Vishaal Reddy centers Queer Indian-American character with 'Insomnia'

PHOTO: Aaron Duffy

PHOTO: Aaron Duffy

Producers are beginning to realize that Americans are tired of homogenous television and films. While there’s still a significant amount of work to be done, the wild success of stories featuring people of color are breaking down the long-held myth that American audiences aren’t willing to hear them.

Writer and actor Vishaal Reddy is continuing this work with his upcoming series INSOMNIA, which earned thousands of dollars in donations from people eager to hear the story of Nikhil, a queer Indian book editor who begins a secret life as an escort. Reddy took a break from editing to speak to us about the show.

Could you tell us a bit about the premise of INSOMNIA?

Insomnia is a darkly comedic story about a queer Indian-American writer who’s going through a bit of an identity crisis. His aunt has multiple sclerosis, he hates his dead end publishing job, and is having trouble sleeping, all the while his depression and self-confidence is at an all time low. He unexpectedly meets the owner of an escort agency who throws him into her world, altering his perspective on the world and his existence.

What inspired you to do it?

Insomnia kind of happened by accident! I was in between acting gigs and was hustling with auditions and side gigs. The show was born out of my frustration with a lack of dynamic South Asian and queer stories in our entertainment. As a queer South Asian man, I rarely get chances to just play a part of projects with well rounded characters so I decided to just carve out my own path and write content I’d love to watch. I have always gravitated towards naturalistic, yet richly complex stories and as a performer constantly looking for creative expression, I decided that I would just begin writing whatever came to my mind while I was in between acting gigs.

Initially, I started writing a story about an Indian-American struggling with his identity. This was oddly during a time where I was going through a similar experience. I wasn’t sure what I was doing with my life, my dating life was non existent, and my depression was at an all time high. I truly felt useless. However, I wanted to write about the humor that got me through these times in a unique way but couldn’t quite figure out how to make it all work.

One evening I was out with friends at a bar when someone approached me and point blank offered me a job as an escort. I thought my friends were playing a joke on me and when I realized that they weren’t, I was flattered but politely declined the opportunity. When I did, this person said “you’re right. Indian people, you all don’t do these kinds of things.”

And it was because of that particular comment that I went and started writing the pilot for this show. Two years later and here we are!

PHOTO: Aaron Duffy

PHOTO: Aaron Duffy

How did that inform your casting decisions?

Casting was a ton of fun! I honestly just sought out friends and people who I’ve always wanted to work with for these roles and it worked out in surprising ways.

There was a definite focus on spotlighting queer and/or South Asian artists in this piece so because of that, I really just got to put a group of friends together, which was a dream come true. I wanted the show to feel real in the sense that there are all kinds of body types, shapes, sizes, ethnicities, genders, and personalities. Each and every actor brought something really special to the table and I couldn’t have asked for a better cast.

It seems like the piece is introducing queer narratives that don't always take center stage. Can you speak to that?

For sure! We have a unique angle to our main character’s queerness and have had a great time exploring it! It’s always exciting to see a character who’s queerness is celebrated by their friends and family. However, we don’t shy away from the hardships that a queer person faces in our show. Our main character is queer (he dates women and men) so we do showcase the ins and outs of that playing a major role in his life, along with the experiences of stigmatization and fetishization that he’s plagued with. We also get to explore the concept of what his queerness means not only as a South Asian but as a sex worker, a narrative that isn’t often shown through this specific lense. We definitely don’t hold back!  

Despite a sea of various crowdfunding campaigns, yours absolutely took off. Why do you think that is?

We got really lucky! But seriously, I actually don’t know. Crowdfunding might be the hardest thing I have ever done. It truly is a full time job and to do it right takes a lot of sacrifice.

At the end of the day, there is no rhyme or reason why one campaign works and why another doesn’t. It’s all about really showing people that you have a story to tell. That’s it.

There’s a lot of planning and work that goes into the process. It’s about putting in a ton of effort before the actual campaign starts and making sure that you’ve really thought everything out regarding your campaign. We did about six to eight weeks of scheduling and planning before we even finalized our Kickstarter dates.

While we were successful, there are MANY things that I wish we had done and a few things that I think we did really well. We knew our target markets and also knew the kind of story we want to tell. Since we were very specific in the format, vibe, and content we were creating, I think the campaign really resonated with anyone who came across it.

I believe ours succeeded due to the team around the show. It’s a testament to their work and their time and effort spent to make this an incredible project.

PHOTO: Aaron Duffy

PHOTO: Aaron Duffy

You recently finished shooting. How was that process?

It was truly the greatest joy of my life. We shot six episodes in about a six day period which was insane! It was a lot of work and effort but we did it.

Once again, I truly lucked out with the cast and crew I got on the project. Everyone had a common goal to tell this story and do it justice but they also knew we were only allotted a very specific amount of time and we had to finish it.

What's next for the project? What are you most excited for audiences to see?

Right now, we are editing away! Now comes the fun part: putting the final product together so audiences can enjoy the project. We are anticipating it coming out next year but there’s a lot of work to get done before that.

I am just excited for audiences to see the world and character’s we’ve created. The show is something familiar yet tonally quite different from what’s on American television currently so I hope that excites people! We are truly trying to break some barriers that South Asian and queer people are often saddled with in art, while simultaneously attempting to take an old narrative and show the complexity that drives this character to make life altering decisions.

Lastly, I truly am excited for people to see a queer Indian-American lead character on screen who’s funny, smart, depressed, sexual, dirty, and emotional. Sometimes all at once. Why? Cause it’s about damn time.

Evan Brechtel is a queer writer living in New York. You can find his body of work at @EvanBrechtel.