She hails from Michigan City, a small town in Indiana on the shores of Lake Michigan. Gupta spent twelve years at a Catholic school, where she grew up with the same “typical white friends” we have all grown up with.
Afterward, she went on to attend Northwestern University to pursue dual degrees in dance and psychology. In college, her life was hectic.
“Most students probably had around 12 hours of class a week. I had closer to 20,” Gupta said. “I skipped class a lot. I’m sorry; I’m a horrible role model. Don’t skip class! But, the classes I skipped were always my pre-med science lectures, never my dance classes or even my non-science elective classes. It was a pretty revealing sign of where my real interests were and what I really wanted to do with my life.”
Her real interests were dance, performing and comedy, but these three fields of study do not normally resonate well with brown parents. And Gupta was still convinced that she “was definitely supposed to be a doctor,” because almost everyone in her immediate and extended family was a doctor.
She knew, however, that being a medical professional would not suit her for the long run, so she said she eased her parents into her intended career of dance, and by the time she completely dropped the idea of med school, they were fine with the alternative.
This, in addition to her impeccable dance skills, gave her parents the confidence that she could make it with performing.
“No parent, Indian or otherwise, want to see their children fail. But, I am really good at what I do. And they see that. It’s like that classic writing rule–’show, don’t tell.’ Don’t just tell your parents you want to do something. Go out and do it. Show them that you’re great at it, and they’ll see that it’s what you’re meant to do with your life. And who’s gonna stop you then?”
The L.A.-based performer’s first major showcase came in the form of “Not Another Teen Solo Show,” which she said started as a handful of personal stories she had written about high school for a class at the UCLA Extension School.
Interestingly, it was going to be a book, but she said, “getting a book published is really freaking hard,” so Gupta opted for a live storytelling show.
She said she was already comfortable with the theater community and thought that this was the next logical step. Gupta’s leap into comedy did not come readily, it actually occurred because she was frustrated with the L.A. dance scene. And with her vexation, she said she decided to take a few acting classes, which unknown to her at the time would evolve into a new career path.
“I dabbled in stand-up for a year or so, mostly as an experiment, to test out this claim of theirs that I was funny. And apparently I am, because I have yet to turn back.”
Yet, Gupta isn’t really into the traditional form of stand-up anymore. Storytelling was a newfound passion and she found her niche in shows like “The Moth.”
“I think audiences these days want more than just empty laughs. They want to feel something. A great story will make you feel something and laugh!”
We are seeing amazing South Asian comedians break barriers into TV. For Gupta, being a minority, a female and a person of color, wasn’t a setback, but a strength.
“I would rather stand out in a crowd than blend into the masses any time, any day, any year.”
Though there are challenges in being a minority, she said she is not afraid to fight them. She knows about the stereotypes and gladly loves to break them through writing.
“The reason why I started screenwriting five-years-ago was because I was so frustrated with the quality of female and ethnic characters in the scripts I was reading. The Indian characters were so cliché and rarely resembled an actual Indian person I had ever met in my life. So, I kind of took it upon myself to start writing characters that made sense to me. The reason why comedy has been so ‘white dude’ is because only white dudes are getting hired to write comedy. If more women and ethnic writers get hired to write comedy, then we’ll finally get the broad range of stories and characters that the world needs.”
She is presently working on a feature film script and a musical comedy. Also, there may even be a TV show in the works as Gupta is working on a few TV pilot ideas and a book of personal stories.
For Gupta, entertainment is simple, it is about spreading joy:
“People always ask me if I want to write TV shows, movies, or essays, as if you can only write in one medium. I just want to tell good stories. Stories about women, and minorities, and worlds that are meaningful to me, that don’t get told very often. Whatever medium tells those stories the best, that’s where I’m gonna be.”
Search “why don’t Indians smile in photos?” on Google and you’ll find an astounding 6,760,000 results trying to get to the bottom of this age-old question.
Despite having rich, celebratory cultures, it’s no secret that South Asians and the diaspora alike are known for being reserved with their emotions. Expressing ourselves — crying, smiling, laughing, even speaking — out of place is often looked down upon. And Indian-born comedian Zarna Garg has had enough of it.
“Culturally, we’ve been told ‘keep your gaze low. Don’t look people in the eye, all in the name of respect,’” Garg pointed out, with her signature fervor, as we chatted.
“And laughing? Forget that. Don’t smile, nothing. Don’t show any indication of joy. And it’s absolutely outrageous!”
A former lawyer, and mother of three living in New York, Garg has been taking the American comedy scene by storm with her unique voice and brand of humor. She believes that brown people, and especially brown women, “have a right to laugh,” and she’s on a mission to make sure they do.
Though it’s only been four years since Garg took the stage, she’s already entertained millions of people across the country, and beyond, through social media, sold out shows, and her critically-acclaimed Amazon special,“One in a Billion.”
But what the comedian really wants is to get people talking, and not just about herself. On her new podcast, aptly named “The Zarna Garg Show,” Garg sits down with her family twice a month to get comfortable with the uncomfortable — discussing, and even laughing, at topics that brown families tend to avoid such as sexuality and parenting styles.
We at Brown Girl Magazine sat down with Garg to dive deeper into this project, her journey, as well as the impact she hopes to make with it all.
Space for a “happy brown woman”
After being a lawyer and then a stay-at-home mom for 16 years, Garg found herself in search of new opportunities. She said she made several failed attempts as an entrepreneur and felt stuck.
“I thought that my time was best spent doing something that no one else was doing; something where I could have a real, unique touch,” she shared.
However, despite always being a strong writer — she wrote an award-winning screenplay — a creative career never seemed like a viable option.
“First of all, when you’re a mom, whatever your kid tells you is wrong,” she joked, recalling how her daughter was the first to encourage her to try stand-up comedy.
She scoffed at the suggestion, not understanding how telling jokes could be a real career that made money. It wasn’t until she actually set foot in a comedy club that she began to see the possibilities.
“That first day changed my life,” Garg continued. “I was like, what? This is an art form? I realized there was a space for a ‘happy brown woman’ telling stories. Not heavy-sad stories, but just goofy stories, stupid stories, sexy stories, regular women’s stories about our lives — not the stuff Hollywood loves to make about our people.”
Garg also realized there wasn’t really anyone else like her in the space. No one was talking about, not just Indian culture, but being a mom, wife and immigrant in a lighthearted way that people could relate with.
“When I started looking around, I was like, ‘No one’s doing this. Why isn’t anybody doing this?’ That set me on a journey of thinking even deeper and harder about our culture; the things we are okay talking about and those we shy away from.”
The taboos Garg uncovered became the foundation of her material. She jokes about marriage, motherhood, in-laws and Indian stereotypes — but not to everyone’s delight.
The comedian frequently shares some of the critical direct messages she receives on Instagram.
And she welcomes these individuals with a smile, saying “Namaste haters.”
“I invite my haters to my comment section to get involved and hear the other side. Listen, you might change your mind. You might just see why everybody is getting on board the Auntie Z train.”
Garg also reflected on the supportive, yet enraging, messages she’s received from South Asian women abroad who watch her videos in secret.
She explained, “There are people who find my videos funny but don’t openly acknowledge it. They’re so scared that if their husband finds out that they like a mother-in-law joke or something like that, they’ll get in trouble, and it’s completely preposterous.”
Garg wants to use her platform to raise awareness and start conversations about these issues. She discussed how brown women are often taught to be obedient and respectful to the point where they tolerate abuse, and how the policing of her comedy is merely a small example of these bigger problems.
“Mother-in-law humor, family humor is older than the hills,” she continued. “But, as brown women, we are expected to be the culture police. It’s like if your mother-in-law is pouring gasoline over you and lighting you on fire, you’re supposed to say ‘thank you, thank you mummy ji.’ What are you, nuts? When I point these things out, I get trolled, but then, every few months, something really bad happens in India or elsewhere.”
Garg considers herself extremely lucky to live in a place where she has the freedom to do and speak as she wants.
“I’m not speaking about you or me. I’m not worried about me. I’m speaking out about all of us — my sisters, my in-laws, the extended family of brown women that we are part of.”
And her voice doesn’t stop at just women’s issues. Garg’s podcast is her latest effort to push the envelope and spark important conversations brown families should be having.
“I asked myself ‘If I’m in a position to open conversations that otherwise have been taboo, how best can I use that power and broadly reach people?’ That’s what inspired the podcast. I feel like the time has definitely come when [brown people] have to join the rest of the world and have these conversations. Our kids are out there living life. It’s not okay for them to be completely unaware and drifting into social situations with no idea what they’re talking about. I wanted to come to our community and to our world with the authentic truth.”
In the premiere episode, you get just that.
Garg’s children open up about sex, its role in their individual social circles and age groups, and how they felt their parents handled the topic at home. The discussion is full of bold moments, but also plenty of laughs as is Garg’s modus operandi.
On Labor Day weekend, she even hosted live recordings of the podcast in New York City where fans could attend with their loved ones, have a Q&A with the Gargs, and play some games. The event will return in November during the New York Comedy Festival.
The comedian hopes that her playful approach shows people that having a conversation doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating.
“People often misunderstand my videos and stuff. It could look like I’m seriously reprimanding my daughter. I get it! But even that right there generates a first conversation. Even when you fully understand what I’m doing, it’s enough to open the door.”
People reach out to Garg regularly telling her how one of her videos or tweets encouraged them to call their children or parents to have a conversation and she couldn’t be happier.
More than meets the eye
“I’m as Indian as they come.”
Garg joked describing herself, and she is, but there’s also much more to her than meets the eye. While, on the surface, her proudly-worn bindi and modest style may have some thinking she’s just another “Indian auntie,” it couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Garg left India at the age of 16 to escape an arranged marriage. She met her husband, Shalabh, in 1997 through Internet dating. She left behind a law career to take a chance on a creative endeavor that was completely unknown to her and she wants to see more people do the same.
“Comedy is a young person’s game and I really wish I started at least 10 years before I did. Now, I tell my own kids, and I’m saying this to all [readers]: ‘there has never been a better time to take a chance at something new. Do it as a side hustle. Do it as a hobby. Do it as a weekend thing. Whatever it is, just get going. You owe it to yourself to take that shot and see if it’s gonna work. Don’t be worried about failure, be worried about not trying.”
Garg is challenging every brown norm and stereotype, and that includes helping Indians smile.
“We’re very stressed out people. We love stress. I feel honored and blessed to be a catalyst in our community who is bringing joy and openness of culture. I’m not a movie star or anything, but there are times when people see me from a distance and I see a smile on their face. People associate me with humor and joy and I’m so grateful for that.”
You can learn more about Zarna Garg’s upcoming shows and projects on her website, or follow her on Instagram and TikTok to get involved in the conversation. “The Zarna Garg Show” podcast releases new episodes on the 1st and 15th of every month and is available on YouTube, Spotify, and all other major streaming platforms.
We’re rounding up all the latest South Asian entertainment news so you don’t have to. With the rise of representation in media, South Asians are making strides and we’re all for celebrating the highs. Brown Girl Magazine’sentertainment editors Aysha and Arun have compiled a list of the all that grabbed headlines in the first half of the year, so you can still be in the loop without having to stop and search elsewhere. From the latest movie buzz to must-watch live and animated shows, we are covering it all.
Here’s a round-up of some of this year’s highlights:
Star Wars Joins the Brown Side, It Must
Yoda approves this one. After wowing us with Ms. Marvel and breaking glass ceilings while doing so, Academy Award-winning and International Emmy Award-winning director and journalist, the one and only badass Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has once again proved that she’s a force to reckon with! Chinoy is set to be not only the first Pakistani and South Asian, but the first person of color, and the first woman to direct a “Star Wars” film.
“Spider-Man, Spider-Man…” if you don’t know what song we’re referring to, you better pause and run to YouTube and check it out.
The multiverse, with virtually an infinite number of heroes, couldn’t exist without South Asian representation. Insert, Pavitr Prabhakar hailing from Earth-50101. Like Peter Parker, Prabhakar grew up under the care of his aunt and uncle. Despite living in poverty, Prabhakar’s intelligence earned him a scholarship that — with additional support from his family — allowed him to attend an illustrious school in Mumbai. Similar to Parker’s story right? He even has an MJ in his life: Meera Jain, instead of Mary Jane.
He first debuted in the Spider-Man: India (2004) comic book series, but became a household name after being featured in “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” Voiced by Karan Soni in English and Shubman Gill in Hindi, the character is set to return in the film’s 2024 sequel.
South Asians are finally making their way into the Marvel universe and this is only the beginning.
Season four of the much-awaited “Never Have I Ever” came to an end filled with tears and hope, this past summer. Devi proved she can have it all (spoiler alert ahead) — a boy and her dream Ivy League college Princeton. Being a desi kid growing up, many of us also dreamt of being accepted into a school our parents could rave about to their family friends, so to see Devi’s applications rejected was refreshing and much-needed. Much thanks to Mindy Kaling and her co-producer Lang Fisher for keeping it real and showing growth with each of the characters. Seeing both the widows on the show, Nalini and Pati, make room for love and dating gave us more of an incentive to indulge in the show.
Women in Showbiz Everywhere (WISE) Hosted its First Ever ‘Hues of Heritage’ Event Celebrating South Asians in Film & Television in mid-August with actor Bill Moseley and Executive Director of CAPE Michelle Sugihara. The Hi-Tea Affair brought together South Asian creatives, writers, journalists, and other industry members, fostering inspiring and supportive conversations. The event also marked the launch of the esteemed RATNA fellowship, which Vineesha Arora-Sarin, founder & executive director of WISE, terms as a “movement dedicated to identifying and supporting emerging South Asian female writers worldwide who aspire to make their mark in the global entertainment industry.
And what better time to launch it than now when we’re going through a major cultural and a much-needed revolution in Hollywood to give writers and creators fair play as we speak.” The fellowship will select five writers from South Asia (including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and others) and the diaspora to join a one-year program and collaborate on a project alongside talented mentors. Read more about the fellowship here.
It was not something we grew up imagining as South Asians in America; children of immigrants who are often sidelined. But it happened! History was made as a considerable line-up of South Asian artists including Ali Sethi and Jai Wolf took center stage at Coachella. The highlight though, was Diljit Dosanjh’s power-packed performance that sent fans into a frenzy, enough to keep the security on their toes! It was the first time an Indian Punjabi singer performed at the event and we’d say it was about time.
Iconic song “Naatu Naatu” from the blockbuster movie “RRR” not only made history as the first ever song selected from an Indian film to be nominated for an Oscar but by also winning it, beating the likes of Rihanna and Lady Gaga. While the Oscar performance was disappointing — featuring predominantly ‘white’ ensemble of dancers, instead of the thousands of Indians who could’ve done a far better job and made more sense — this win is big for the South Asian community as a whole!
Pakistan filled with Joy as “Joyland” Made it on Academy Awards Shortlist
Pakistani film “Joyland” is the country’s first-ever film to be shortlisted for the Academy Awards. While it had a long run, it did not receive a nomination for the Oscars as expected. It was among 15 films that made the cut for the best international feature film. The critically-acclaimed film breaks stigmas by showcasing a stereotypical patriarchal family that craves for the birth of a baby boy— but with twists. Without any spoilers, this film is a must-watch for dismantling and challenging a host of patriarchal and discriminatory norms that continue to plague South Asian culture.
From “Indian Matchmaking” to Indian Idol-ing: Sima Taparia
Love or hate her, everyone has an opinion about internet sensation Sima Taparia. And with the end of season three, there’s still more to talk about Taparia’s new wedding or shadi song: “Shadi ki Tayaree Hai.”
The song follows Taparia attending a wedding while singing, dancing, and encouraging you to have a wedding of your own. And she’s not alone; her husband Anup Taparia is also singing and dancing. People are calling the song as entertaining as her show! Do with that what you must, but check out the song available to watch on YouTube.
An adaption of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel, Lolita Chakrabarti’s “Life of Pi” musical is not only the first Broadway play with a majority South Asian cast but the first to win three Tony awards.
Dubbed as Broadway’s most diverse show right, “Life of Pi” won Best Lighting Design of a Play, Best Scenic Design of a Play and Best Sound Design of a Play. Not to mention the musical is the Broadway debut of three Olivier Award-winning performers. With more than 20 puppeteers, the show takes you through Pi’s journey of survival.
After almost 15 years in development, “Monsoon Wedding” has made storms in New York’s theater scene. An off-Broadway production that ran all through the summer, “Monsoon Wedding” is an adaption of the iconic film that released in 2001.
We laughed, we cried, we sang as Mira Nair had us “literally dipped in the vat of stunning classical Indian singing.”
A show fit for anyone, as each character depicts varying shades of a personality, “Monsoon Wedding” breaks stereotypes, confronts stigmas, and reminds us of the importance of family.
“What’s Love Got to Do with It?” Brings Home Four Awards
Shekhar Kapur and Jemima Khan’s romantic comedy “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” won four awards at the United Kingdom’s National Film Awards, including best screenplay, best British film, best director and best supporting actor.
Khan, the screenwriter and producer of the movie, won the award for Best Screenplay. Asim Chaudhry’s performance won the movie Best Supporting Actor and Kapur won the Best Director award and the Best British Film award.
In another historic win for India, “The Elephant Whisperers” became the first Indian documentary to win an Oscar. Winning Best Documentary Short Film at the 95th Academy Awards, the film touches upon the relationship between animals and their caretakers. It follows the story of an indigenous couple named Bomman and Bellie who care for an orphaned baby elephant.
The film was directed by Kartiki Gonsalves and produced by Guneet Monga. Sharing the news of the win on Instagram, Monga noted how two women brought home this historic award.
”Tonight is historic as this is the first-ever Oscar for an Indian production. India’s Glory with 2 women.”
Record Number of South Asians Invited to Join The Academy
The Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts announced their list of 398 new members invited to join them. Among the prestigious names are also Indian film celebrities Ram Charan, Mani Ratnam, Karan Johar, Siddharth Roy Kapur, Chandrabose and MM Keeravani. As members of The Academy, they will be eligible to vote for the 96th Academy Awards which will be held in March 2024.
Be on the lookout for our next roundup as the year comes to a close!
It’s never a dull moment with your girl gang; some shots and conversations about sex, right? If you agree, you’re in for a treat with Karan Boolani’s directorial venture, “Thank You For Coming,” which had its world premiere at the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival. This coming-of-age story unapologetically begs the answer to a very important question: Why should women be left high and dry in bed?
Kanika Kapoor (Bhumi Pednekar) is a successful, 32-year-old, Delhi food blogger who makes a huge revelation on her 30th birthday: She’s never experienced an orgasm. This dirty little secret (no pun intended!) has now become detrimental to her self-esteem. She feels so down and out that she even accepts the proposal of a very boring suitor, Jeevan-ji (Pradhuman Singh Mall).
But, it’s not like she hasn’t tried. Kanika’s been a monogamist since her teenage years, starting with puppy love in high school — unfortunately, their sexual endeavors coined her as “thandi” (cold) by her first boyfriend — all the way to dating in her adulthood. But, regardless of how great any relationship was, nobody had her achieve the big O. All until the night of her engagement with Jeevan, when the drunk bride-to-be leaves the party for her hotel room and gets into bed. What follows is her very first orgasm. Ghungroo, finally, tute gaye! But, with whom?
The morning after, an initially-satisfied Kanika works herself into a frenzy of confusion and frustration as she makes her way through the list of potential men who could’ve been in her room the night before.
Was it one of her exes? She’d simply invited them to come to wish her well.
Was it her fiance?
Or, God forbid, was it actually the rabdi-wala (ice cream man)?
Boolani takes a straight-forward and on-the-nose approach to drive the point home. There are no cutting corners, no mincing words, and no hovering over “taboo topics.” The dialogue is raunchy, the characters are horny, and no one is apologetic. It’s important for a film like “Thank You For Coming” to be so in-your-face because the subject of women achieving orgasms can’t really be presented in any other way. Anything more conservative in the narrative would feel like the makers are being mindful of addressing something prohibited. And there is no room for taboos here.
But, there is room for a more open conversation on the reasons why many women feel the need to suppress their sexual needs in bed; how generally, women have been brought up to be the more desirable gender and hence not cross certain boundaries that would make them appear too brash. The fight for the right of female pleasure would have been a little more effective if the modesty around the topic was addressed. But, that doesn’t mean that the point is remiss.
The plot moves swiftly along, never lulling too long over everything that seems to be going wrong in Kanika’s life. “Thank You For Coming” is full of all the right tropes that belong in a comedic, masala film, too; the direction very seamlessly takes classic fixings like the abhorrent admirer (enter Jeevan-ji) and effectively plugs them into this contemporary feature that will remain perpetually relevant.
And now, let’s come to the star of the show: the well-rounded characters.
Producer Rhea Kapoor has mastered the formula of a good chick flick and her casting is the magic touch. She’s got a knack for bringing together the right actors — cue, “Veere Di Wedding.” So, just when we think that it doesn’t get better than the veere, Kapoor surprises us with a refreshing trio — they’re modern, they’re rebellious, and they say it like it is. Thank you, Dolly Singh (Pallavi Khanna) and Shibani Bedi (Tina Das) for being the yin to Kanika’s yang — and for the bag full of sex toys your homegirl oh-so needed!
To complete Kanika’s story, we have her single mother, Miss. Kapoor, brilliantly portrayed by Natasha Rastogi. She is the face of a headstrong and self-assured matriarch and a symbol of the modern-day Indian woman. Rastogi’s character exemplifies the fact that with access to education, and a stable career, women do not need to mold their lives around men.
I love the fact that Miss. Kapoor is almost villainized by her own mother (played by Dolly Ahluwalia) in the film because she had a child out of wedlock in her yesteryears, she chooses to remain single, and she brings her boyfriends around the house to hang out with. But, there’s a point to be made here. The fact that Kanika’s mother is being antagonized just highlights that she is challenging the norms and pushing the envelope for what is socially acceptable for women. Miss. Kapoor definitely deserves an honorable mention.
Pednekar’s unexpected yet impeccable comic timing is the highlight of the entire film. Everything from being a damsel in sexual distress to a woman who unabashedly chases self-pleasure, Pednekar puts on a genuinely entertaining act for the audience. From being portrayed as a high-schooler to the 32-year-old, independent woman, Pednekar is fit for each role. Her naivety as a teen wins you over, as does her gusto as a full-blown adult with a broken ankle and some very messy relationships. This also speaks volumes about the versatility of her looks.
And, of course, Pednekar is not new to films that address social topics, but “Thank You For Coming” challenges her to balance Kanika’s droll with the responsibility of delivering a very important message to the viewers. Mission accomplished, Ms. Pednekar!
“Thank You For Coming” is a through-and-through entertainer. Everything from the casting — a huge shout out to the rest of the supporting cast including Anil Kapoor, Shehnaaz Gill, Karan Kundra, Kusha Kapila, Gautmik, and Sushant Divkigar, without whom this roller coaster would have lacked the thrills — to the homey locations and even the glitz and glamor in the song sequences, they’re all perfect pieces to help drive home a powerful message: Smash patriarchy!