When Pitch Perfect first hit theaters in 2012, it brought a lot of attention to the world of collegiate a cappella. Riff offs, runs, a national championship between singing teams using nothing but their voices; who would’ve thought?
When I arrived at USC in 2017, I knew I wanted to join an a cappella team. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of a sorority/clique like that? Plus, I’d been singing for as long as I could remember. But, when I walked through the involvement fair, what caught my attention was a mashup of Jiya Jale and Dark Horse. Before I even knew it, two years had gone by and I was captain of Asli Baat, USC’s premier competitive South Asian fusion a cappella team (yes, we know it’s a mouth full).
While I had gone in looking for the Pitch Perfect experience, what I got was so much better.
The South Asian a cappella circuit functions independently from the ICCA circuit. While we have a national competition — All American Awaaz — the circuit is more of an extended brown collegiate a cappella family.
While Penn Masala and Chai Town have become the staple for South Asian fusion a cappella, the ASA circuit actually includes around forty competitive teams from around the country. Each year, the competition gets tougher and the bar is set higher (us brown kids and our overachieving), leading to some truly phenomenal music being created.
Competitions are fierce, with teams having members with rigorous training in classical music and intense choreography routines from classical dancers. Comp preparedness takes months of practice – Pitch Perfect was accurate in that everyone goes a little crazy. But somehow, once at the comp, instead of the intense constant rivalry depicted in Pitch Perfect, the South Asian circuit is always focused on making new friends and maybe finding people to “dance” with at the after-parties – which are legendary. Although members of different teams are competitors, we all bond over shared culture, love for fusion music and having to tell people that we’re “on the brown a cappella team” at our respective schools.
It’s Not All About Competing
Even the non-competition aspects of AB are very different from Pitch Perfect. We’re all brown, so instead of the “no boyfriends, no school, nothing matters but music” policy, we spend downtime during auditions singing badly but also doing homework and our kickbacks are scheduled around our midterms. Asli Baat and teams like it, bond not only over our shared love of music and performing but also our desi culture. We have Bollywood movie nights, try making spiked chai and rasgullas and fight over safety pins for our gorgeous desi costumes (Pitch Perfect could never).
From performing at traditional Indian weddings to distributing mango lassi on campus to busting moves to Bom Diggy in dormitory elevators and even performing for Uber LA’s Diwali, South Asian a cappella teams manage to stay incredibly lit and well connected. As we know, all brown people somehow know each other.
Chances are that your college probably has a South Asian fusion a cappella team and they’re probably really badass. Joining Asli Baat was the best decision I’ve ever made and I’m so glad it wasn’t the Pitch Perfect experience. The desi experience has a lot more flavor to it.
From a queer brown boy in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada) to now a fabulous trans femme artist in her 40s, Vivek Shraya is no stranger to life and its unpredictable journey. Her love for music as a young boy transcended any naysayer, and as she got older, she was hopeful that she’ll make it in the world of music one day; her ambitions were strong and the inhibitions were defeated by her love for the arts.
Art and poetry gave me a place to express the loneliness, the isolation, the frustration, the pain that I was experiencing.
But, as Shraya ventured deeper into the industry, she found that it wasn’t an easy code to crack. She moved from Edmonton to Toronto for better opportunities to showcase her talents, but the city gave her a wakeup call:
I found it really hard to create a music career and so at around 30, I broke up with music — even though technically in my 30s I kept making music — that was the first moment in my career that it occurred to me that I wasn’t entitled to success.. Just because I was a nominally good singer, had some decent contacts, was full of ambition, and was a hard worker, that didn’t necessarily guarantee I would be successful.
Shraya knew she was a creative person and couldn’t give up her creativity in the name of the failure she faced with her music. She ventured into writing her first (self-published) book, “God Loves Hair,” and that’s when she realized that she could still explore the arts through different mediums — books and short films. She continued to write, but at the back of her mind, she hadn’t given up on music.
Once people started showing interest in my other work, I was constantly trying to figure out how to use that interest to leverage my music. So if I was doing a reading, I was singing songs; if I was putting out a book, it was like ‘how do I put out a single that’s attached to that book?’ If I was making a film, it was like ‘how do I score for the film and have a song?’
Even with all the work in place, and using it to her advantage to further her music, Shraya says that by the age of 38/39, she knew that a successful career in music was,
Never gonna happen.
And that’s when she made a play about failure — “How To Fail As A Popstar” — which has now turned into a show on CBC Gem. Shraya took her story (and lessons) on failure and turned it into an incredible and relatable story for the masses to watch in the comfort of their own homes. She came out triumphant at the end, after all.
We sit down with Shraya for an exclusive chat about “How to Fail as a Popstar” — its inception (revisited), if she ever thought the story would go from book to play to CBC Gem as a show, and how diversity and inclusion are at the core of the series. There’s also a special surprise at the end you don’t want to miss!
Have a look:
You can now watch “How to Fail as a Popstar” on CBC Gem!
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.
As a South Indian American, I am aware of how non-brown Americans view the Indian film industry. One word: Bollywood. Bollywood and the South Indian film industry has always been lumped into the same category as Bollywood, despite the diversity. For Indians, South India is obviously different from North India, but non-brown people assume it would all be the same. This extends beyond Indian cinema; feeding into assumptions regarding other aspects of culture like language, food, and so on. People tend to assume all Indians speak Hindi or eat tikka masala at home rather than trying to understand the diversity of Indian culture. With time, especially with the help of social media, there was more accessibility to understanding the differences among these cultures, yet nothing truly spread across the globe. Then came “RRR.”
“RRR” is a Telugu film from Tollywood. This South Indian film has become a worldwide sensation with its incredible visual effects, captivating plot, and catchy music. I was blown away by the reception this film got in the United States, especially from American film critics who were all praise. What impressed me the most was how more Americans clarified it was not a Bollywood film, and differentiated it as a Tollywood film. The number of people taking the time to learn the difference between Tollywood and Bollywood might seem simple, yet meaningful, nonetheless. South Indian films are incredibly underrated and are finally getting the attention they deserved. It is incredible to see the celebration surrounding the film and what it represents and means to this community and how we get to share it with the world. The hype was real, and then the awards season began.
The Golden Globes top the list of some of the major awards for television and film and it was amazing to hear that “RRR” had been nominated in two categories for this award. Funnily enough in my own world, it aired on my birthday. Then came the moment when Jenna Ortega said “Naatu Naatu, RRR” and the song played as M.M. Keeravani approached the stage to accept his award. This song became the first Asian, not only Indian, song to win the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The 80th Golden Globes saw many wins for the Asian community with films like “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and “RRR.” There is something beautiful about being South Indian in America and watching a South Indian song win an award in America on one’s birthday. There is a joy in getting to tell my friends, both brown and non-brown, about it and share the song, “Naatu Naatu,” with them. Sure it is Indian, but it is just a bit closer to home, and that closeness stands with a beautiful meaning. When it came to the Critics’ Choice Awards, it was touching to hear about how S.S. Rajamouli grew up with the encouragement of creativity and storytelling. It honestly inspired me to continue my own projects; I hope to see them prosper as well.
After the win at the Golden Globes, the Oscars became highly anticipated for the Indian community, especially when the nominations for Best Original Song were announced. Of course, when the familiar title appeared once again, a victory felt within grasp. “Naatu Naatu” had a couple of big moments at the Academy Awards ceremony: the performance and the win itself. The performance was introduced by the absolutely phenomenal actress, Deepika Padukone, who, too, is s South Indian. Her introduction of the song brought forward the context in which the tune takes place, that is during 1920 under the British colonization of India. She reminded all of us of how significant the song was along with its catchy beat. When it came to the announcement of who won Best Original Song, it was a first-of-its-kind victory given that it was the first time an Indian film won in this category. The speech made by M. M. Keeravani was beautiful as he sang to the tune of “Top of the World” with his own lyrics to take in the moment. It was certainly an extremely proud day to be Indian anywhere in the world, and especially to be a South Indian.
Seeing non-brown folks acknowledging the diversity of Indian culture has been beautiful to witness. The cultural pride of saying an Indian film, specifically a South Indian film, won the Oscar, a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and two Critics’ Choice Awards so far is an absolute joy. Seeing South Indian representation, especially during the awards season, is inspiring for brown creatives. This has been a time of great cultural pride in the South Indian community, and as a South Indian creative myself, I am honored to see it.
Photo Courtesy: Netflix