In a still from Insomnia.
It was a misunderstanding that led to Vishaal Reddy creating Insomnia, a web series about a queer American of Indian heritage. Reddy was once approached by a man at a bar who thought he was an escort, and when Reddy revealed that he wasn’t, the man shrugged and suggested that this was probably because Indians “do not do such things”. It was a lightbulb moment for the 28-year-old New York-based writer-actor. “South Asian characters aren’t often painted as desirable on screen and stage, so I wanted to flip the script and change that narrative,” says the Tennessee-raised Reddy.
American television may have come a long way in how it represents South Asian characters, as well as characters who belong to sexual minority groups, but a show like Insomnia, built around a protagonist who is simultaneously queer and desi, remains rare. In Insomnia, Reddy, who identifies as queer, plays a bisexual South Asian man named Nikhil who works in publishing, and moonlights as an escort. In addition, he’s afflicted by the titular inability to sleep. Laced with dark humour, the show weaves in conversations around racial discrimination, mental health, sex work and queer loneliness. Insomnia — directed by Michelle Cutolo, with Milan and Dipali Goswami as executive producers — is currently streaming on YouTube. Reddy raised funds through a Kickstarter campaign, and the episodes were shot using a hand-held camera.
Besides Reddy, other American-Indian actors on the show are Aneesh Sheth, Nandita Shenoy, Cheech Manohar and Piyali Syam. “I find that many South Asian characters in media are totally whitewashed or are caricatures of who we are as people. I wanted to strike a balance with those elements,” says Reddy, who has also worked in theatre.
His parents, who are from Hyderabad, ensured that Reddy spent most summer vacations in India to keep in touch with his roots, and there’s a clear nod to his upbringing in Reddy’s show: Nikhil speaks a bit of Telugu. He eats idlis for breakfast, wears a Ganesha pendant to honour the memory of his mother who chose death by suicide, and lives with an aunt battling multiple sclerosis. While the family has its own share of drama, the show does not stereotype desi parents as people who stigmatise non-heteronormative sexuality. Importantly, the story of Nikhil’s coming out is not part of the show. Viewers are introduced to him as someone who is already comfortable with his sexuality.
The pride in his heritage, Reddy says, is not out of compulsion but is an act of agency. That is why, with Insomnia, he decided to create a show that would hire a lot of South Asian talent. “Even for my crew, I made sure that most of them were of colour and that there were many women on the set,” he says.
While Reddy says that lots of queer South Asians have reached out to him, saying they have felt ‘seen’ through the show, his focus is on the misunderstood ‘B’ in LGBTQ+. One of the episodes features a sequence about the prejudice and humiliation that bisexual individuals face even within the queer community. They are seen as promiscuous or as sex maniacs. Reddy says, “Because society has built up this idea that we must be straight or gay, when people don’t fit into this box, they begin to question the mere existence of the entity. I am a bisexual man and have experienced much biphobia through the years but I am confident with who I am.”
It is significant that Insomnia is set in New York, a city with a rich history of queer activism. It is also an attractive destination for queer desis, who organise locally through associations such as South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association of New York City. Reddy remarks, “It is vibrant, messy, resilient, and beautiful all in one breath... I am also reminded that I’m lucky to live in a city where queer people can express themselves in all different forms freely, which is a gift.”
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher based in Mumbai