challenging one.
The significance is being able to overcome challenges and barriers. I have a nice view of Camelback Mountain and it’s something I look at every day, when I’m stressed and overwhelmed. It has a very calming and grounding presence.
To me the mountains signify being grounded and not being able to be moved by external factors. That’s what I want this production company to be!
What would you advise people interested in entering the entertainment industry?
The best advice I would give someone is to align yourself with people that you know are experts in the industry; that have a good track record. Learn from as many people as you can.I learn as much as I can, talk to as many people as I can, and I study different things to understand what was and wasn’t successful.