We have sex, we drink, we curse like the sailors of yesteryear, and then some. But the Indian women we often saw in movies or series were always the result of cultures of perfection or exoticisation, rather than fully-formed, flawed human beings.
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Slowly and surely, the real force of representation came in the comedy-drama films such as Lipstick Under My Burkha , Margarita With a Straw and Queen . But what of pure, slapstick comedy? That is Hot Mess Holiday as it captures the Indian diaspora woman of today in the bizarre context of ‘Deepavali in New York, a public break-up going viral, a diamond heist and Kal Penn being Kal Penn.’
Directed by Jaffar Mahmood, the Comedy Central film stars actor-comedians Surina Jindal and Melanie Chandra — who many may know from their gamechanging YouTube channel ‘2 Brown Girls’ — who also co-wrote the film with Sameer Gardezi. It also brings much-loved names such as Penn, Punam Patel, Ritesh Rajan (Definition Please ) , Kunal Dudheker, Richa Moorjani (Never Have I Ever and The Mindy Project ) , Ravi Patel, Aparna Nancherla ( Bojack Horseman and Mythic Quest ) and Nik Dodani ( Dear Evan Hansen and Atypical ). The film – seven years in the making – follows a finance executive who is publicly dumped by her cheating fiancé during Deepavali and is inadvertently swept into a diamond heist.
And what would any Indian diaspora film be without a few cheeky digs at the condescending attitude Indian diaspora face? That is, an angry uncle or aunty berating them for not speaking in their mother tongue fluently, still being unmarried before 30 or not pursuing the ideal career path. Hot Mess Holiday treats this with shades of comedy.
Speaking with The Hindu Weekend shortly before the U.S. release date (December 12), we can feel Jindal and Chandra’s excitement even virtually as they anticipate confirmation for an India release. Since then, it has been: Christmas Day (December 25).
A rom-com for friendship
Through pre-production, the duo shared anecdotes of their decade-long friendship with the writer Sameer Gardezi; the stories were equal measures of laughs and love, highlighting Jindal’s go-with-flow approach to life and Chandra’s knack for getting all her ducks in a row. In fact, the makers decided that the characters in the film should be named Surina and Melanie.
“It’s a rom-com for our friendship,” she sums up with a laugh, “It’s so beautiful to finally put something out there that says ‘females first!’ where – despite how partners, location, work issues (or a diamond heist) can test a friendship – the friendship sticks.”
The duo are grateful for the ensemble featured in the film and not just those of South Asian-origin. You will see other familiar faces such as Saturday Night Live alum Chris Parnell and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt actor Titus Burgess. Hot Mess Holiday makes the best of their cast by leveraging Dodani’s deadpan humour, Penn’s legend status, Moorjani’s traditional dance skills, and more. The key, states Chandra, is “letting everyone on set play and improv a lot.”
So how does one make the most of a talent like Penn? Jindal and Chandra kept the solution simple: keep him as Kal Penn, of course. The multihyphenate — star of the Harold & Kumar films, author of You Can’t Be Serious and former Associate Director at the White House Office of Public Liaison during the Barack Obama Administration — was eager to work with Jindal and Chandra after watching their critically-acclaimed series and original short both named Surina & Mel .
“While working with him, we always called him by his first and last name even via email, texts and more,” recalls Jindal with a chuckle, “and he came on like an intern, with a wondrous energy of ‘wow, this is amazing, guys!’ and treating us like we were the greatest sh*t on the planet.”
Chandra adds, “Despite working on his book, inventing ice cream flavours, working with political campaigns and other films and shows, he was so generous with time for Hot Mess Holiday .”
The reality is that this film would not be what it is if it were released seven years ago. For far too long, India-oriented projects about a child of poverty wanting to be a doctor or arranged marriages were the only ones greenlit in Hollywood.
“If we had gotten this done with a major studio seven years ago, I feel we would have a lot more pressure to make it something we didn’t want it to be. This means playing into the tropes and stereotypes; now in 2021, people lean into hearing your unique voice,” Chandra muses.
After years of attending various diversity talent showcases in Hollywood where she was pushed to ‘put on an Indian accent’ and ‘just do the character in a sari’, Jindal was tired of “constantly creatively compromising” herself. “It hurts that the thought of Indian women having sex, smoking and drinking is an anomaly,” she sounds out.
Hot Mess Holiday releases on Comedy Central India on December 25 at 9 pm.
Update: The film’s release in India is currently under negotiations, a sure date is TBC.