Few people can call themselves rocket scientists. Even fewer can say they are a rocket scientist-turned-actress, producer and Broadway star. Salma Qarnain is a Pakistani Muslim woman who can claim the title.
Artistry runs through Qarnain’s veins. Her grandfather was a filmmaker in Bombay and Karachi, before passing away at a young age. Her mother performed in plays throughout college. Now Qarnain is using artistry to build empathy, playing characters that represent her family’s story and promoting Black and Brown allyship through Black Man Films — the production company she co-founded with Roderick Lawrence.
Qarnain grew up in the Midwest but traveled back to Karachi often. Some of her earliest memories were in Karachi singing along to the Beatles and pretending to be Ringo Starr. When her family moved to the United States, typical of South Asian immigrant parental influence, her interest in math and science and immense love for Star Wars led her to pursue aerospace engineering, hence rocket science. Her mother’s passing forced her to rethink her goals and when she wanted to achieve them.
Today, she describes her purpose for creating art in profound terms.
I want people to be equal. I want people to understand we’re very much all together a speck of dust in the entire universe, and that there are so many more things we share than we don’t.
Starting entertainment work in the aftermath of 9/11 made it clear how she, a Pakistani Muslim woman, would be seen.
I remember [at] that time… Friends of mine told me, ‘Don’t let anybody know x, y, z about you, because they may have a bias against you. Something might happen.’
The beginning of her career was defined by how Western culture perceived Muslims and South Asians. Her first entertainment gig was as a casting assistant in Washington D.C. She noticed if South Asians were cast,
They were going to be playing something stereotypical to what a South Asian person is thought of… that could be the geeky, mainly male, math nerd, or a terrorist.
While the position provided an opportunity to learn about what it took to become an actress, Qarnain also leveraged her responsibilities to make a change — if a role didn’t absolutely require a white actress, she would gather diverse resumes for the casting director, slowly trying to shift the idea of what a person of color on television had to be.
With people of diverse experiences joining writer’s rooms and a “pipeline of young South Asian actors,” the industry has improved but isn’t close to equitable. She sees “Life of Pi” on Broadway and Black Man Films as ways to combat that.
Broadway’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel brings a multigenerational South Asian cast to the stage and has Qarnain playing two roles — Pi’s (gender-swapped) biology teacher, an analytical, guiding mentor, and the Muslim cleric Pi studies under. “Life of Pi” is one of Qarnain’s favorite novels for being a story about faith, storytelling and the power of both to provide hope. She took a callback for the role via Zoom in an Applebee’s parking lot.
I feel very invested in both of these characters. Just because they are absolute extensions of who I am as a person, and to have this be my Broadway debut — I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
She got to play a Pakistani Muslim character once before in the off-Broadway play “Acquittal.” It was the first time she could represent an authentic story. In “Life of Pi,” Qarnain helped workshop the scenes with the cast and playwright Lolita Chakrabarti to make them more authentic.
She absolutely took our suggestions and comments and reactions, for myself, from another person in our cast – who’s also a Muslim – and then from castmates, [who are] Catholic and Hindu, to understand what would work and what would people respond to. That’s where the gift was, that [Chakrabarti] was very receptive to what we had to say.
Black Man Films and her partnership with Roderick Lawrence run parallel to her theatrical journey. The pair formed the production company during the pandemic through a short film that Lawrence created to explore Black men’s mental health. As an enthusiastic fan of Lawrence’s work and having wanted to begin producing for film and television, Qarnain joined the project immediately. The short film, “Silent Partner,” went to 21 film festivals and won Best Short at several.
It was never done for accolades. It was done because there was a purpose and message to the story around Black men’s mental health told through the lens of micro-aggressions in the workplace.
The second short film, “Speak Up, Brotha!” was released in late March and will be played at Oscar-qualifying film festivals, this summer.
For Qarnain, Black Man Films is a platform for change and Black and Brown allyship.
I want people to look at our films and understand where they are, who they are in this film; in “Silent Partner.” If they’re complicit in propagating systemic racism, and, if so, what are they gonna do about it? How can they start? How can they talk to their parents? How can they, you know, engage with other South Asians and put a stop to colorism and any racism that exists against the black community?
Telling stories that reflect the experiences of people of color gives creatives the power to build systems that can improve people’s lives.
There is a racial hierarchy that exists and if we want to break that, we have to be a part of building everything, not just for us, but for everybody who isn’t white.
She is confident that the stories she’s helping bring to life will do just that and change the world in the process. From “Life of Pi” to “Speak Up, Brotha!” the possibilities for encouraging justice and empathy are endless.
January 1, 2023January 1, 2023 7min readBy Brown boy
Wyatt Feegrado is a comedian and content creator from Walnut Creek, San Francisco, California. Feegrado moved to New York City to attend the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Feegrado always wanted to be a comedian and grew up watching “The Last Comic Standing” with his mom — his favorites being Alingon Mitra and Sammy Obeid. In 2020, Feegrado starred in the TV show “Bettor Days,” on Hulu and ESPN+, as the character Vinnie bets on the baseball team The Astros and wins big. Feegrado also has a podcast called “First World Problematic,” along with Vishal Kal and Surbhi, where they talk about a range of topics such as racism, sexism, and homophobia, and will be dropping an “Indian Matchmaking” Reunion show. Currently, in Bangalore, Feegrado is performing his first show in India, at the Courtyard in Bangalore. He was previously on tour in the United States. He recently dropped the Amazon comedy special “Wyatt Feegrado: De-Assimilate.” Continue reading to learn more about Wyatt Feegrado.
Do you feel that your upbringing in Walnut Creek and your personal experiences are what molded your comedic style?
Walnut Creek, for people who have never been there, is frankly a very white place. I must’ve been one of four or five Indian kids in my high school of 2000. I think growing up like that, you begin to believe that it’s a bit ‘odd’ that you’re brown. Part of finding my comedic voice was changing that perspective to say; it’s not weird that I’m brown, it’s weird that you’re not. That’s the paradigm shift — I don’t move through the world trying to impress people, why should I? Who are they? They should be trying to impress me.
What was it like attending the Tisch School Of The Arts and what classes helped shape you as a person?
I hope I don’t get too much flack for this…but I don’t really think that NYU helped my career very much. Being in New York helped me immensely, it raised the ceiling on what I could achieve. I really appreciate NYU’s approach, they teach art as a fundamentally collaborative discipline, which I do believe it is. However, that’s just not how I learn. I’m a competitive person, I want to be pitted against my fellow students and prove I’m the best. That motivates me. I would say, if you want to use NYU or any art school to your advantage, understand that classes are only half of what you’re supposed to be doing. That was a pet peeve of mine, I used to see my fellow students finish class and simply go home. That’s not the way to do it in this industry. Every day, after school, I used to go to two or three open mics, send in self-taped auditions, and make opportunities of my own. You’re betting on yourself — so go all in.
What was the process of creating the comedy special “Wyatt Feegrado: De-Assimilate?”
In terms of writing the jokes, it’s the culmination of studying joke writing for 10 years. But I was approached with the opportunity in March or so, and I had my reservations to even tape a special — I’m a perfectionist so I wanted all my jokes to be some of the best ever written. But that’s just a bad strategy in terms of trying to make it in life. When an opportunity falls in your lap, you have to take it no matter what. Worry about whether you’re ready later. One time I was cast in a commercial for Facebook that required me to do skateboard tricks. I lied and said I knew how to do skateboard tricks at the casting call. I landed the commercial and then started practicing how to skateboard. I think the most important lesson in comedy you can learn is how to believe in yourself when nobody else does. I always have the confidence that I will rise to the occasion.
What was it like getting your special on Amazon Prime?
So Four by Three, the amazing production company that produced my special, has a very good relationship with Amazon, as they’ve produced a lot of content for their platform. They handled distribution for me, and together we made the strategic decision to also release De-Assimilate on YouTube. I think because of the over-saturation of streaming services you have to pay for, combined with the renaissance YouTube is having, where a lot of the content will have TV-level production value, more and more young people are turning to YouTube as their primary source of content. People are always asking who is going to win the “streaming wars.” My dark horse candidate is YouTube.
As a comedian how do you deal with hecklers?
So many comedians are mean to hecklers. I hate that. There’s no reason for that. They’re a person too and it’s not right to berate them unless they truly insulted you first. In my opinion, there are three types of hecklers — the heckler who is just too drunk, the heckler who thinks they’re helping the show, and the heckler who actually hates you or thinks you’re unfunny. I think only the latter deserves to be berated. The rest of them I try to work around, and tell them they’re interrupting the show in a way that doesn’t interrupt the show in itself.
What was the first joke you ever wrote and your favorite joke you have ever written?
Oh god this is going to be horrible. The first joke I every wrote was:
“Shawn White is a professional snowboarder, but a lot of people don’t know he is also very skilled in Curling, his hair”
That is so bad. I’m embarrassed. At least it disproves the BS some people say that “funny isn’t learnable.” That is NOT TRUE. What they mean is the infrastructure for funny scant exists. There’s no Standup Comedy Major in Art Schools or Textbooks that teach joke writing. There will be one day, but for now there isn’t.
My favorite jokes I write are jokes that I really think encapsulates the zeitgeist. My favorites on the special are the joke about how Jesus’ Disciples are Brown, and how the Vaccine is the first time anyone in the US has gotten healthcare for free.
Are there any jokes that you regret telling in front of an audience?
Of course. Referring back to my answer to the first question, any joke that has the underlying presumption that it is ‘odd’ to be brown — which is a genre of jokes that many Indian-American comedians in history have been pigeonholed into — I regret saying those type of jokes when I first started. Now I do the opposite. Sometimes I’ll do a joke about how Jesus was brown in Texas just to piss them off.
What has been your favorite project to work on?
Flying to Nashville to shoot Bettor Days for ESPN+ was great. I was just out of school at the time so it felt amazing to make money, travel, and work. Also the sets were fun and I’m still friends with the cast. And then getting to see myself on TV for the first time — thrilling.
Can you tell us more about your podcast First World Problematic?
Yes! First World Problematic is the comedy podcast I host with Vishal Kal — yes the same one that broke Nadia’s heart on Indian Matchmaking — and Surbhi, another close comedian friend of mine. We’re all Indian-Americans, and we discuss a wide variety of topics, such as dating, pop culture, and just in general make a lot of jokes. ALSO! We just released an Indian Matchmaking Season 2 reunion special — we brought back all the cast members of season 2 for a tell all! In Jan we plan to do a Season 1 reunion.
Who do you look up to in the world of comedy?
Man. I’m a student of a looooooooot of comedians. So so so many people I look up to. Steven Wright and Dave Chappelle are my first loves. When I was a kid, I used to think standup was just time pass, until one day I stumbled upon Dave Chappelle: Killin Em’ Softly on YouTube. That is what made me realize that standup can be high art. That is when I knew I wanted to be a comedian. Steven Wright is the comedian who first inspired me to write jokes, many of my first jokes emulated him. I have learned so much about modern Joke Structure from Dave Attell, Emo Phillips, Dan Mintz, and Anthony Jeselnik. Bit structure I take directly from Louie CK and Bill Burr. As for my comedic voice, I learned so much from Paul Mooney. Listening to him is what I feel really unlocked my approach to comedy, the way how he is so mean, so aggressive. He talks about white people the way the media talks about black people. I always thought us Asian people needed that, an Asian comedian that talks about Asian-American issues, but not with the friendliness you typically see Asian comedians portray. He taught me to be in your face. And Chappelle taught me how to be nice about it.
Do you feel that South Asian comedians can be easily pigeonholed?
Historically — unequivocally yes. In the modern times, much less so. I very much think South Asian comedians in some sense pigeonhole themselves, by trying to emulate past South Asian comedians, who were pigeonholed by the market. I do think now, and it is completely because of social media, there is a market for every kind of comedy. Like I said in my previous answer, I’d like to be a South Asian comedian with the confrontationality that we have historically only seen from Black comedians.
But you know who is really pigeonholed nowadays? Female comedians. This may be a tangent, but if there was a Female comedian that talked about Female issues, with the hostility towards men that Bill Burr will occasionally have towards women, in my opinion she would likely be the GOAT.
How do you feel social media such as Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, and Snapchat have changed comedy?
Social media has been a truly beautiful thing for comedy. It has completely decentralized the power structure of our business. Back in the day, if you wanted to get famous, you had to do comedy that appealed to the white men who held the power at the networks, at the talk shows, in the writers rooms. They still do control all those things, but now because of social media the people watching our stuff are representative of the population, and we can grow our followings because the market is wider. Now if you have a social media following, you have all the leverage, and therefore you see a multitude more styles of standup comedy out there. Also social media in my opinion is the third great comedy boom. Seinfeld made standup a household art form, Netflix made it possible for people to binge watch standup, and now Tiktok and Instagram have proliferated standup to the point where it is EVERYWHERE. There are more comedians than ever and there’s a bigger market for standup than ever.
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
Us Indian-Americans are at a very interesting financial and cultural intersection. Indians are the richest ethnicity in America, and culturally Indian parents will generally pay for their children’s college, unlike other ethnicities. If Indian parents were to hypothetically support their child to go into the arts, just like they may support them in getting their Masters degree, I believe Indians would have an astronomically higher chance of making it in the arts than anyone else. The greatest gift you can give your artist child is financial support in the early stages, since we all know the early stages of the arts make next to nothing. We just have to get rid of the Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer only BS that I would argue is a remnant of the Caste System in India.
Also, remember to call white people Euro-Americans. It helps the movement!
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.
Over the past few weeks we’ve all seen Mindy Kaling shoulder the blame for misrepresenting the South Asian diaspora in her work. I want to expose us to the flip side. She’s not “Indian enough” for some in our communities and “not American enough” for mainstream television and media. But I don’t know a single South Asian living abroad who doesn’t feel this dissonance. We’re a generation born to parents who strived to stay connected to their homeland but knew they had to assimilate to survive. Many of us got lost in the mix. I definitely did. And from the looks of it, Kaling did too.
I feel like I’ve oscillated between these two extremes all my life. I’ve had moments of code-switching — performing as a white version of myself, melting into the groups around me. And moments of being a “coconut” (or an “oreo” depending on where you come from) — suddenly donning an accent as if Hindi was my first language. It wasn’t conscious. It also wasn’t fully unconscious.
It wasn’t until I watched Netflix’s“Never Have I Ever” as a 35-year-old mother of two that I realized what teenage Ambika was up against. Still wearing tank tops in secret, while girls my age had moved on to the midriff-baring trend of the early 2000s. Not thinking it was okay to explore my sexuality. Not seeing that sometimes I knew what was better for me than my parents did. Not understanding that it was okay to expand my romantic interests beyond the few Indian boys I knew. And then I rewatched “The Mindy Project” while on maternity leave with my second kid. And I ate it up.
I rewound dialogue as Dr. Lahiri got engaged, left a man who lost his drive, fell in love with the unexpectedly handsome curmudgeon, got pregnant, learned to mother, and found a new version of herself. She addressed her pregnant body insecurities on-screen (in “What to Expect When You’re Expanding — brilliant!). She grappled with her ambitions in the face of motherhood. She owned who she was when most of us were taught not to. She dated outside of her race. Her audacity and levity gave me so much oomph at a time when I needed it the most.
Art comes from lived experience. And when individuals reflect their life back to the masses through art, it’s a tenuous balance. Comedians in particular have to toe a fine line between hyperbole and reality, having the paradoxical job of speaking the truth (the dark truth, often), and simultaneously making people laugh.
Even though I didn’t speak Spanish — my parents don’t speak Spanish — early in my career when I would portray my parents in a bit, they would have an accent. They would speak in broken English. Any time I would talk about my mom, it was like, ‘ay, mija.’ My mom doesn’t call me ‘mija.’ My mom will leave me a voice message and be like, ‘hey, girl!’ She talks like me. You know what I mean?
This is the inherent paradox that exists in Velma as well. Kaling, as she often does, takes her own experiences as a young Indian girl growing up against the backdrop of white America, and amplifies them. And now, Kaling is a grown, Indian woman whose career is evolving against the backdrop of an America, too.
Critics across different racial groups frequently talk about “the representation trap.” Even if a minority group is represented in a piece of art, literature, film, or television, the manifestation of that group is still filtered through the white gaze. In Ismail Muhammed’s New York Times piece “Can Black Literature Escape the Representation Trap,” he says:
Our current problem isn’t an insufficient amount of Black representation in literature but a surfeit of it. And in many cases that means simply another marketing opportunity, a way to sell familiar images of Blackness to as broad an audience as possible.
The debate about whether minority artists properly represent their cohort is marred with capitalism and white supremacy. When so many industries are gate-kept by the typical, euro-centric, generationally rich man, is there really any way to be wholly true to our experience?
Let’s not forget that many of us (or maybe all of us?) came up in a society that devalues women, and horrifically devalues people of color. Let’s not forget that the majority of executives across every field still don’t look like us (if by chance you’ve forgotten, read this piece byRuchika Tulshyan). Let’s not forget that when people are introduced to something foreign and unknown to them, their default is to reject it (again, if you’ve forgotten, read about “the mere exposure effect” and racism).
I’m unsure how Kaling has inherited the immense responsibility of representing all of the South Asian American diaspora? And is then being criticized for her representation of it. Third-generation South Asians are very different from second-generation, who are very different from first-generation. Our identities and how we fit into American culture, mainstream media, and business, are still forming as we speak. We are not a monolith.
And plenty of men have done exactly what Kaling is being criticized for, without anywhere near the same level of criticism. All men I (hopefully, we) love.
Riz Ahmed has taken on roles in which his race isn’t the central focus. Hasan Minaj doesn’t get criticized when he uses stereotypical accents to represent South Asians or for using politics as a launch pad for his content. We don’t hate on Kumail Nanjiani when he suddenly gets a six-pack, even though he also once played a nerd. I loved when Aziz Ansari went to Italy to make pasta and didn’t make it Indian.
Why are we tearing down one of the only women in America who is working to showcase South Asian culture and people? Because she uses humor and caricature? Because she’s not putting herself in the mindset of the type of Indian person who has learned to thrive at the intersection of their upbringing and their environment? Newsflash: that person doesn’t exist!
It’s not on Kaling to represent every dimension of this diaspora. She’s done her job.
I’m a proud, second-generation, Indian American woman, married to an Indian American man, with two Indian American children. I was nerdy just like Kaling. I had arm hair just like Devi. I pined after white boys in my teen years just like Bela from the HBO Max’s “Sex Lives of College Girls,” too. And Kaling is an absolute inspiration to me.
I see a South Asian woman who chose to have children on her own. Whose career, post-children, skyrocketed. Who committed herself and her craft to tackle the most deep-rooted stigmas of South Asian culture — mental health, sex, and interracial relationships — while still honoring the way it manifested in her life.
It’s now our job to get out into the world and dimensionalize our cohort. Show the world what us supposed “ABCDs” have grown up and done; who we’ve become and what we’ve accomplished.
It’s what I’m trying to do. It’s what I’m trying to fight for when I’m told things like “maybe tone down the diversity angle in your writing, we don’t want publishers to think they’re just buying a diversity book.”
We still exist in a house of cards. Why are we kicking the building blocks of our own home?
I’ll leave you with this quote from Kaling herself:
People get scared when you try to do something, especially when it looks like you’re succeeding. People do not get scared when you’re failing. It calms them. But when you’re winning, it makes them feel like they’re losing or, worse yet, that maybe they should’ve tried to do something too, but now it’s too late. And since they didn’t, they want to stop you. You can’t let them.
I hope this woman never gets discouraged. We need her in more ways than one.