Whitewashing POC characters and #OscarsSoWhite are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to minority representation in Hollywood, both in movies and television. Apart from having diverse characters and stories onscreen, there’s a lack of minority representation behind the camera from writers, directors and production companies who are willing to tell these stories.
In an effort to change that media landscape, Nida Chowdhry and Yumna Khan are founders of the production company Stranger Magic Productions, who are working on the web series called Unfair & Ugly which challenges taboo topics in the Desi community. Creating that safe space to talk about these issues, is the aim of the web series, together with having some comic relief.
The Tempest got an opportunity to talk to them about their production company, what it’s like being filmmakers in Hollywood, and their upcoming productions.
The Tempest: Tell us about your background, your inspiration for Unfair & Ugly and what you hope to achieve through it. What’s the feedback on the trailer been like?
Yumna Khan: I never felt my true authentic self was represented in the media; my classmates constantly made fun of my Indian Muslim background and made me want to distance myself from my heritage. In college, I realized people had the wrong impression of me & my community because there is a lack of representation. The first film that really opened my eyes was Remember the Titans, which delivers a message in a memorable and moving way, gradually changing the way people think. That’s what I aspire to do, and that’s why Nida & I are making Unfair & Ugly.
Nida Chowdhry: A few years ago, I saw Arrested Development on Netflix, and I thought, “I want to see a show like this about Brown people.” When we formed a production company, we ditched the “show positive images” narrative and focused on showing very real, flawed humans. We wanted to explore unflattering aspects of human culture, like anti-Black racism, and stigma around mental health. It’s hard to acknowledge the “unfair” and “ugly” parts of our personal lives, which only perpetuates these problems. At least on screen, we can show things how they are and provide a form of relief and conversation point. The feedback on the trailer has been incredible: over 50,000 views and 300 shares in 3 days. The themes are hitting close to home.
Tell us about your production company Stranger Magic Productions, and any advice for people looking for a partner in a production company?
YK: We formed Stranger Magic Productions to tell diverse, high-quality stories that reflect the world as we’ve lived it. Having Nida as a partner is a blessing. I’ve learned through this process that a partnership takes a lot of work and it’s all about communication. We talk through everything, make sure our visions align, and take things a step at a time.
NC: Being in a partnership is an intensely involved relationship. I talk to Yumna on a daily basis, and we have a lot of tough conversations. We try to put each other first as people, then business partners.
Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker or work in this particular industry?
YK: During my last year of college I had the opportunity to work on a feature film as a production coordinator. I immediately knew I wanted to be a producer so I can incorporate both my business & creative skills. I’ve always used art as a form of education and activism. The more I worked in Film/TV Production, the more I realized I could use my voice to tell stories and shape the narratives about my culture & faith. Nida and I both believe in the power of media and how it can transform people’s perspectives.
NC: I wanted to be an artist, so my parents gifted me a Fisher Price doctor’s kit. When I was transferring to UC Irvine and declaring my major, I read the course description for ‘Film & Media Studies’ and fell in love. Right then, I had a dream of owning a production company and being able to create whatever media I wanted to. That didn’t feel possible until I met Yumna.
What struggles have you faced in the entertainment industry, and how did you overcome it?
YK: Being a woman and working on a set came with many challenges. Many of my male colleagues didn’t think I had the ability to work on a set because I don’t have the same physical strength as they do. That was something Nida and I both agreed on – to have a warm and welcoming set where everyone is treated as equals.
NC: Walking into a room and counting how many people of color are present behind the scenes, on stage, and in the audience is depressing. Keisha Zollar, a UCB improviser and diversity mentor, once advised me to “make space” for myself. It took me a while to internalize that. It’s what I’m doing now. Making space for myself.
What’s a dream project you’d want to work on?
YK: This is our dream project! A show that has multiple story arcs and characters that are facing real problems.
NC: We’re working on it right now! My dream is to make a ton more shows and create more opportunities for artists of color.
What advice would you give someone wanting to get into filmmaking?
YK: Always be ready to jump on opportunities. Nothing will ever be handed to you on a silver platter in this industry and you have to work REALLY hard. I got my first job interning at Jimmy Kimmel Live! Always be alert and keep your options open because the worst that’s going to happen is someone saying no.
NC: You’re not crazy. Follow your inner compass. Keep listening, absorbing, learning, doing. Embrace your unique voice, qualities, and perspectives. Find your tribe and take care of them. I kept hoping someone would validate me. Ultimately, I needed to give myself permission and validate myself.
Who’s your inspiration?
YK: Mindy Kaling. Until she came along I felt like I wasn’t good enough. I felt like I wasn’t accepted in this society. She was this beautiful, confident dark-skinned woman who made me feel like I can set out to do more than what’s asked of me.
NC: Miranda Hart, Spongebob Squarepants, Leslie Knope, Sriracha, sequins. My friend and fellow writer Jo-Dean Roark. My journalist friends Anam Siddiq and Yasmin Nouh. Any POC artist I’ve ever come across inspired me to keep going (more recently, Lena Khan and Fatima Asghar). Any artist who is open about their method (Austin Kleon, Everyday People Cartoons, Natalie Goldberg).
What projects are you working on next?
YK: Nida and I aren’t stopping. This is only the beginning for us. We have a few other projects in development. It’s important for us to amplify the voices of communities that are written out by mainstream media.
NC: We want to see Unfair & Ugly through multiple seasons and spin-offs. This is the first of many shows we hope to produce. We also hope to empower future filmmakers by sharing everything we’ve learned along the way. No one is going to make these shows for us – we need to make them ourselves.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.