When the term "chai tea" is erased from café menus across America, Meena Ramamurthy will retire satisfied. "If that's my crowning achievement as a filmmaker, I'll be happy," the 29-year-old comedy writer and director told NBC News.
Ramamurthy devotes an entire episode to the misnamed beverage in "The Fob and I," a web series determined to offer a nuanced and accurate portrayal of South Asians on screen and backed by her alma mater, the University of Southern California. Centered on an unlikely friendship between two cousins-turned-roommates — Sita (Shefali Deshay), a too-cool-for-school Indian-American, and Jisha (Uttera Singh), a bright-eyed arrival from the motherland — the series shadows the mismatched pair as they navigate a semester at SoCal College.
"We tried to start with everyday things, like buying a cup of coffee or prepping for an online date and just let the situation unravel — it should be fun, not hammy educational hour," Ramamurthy said. "When you're living your life, those minority moments just come out."
Ramamurthy's decision to feature a pair of South Asian female leads, each grappling with their own inner conflicts, was a deliberate effort to showcase the intricacies of identity. She's also tackling the unspoken Hollywood edict that she said discourages storytellers from constructing two leads of color for fear of alienating a "mainstream" audience.
"We're not seeing Indian-Americans in the mainstream media," Ramamurthy said. "But the population census proves the audience is there. With 'The Fob and I,' our main goal was to show how complex and multifaceted identity is by showing two brown characters that are different."
Each five-minute episode — "it's hard to make an excuse about not watching something so short," Ramamurthy said — reveals Sita and Jisha's contrasting personas: While Jisha is a social butterfly, always up for beachfront runs and Tinder dates, Sita is a cynical homebody whose outdoor excursions are limited to her weekly Trader Joe's visits. Jisha's all too eager to take a hearty bite out of all things Hollywood, while Sita's convinced everybody in the seemingly glamorous city is "broken inside," as she laments in a soulful song-and-dance number in the season's final episode.
"We're showing that the person from India is more progressive and excited about being in a new country while the Indian-American is just over it," Ramamurthy said. "Indians in America can be more conservative because we were raised on a 1970s version of India that was introduced by our parents."
Ramamurthy, who said she's a "Sita in the streets, but a Jisha in the sheets," was raised on a stream of "I Love Lucy" re-runs and the cousins' hijinks take a page from Lucy and Ethel's adventures. "Growing up in a predominantly Mexican-American town, everything I did defined what South Asia was for other people," Ramamurthy said. "If my life was a television series, I'd be the token character."
When the series premiered at USC last year, Ramamurthy recalls one especially memorable reaction after a scene that depicts an interaction between Jisha and a prospective American suitor, who takes one look at his date before declaring she's a spitting image of "that girl from Slumdog [Millionaire]."
"The whole audience, which was mostly non-minorities that night, gasped," Ramamurthy said. "I was amazed that they were so drawn in. We created female characters they could relate to and [the audience] felt offense even though it wasn't something specific to their race."
The show's second season, scheduled for a release this fall, promises a fresh chapter in the Sita-Jisha relationship, in addition to the introduction of more serious themes, including sexuality and mental health. "In many ways, because this series takes place largely in an apartment, it's an intimate look at South Asians," Ramamurthy said. "And because Indian culture isn't one that likes to share, we're hoping to take on issues that aren't talked about."