Interview with Meenakshi Ramamurthy, Director of The Fob and I

Copy Editing and Posting by Elena Cronick

This interview is part of a double feature on the web series The Fob and I. Check out Shewonda Leger’s review of the series.

Meenakshi Ramamurthy

What was your inspiration for creating the YouTube web series The Fob and I?

I started to meet more Indians from India, and they were much more liberal than me. I would think, “Wait a minute, I thought it was supposed to be the other way around?” A lot of first generation Indians like myself were raised by parents in the mindset of an India in the 1970s and 80s and that mindset never really saw India progress. When my parents saw something they didn’t like happening in America, they’d blame it on that “American nonsense.” But the reality was their India was shifting without them there to see it.

So I thought, “What if we flipped the stereotype on Indians and reflected what was actually happening?” We created the character Jisha, who is fresh off the boat, but more progressive and outgoing than her American counterpart. She is ready to see what the world has to offer, but naïve to its realities. Sita, her cousin who has spent her whole life in America, is totally over it.  She is cynical but helpless, too snarky to admit she’s held back by the conservative ideas she was raised on. Together, both women are able to understand their own culture and selves better through the others’ perspective.

When you do Bollywood in LA, you have to have a froyo shop.

Why did you decide to launch The Fob and I as a YouTube series instead of creating a feature film or a documentary? And now that you have successfully created a first season and are moving on to season two, do you think a web series is still the right medium for this story?

Point-blank—it’s easier for companies to take risks on the web. Even if we had decided to take the characters and put them into a short film, we would have been under greater competition to get funding for our project. What makes something viral or share-worthy is consistently unpredictable online, which makes the web the perfect ground for experimentation. But even on the web we had to prove our worth amongst topical sketch comedy shows that are such a sustainable staple of the internet. When we finally got funded, it was a triumph that if done right, web-viewers could appreciate and love a narrative show between two South Asian women.

Would we love to see The Fob and I be turned into a TV show? Absolutely. But the realities of creating a show that is funded by major distribution outlets are that the content is at risk of losing authenticity and just getting watered down. Having the show on the web provides us autonomy to tell our stories the way we want to. It’s hard to put a price on that.

How did you go about selecting the crew for The Fob and I?

The majority of the crew were friends from University of Southern California graduate film program and my undergraduate film program at University of Texas. If I can hang out on set with my friends for twelve hours and call that work, then I’m living the dream. Friendship, of course, is a key theme on our show. In order to make that friendship feel real on screen, the friendship behind the scenes has to be real as well. I was very fortunate to work with my co-writer, Natalie Stone, our producer, Noopur Sinha, and our editor, Faroukh Virani. In the casting stages, it was vital for us to cast a South Asian that not only had a real accent but also that had gone through the true “FOB” experience that Jisha had. The authenticity of this plays out when you see Uttera Singh on screen.

The crew with the largest keyboard ever.

Overall it was important for us to have as many South Asians as we could involved in the production. Even though I’m South Asian myself, I can’t claim to be an expert on all aspects of my identity. Having more South Asians in all aspects of production was crucial. A true friend and collaborator calls you out when you’re about to make something that looks wrong, and for a series like ours to work we needed those checks and balances.

Aside from directing, what other roles do you contribute to in the production process?

When you do low budget production, you end up wearing a lot of hats. Unfortunately, it isn’t the kind of directing where you can park your luxury car in the spot next to the stage and have a latte in your hand before you walk in the door. But to tell you truth, I don’t think I could ever really enjoy that kind of filmmaking. On the show, I co-wrote, did a little editing, a little producing, and definitely wasn’t beyond wrangling extras and getting smeared with holi powder. While a lot of these duties are beyond the scope of a big budget director, knowing as much as you can about every aspect of filmmaking makes you a valued contributor who is respected by their peers. It would be foolish for me to assume as the director I’m the smartest person in the room. Rather as a director, I do my best to find the most talented people so we can collaborate and depend on each other’s expertise.

Your web series focuses on two main characters: Jisha, who has recently arrived from India, and Sita, an Americanized Indian, as an Indian woman. How do you personally connect to moments in the two storylines?

At a party recently, an Indian immigrant asked me how I could direct a character from India as a first generation Indian American. Initially, I was shocked by the question—of course I could direct an Indian immigrant performance, my parents are immigrants, it’s a vital part of my identity, and so many of my close friends are immigrants. Although I feel equipped to direct and write these characters, the question broadly reminded me of Hollywood’s constant white-washing debate. How can you truly represent another identity without fully educating yourself about it and using authentic characters to tell your story?

As an Indian American I’ve encountered a lot of the situations the girls deal with on the show. I like to say I’m a Sita in the streets and a Jisha in the sheets. Silly metaphor aside, what I mean is this: I might seem very open in public but usually only express my full personality with close friends. As a minority, there’s a push to project that confidence and erase any parts that detract from it.

Jisha’s newest fling, is Sita’s worst nightmare. (Ep 2: Black Muslim Boyfriend)

As a kid, I remember I was asked how I got rid of acne on my face, and then how weirded out my friends were when I told them I smeared turmeric on it. Really, a lot about growing up as a minority in America is fumbling with the expectations of two cultures. The show is best when it captures those feelings and leaves the viewers with a story that is accessible but also educational of the immigrant experience in America.

Telling culturally relevant stories can involve touching on sensitive topics. How do you decide which ideas to pursue and which ones to disregard when directing a comedy like The Fob and I?

We really try to focus on creating conflict from everyday experiences: getting chai at a coffee shop, signing up for a marathon, prepping for an online date. Although we pursue sensitive topics, grounding the show on these experiences helps the storylines feel more relatable and less like a class on South Asian culture. For the first season, we focused on the most obvious representations of South Asian culture in western life—chai, holi, and Bollywood—but addressed them in a way that was unexpected.  How can a drink be a symbol of home, is The Color Run an appropriated event, and what would Bollywood be like as a romance between two friends set in LA?

Why do you think the work you are doing as an Indian woman filmmaker is important?

It’s 2017 and there isn’t a show with two South Asians in lead recurring roles interacting with each other. Think about that. It’s crazy. For me, the first part of my job is just creating those roles and doing it in a way that’s not portraying them as a token character. Sure, with Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, and Priyanka Chopra in lead roles, we’re seeing more South Asian faces on screen. While I might not always agree wholeheartedly with those depictions, having a small presence is a start for a community that has been such large part of the U.S. for a long time. Television and entertainment are ways for our society to see what’s accepted, and I’m really happy that South Asians are beginning to be a part of that landscape. However, these South Asian protagonists often leave out the cultural identity of their characters.  More often than not, Priyanka, Mindy, and Aziz just “happen” to be Indian, and usually it’s just peppered in a few episodes. While this allows us to accept Indians in our daily life, it leaves out the complexity of our culture. With The Fob and I, the main source of conflict is rooted in our characters’ identity. We don’t have to wait for that one-off episode.  Every episode is a chance to explore the South Asian experience in America.

Behind the scenes shooting at a real Holi Festival.

You campaigned for funding for a second season of The Fob and I. What was the fundraising process like?

Crowdfunding is hard. Being a filmmaker in this day and age requires you to be your own publicist as well and those are definitely very different skill sets. It’s a lot of pressure to ask friends and family for funding, but that really forces you as a filmmaker to make the best product. For me, the most validating part of crowdfunding is when people you’ve never met like your work and want to share it. As an artist, if I can reach one other person with a shared human experience, then I feel like I’ve done something right.

What web series or other media projects by fellow women filmmakers did you use to guide your own processes?  

Current web series turned shows like Broad City were definitely an inspiration. Their stories are so simple but simultaneously unafraid to be wacky. Overall our main influences are stories rooted in female friendship. Lucy and Ethel, Laverne and Shirley, Bridesmaids‘s Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig, The Golden Girls. Influence also came from co-writing the series with my talented friend Natalie Stone. During each episode of our series, the girls need each other to understand themselves and their world better. The start of our creative process was leaning on that good friend you didn’t always agree with, but pushed you out of your comfort zone to make something better.

What advice would you give to women directors who are trying to start their own web series?

When people give advice to filmmakers I hear a lot of “just pick up the camera!” and “just go shoot!” Certainly, we live in an amazing time where there is the potential for immediate worldwide distribution. But before you create, think about the meaning behind what you what to do and the effect you want to leave with your audience. Then when you’ve made something, don’t hide it in your closet or smart phone, share it. It’s probably the most painful part of the process, but it’ll help you grow and make something better. And don’t let anyone ever tell you that your perspective and your story aren’t important. They are. Women filmmakers just aren’t given the same opportunity to fail and try. So take that back. Turn off the comments and make your masterpiece.

Luckily everything but the camera got holi powder on it!

One of the biggest challenges we face as women filmmakers is getting people to pay attention to our projects. I can only imagine the effort it takes to promote a web series. How do you use press outlets and online communities to publicize yours?

The intention of our series was never to go viral (although we did secretly wish for that), but to create important content that we didn’t see anywhere else on TV.  Of course, we still didn’t want to operate in a vacuum. The reality is that virality without luck takes a lot of work. Our strategy was to make lists of all the media outlets we thought would support us (women, South Asian, comedy, indie film) and to couple that outreach to Twitter personalities we thought would support our content. It was surprising to us that large outlets responded to our emails and that one small article often led to press from a larger publication. For us, it was evidence that if you make good content, people will pay attention.

What are you hoping your community and people who watch your web series get out of the narrative?

The first time we played The Fob and I on the big screen, I was stunned to hear a gasp from the audience during the last scene of the Bollywood episode. In an audience that was mostly non-South Asian, people related to the characters we created. I’m hoping that audiences alike feel that our characters are believable, that their struggles are real, and that they come away with an understanding of South Asian culture past curry and computer programmers. In a five-minute webisode you can explore the challenges and richness of South Asian culture. To me, that beats watching a dancing cat.

More than anything, The Fob and I is about bringing an accurate portrayal of South Asians to the screen. Though both leads are Indian cousins, Sita and Jisha have been raised under incredibly different circumstances and are very different women. With these two Indian protagonists, we had the ability to show how complex Indian identity can be, even within itself. We had the opportunity to say, “Hey, just because there are two brown characters on screen, that doesn’t mean they’re the same person or represent the same things.”

The Bollywood Field! (The only field that wasn’t affected by the drought.)

In terms of the greater community, one of the hardest things about South Asian culture is that there is so much that isn’t appropriate for public discussion. Watching Sita and Jisha in their apartment is an intimate look at the Indian experience in America—one that isn’t always the perfect doctor, engineer or spelling bee champ. We can see them take on difficult South Asian issues that just aren’t being talked about. We look forward to future episodes being a forum that opens up communication in the Indian community and empowers Indian women. How do South Asians deal with depression? How do they communicate with their families? How do they explain sexuality? And, most of all, how can South Asians feel at home in a country that never feels fully theirs?

Watch episode 1 here:

And episode 2:

Season 1 is now fully available through Seed & Spark, and episodes 1 and 2 of season 2 are available at Episodes 3–5 will be available soon.

Read Shewonda Leger‘s review of The Fob and I.