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6 South Asian Creators Whose Voices Are Changing Mainstream Media

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A young dark-haired lady with sunglasses wearing a black jacket standing in front of a big magazine stand with several magazines.
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You’ve heard of Mindy Kaling, Hasan Minhaj, Lilly Singh, and recently Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, but who else have you heard of? There are not many South Asian creatives and influencers who have been able to reach mainstream Western media.

Often within South Asian communities, there is a significant emphasis on finding a stable 9 to 5 job. This is common in Asian countries; due to large population sizes, there is always competition for positions. Fields such as medicine, engineering, and law are valued for their stability. The idea is that even if you are mediocre in these fields, you will receive a decent salary.

This concept, paired with the fact that Asians make up less than one percent of the entertainment and art industry, has resulted in a limited number of South Asian creators in Western media. However, there are still South Asian origin creators who are making significant strides and changes within the community.

Here is a list of South Asian creators and influencers, each in different types of creative fields, who are breaking the barriers of Western mainstream media and pushing societal norms through their work.

1. Raveena

Raveena is a singer-songwriter whose songs mesmerize listeners with their warbling synths, soft piano, delicate harps, and hypnotic, honey-like vocals. Influenced by the Sikh practices and North Indian parents that she grew up with, Raveena’s music marries the experience of the South Asian diaspora with contemporary R&B and soul.

Raveena has released several EPs and a long album, each portraying a different aspect of her life. The title track of her first EP, If Only, discusses a broken, toxic relationship, but pairs it with a magical, whimsical sound.

Lucid, her 2019 debut album, tells the story of her healing process after an abusive relationship, as well as the intergenerational trauma experienced while growing up as a child of Indian immigrant parents, all while incorporating themes of sexual liberation and spiritual self-healing.

“It can definitely be challenging being a South Asian artist and not having a lot to go off of in Western music culture,” Raveena described in an interview with the website, them. “It’s easy to feel super displaced and confused, like ‘Where do I fit into all this?’ But that’s also the most exciting part about it; there isn’t a framework, so you can invent your own.”

Raveena is heavily involved not only in the music production aspect of her work, but also in her video production. In the music video for her song “Temptations,” Raveena created a dream-like garden sequence, a style often used in Bollywood, to come out to her family and friends as bisexual. “Growing up, South Asian culture and queer culture felt like oil and water. Something that just simply couldn’t mix,” Raveena said via Instagram when the video dropped.

“I’m pretty sure I liked girls before I liked boys, but it took me until this year, in my 20s, to be able to verbalize and know in my heart that this is one of my truths. I hope that for lil brown girls in the future, their queerness will feel nothing short of completely, 100% mundane and normal,” Raveena said.

2. Alok Vaid-Menon

Alok (they/them) is an Indian-American gender nonconforming writer and performer. Alok is known for challenging the gender binary through fashion, performance, poetry, and prose. Alok’s mission is to create a new beauty paradigm based on self-acceptance and self-actualization rather than conformity.

According to their official website, Alok is “the author of Femme in Public (2017) and Beyond the Gender Binary (2020). In 2019, they were honored as one of NBC’s Pride 50 and Out Magazine’s OUT 100.” In an interview with CNN, Alok discussed the challenges they have faced in their quest to create a new beauty paradigm.

They described how a stranger told them they would be more “convincing” if they shaved their beard. Alok described this experience as realizing the “danger” of beauty.

“Marginalized people learn from an early age that beauty is often about power,” Alok stated. “We see the fair, thin, and gender-conforming among us called ‘beautiful,’ while the rest of us are meant to spend our entire lives aspiring to be like them.”

Alok also has a large presence on Instagram, where they advocate for the recognition of Black, Indigenous, and people of color(BIPOC) non-binary individuals. One of their most bold and groundbreaking posts addresses the concept of “white feminism,” a form of feminism that focuses solely on the struggles of straight, cis-gendered white women. It does not include BIPOC women and LGBTQIA+ women.

The post depicts an image of Alok wearing a dress, surrounded by hate comments including “You don’t need feminism to wear that ridiculous outfit” and “Feminism is about women, Alok. Make up your own movement.” Alok took to their caption to further discuss the severity and detrimental effects of these comments.

“Womanhood is far more expansive than reproductive function. There are plenty of men and non-binary people who can give birth and plenty of women who cannot,” said Alok.

“But this has never been about facts or even cognition. This has always been about a deep, ingrained hatred and distrust for us. In order for patriarchy to work, we must be demeaned and disappeared.”

3. Maria Qamar 

Maria Qamar is a Pakistani-Canadian artist best known for her South Asian art, which she posts on her Instagram, @hatecopy. “Hatecopy” is a name that Qamar coined during her college years out of distaste for copy-writing, the career she was forced to pursue instead of the arts.

Her art gives her 196K followers a peek into the trials of the young South Asian woman’s 21st-century experience. Her comic-like desi pop art displays humorous, relatable situations for those who have grown up in Western countries. Qamar’s artwork encourages female empowerment through witty Hinglish responses to taboo topics within the desi community.

Not only has Qamar’s art been hugely successful on social media, but it has also been successful in the physical world. Qamar has decorated the sets of The Mindy Project, painted a large mural on New York City’s Bombay Bread, and even graced the cover of Elle Canada.

Qamar’s most notable work, however, was her exhibition titled “Fraaaandship!” in Richard Taittinger Gallery in New York City. The term “fraaaandship” is a euphemism of sex used by many South Asian men towards women. Qamar’s artwork counters the patriarchal undertones of this phrase by depicting strong, freethinking, sex-positive South Asian women.

While her work may portray Bollywood-esque beauties, Qamar also aims to direct her work towards other women of color.

“These are specifically the things that I have gone through that have been obstacles in my life,” Qamar stated in an interview with Art News.

“But don’t we all get bullied or picked on for being different? We’re not that different—we’re fighting for basic human rights for women and women of color.”

4. Deepica Mutyala 

Deepica Mutyala is a South Indian American beauty YouTuber and social media influencer. Mutyala is best known for a viral video that took the beauty world by storm when she used red lipstick as a color corrector to cover dark undereye circles. Dark circles and hyper-pigmentation are skin conditions that South Asians and other BIPOC, face.

Since that viral video, which now has over 10 million views, the 31-year-old beauty influencer has worked with The Today Show, collaborated with several makeup brands as an influencer, and starred in commercials for Samsung and L’Oreal.

Last year, Mutyala launched the Huestick, a product inspired by the Instagram community she built called “Live Tinted.” The Huestick is the first of its kind; it is a color corrector and multi-stick product. It can be used as a lipstick, eye-shadow, blush, or color corrector that can be dabbed on dark circles, hyperpigmentation, and dark spots.

In an interview with Forbes, Mutyala described how she built a “community first” product. She mentioned how it all began with her asking for product recommendations for dark circles. Mutayla even went a step beyond simply digital engagement and had members of the Live Tinted community try the products.

“We want to continue to ethically and responsibly reach the heights of financial success so that we can feed this process of social listening, product development, and continuous improvement,” Mutyala said.

“Above all, we want to disrupt the beauty industry and normalize diversity and representation.”

5. Sandhya Menon 

Sandhya Menon is a New York Times bestselling young adult fiction and romance author whose novels tell wholesome, heartwarming, romantic tales of Indian-American teenagers. Menon’s books contain stories of growing up in the South Asian culture that do not succumb to the stereotypes of an oppressed and depressed Brown community.

Each of Menon’s characters represents a diverse range of the Brown experience. However, what is unique about her characters is that being Indian is not the driving factor of their stories.

Her debut novel, When Dimple Met Rishi, is a love story between two college freshmen: Dimple, who is driven to prove herself as a coder, and Rishi, who is afraid to take the leap to pursue his passion as a comic artist.

From Twinkle, With Love is an epistolary novel about a 16-year-old who wants to be a filmmaker but is afraid that there is no room for her voice.

There’s Something About Sweetie tells the story of Sweetie, a confident, plus-size track star, and Ashish, a heartbroken basketball player, and how the two hide their relationship from Sweetie’s fat-shaming but well-meaning mother.

“I really just wanted to tell more fluffy, rom-com stories about all different kinds of people,” Menon said in an interview with YouTube channel xreadingsolacex.

“I feel like we don’t have enough of that, especially with marginalized communities, and so I just wanted to tell a story that wasn’t an issue book. And those are so important, but I wanted to tell a different kind of story.”

6. Hari Kondabolu

In Hari Kondabolu’s Twitter bio, he describes himself as a “Comic from Queens living in Brooklyn.” The 37-year-old stand-up comedian uses his platform to tell jokes about the racism and the divide that American politics has created among his people.

However, he is best known for the documentary The Problem with Apu. Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is a character on the Simpsons that is meant to be a caricature of the South Asian immigrant community in the United States. It is meant to represent the “white man’s perception of Indian immigrants.”

In the documentary, Kondabolu talks about how the stereotypes Apu perpetuated hung over the heads of many South Asian Americans in his generation. Kondabolu does not argue for the removal of Apu, but rather for a discussion as to how stereotypes in the media can be harmful.

In an interview on Emily Todd VanDerWerff’s podcast I Think You’re Interesting, Kondabolu said, “I feel like the story isn’t ‘What do we do with this Apu character?’ The point of the whole story was really to do what Whoopi Goldberg did. She’s not saying ‘go and destroy all the blackface artifacts from the past.’ She’s saying ‘let’s talk about it and put it up out front. Let’s recontextualize these things and put it in front of you and talk about them.’ This was my ‘Minstrel Black Americana’ collection. She calls it her ‘Negrobilia.’ This is what it was for me.”

Kondabolu received severe backlash from many people for his work. He often received death threats and hate mail for “bad-mouthing the Simpsons.” The Simpsons even alluded to the documentary in the episode in one of their own episodes.

“Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” said Simpson character Lisa after glancing at a frame of Apu, with the phrase “Don’t have a cow!” written on the photo.

While this might not have been the response many South Asians wanted, this scene proved that Kondabolu’s message had been heard by the creators.

“In The Problem with Apu, I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups and why this is important,” the comedian tweeted in response to the episode. “The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress.”

Since then, Kondabolu has released his Netflix comedy special Warn Your Relatives, and he continues to address issues such as homophobia, racism, and sexism with his work.

These are only a few of the brilliant South Asian creators who are paving their paths into Western media. There are plenty of other fantastic South Asian creators who are making their marks and initiating changes in their own ways.

As the South Asian diaspora continues to grow, it is becoming even more pivotal for the community to share their experiences and their work. It is our time to shine and show the world the change that we are capable of creating.

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Spotlight

Meet Thais Drassinower: A Latinx Woman Film Creator in Hollywood Pushing for Diversity

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A black and white photo of Thais Drassinower wearing black hat and tank top.

This past year, the prestigious British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) selected Thais Drassinower into the Newcomers program. Thais is based in L.A. as a female filmmaker. The year 2020 had the biggest turnout of women in the program and Thais was one of those representing female filmmakers!

This program offers career support and helps to new filmmakers in the industry. Apart from being welcomed into the program, Thais has a lot of history with filmmaking and in the film industry. We interviewed her to learn more about her history with film and any new projects she might be working on. 

1. Your hometown is Lima, Peru, what was it like coming to America and starting up in the film industry? What inspired you to pursue filmmaking as a career, and please tell me a bit about that journey. 

I’ve been a storyteller for as long as I can remember. I started writing stories as soon as I learned how to put two words together.

My grandma still keeps those early ones in her bedroom chest. I’ve also always loved film and would spend my free time as a teenager watching foreign film cycles at the local cultural center.

But as a young woman from a traditional family growing up in Lima – Peru, I never thought being a filmmaker was an option for me.

My diverse interests in story, psychology, and anthropology led me to advertising as a first step and it was then, working as a copywriter in Chicago, that I realized the power that audiovisual communication has on society and understood that there are archetypes in the collective consciousness that stories can portray in infinite ways.

That’s when I decided to become a filmmaker and assume the responsibility of sharing narratives that can shift our world into a more comprehensive, empathetic, and healthy place.

I started taking night classes at a local school after work and then decided to make the jump and apply for an MFA in Film which got me to NYC where I got my degree at Columbia University. That’s how it all started. 

2. Before transitioning to the film industry, you were a copywriter. Can you tell me what it was like making that transition to filmmaking? Did you encounter any major differences or have any difficulty with the transition to films? 

I was a copywriter for an advertising agency in Chicago which meant that, together with my partner, I came up with an idea for a commercial, wrote the script for it and then supervised the whole production and post-production process to make sure the idea was coming to life in the way we envisioned it.

The whole supervision part of the process was similar to being a film producer on a project. Being on set and watching the director work with the actors made me fall in love with the directing process. I think it has been a very organic transition and my years as a copywriter helped me build very important skills that I now use as a writer/director.

Film director and crew
Source

3. The entertainment industry can be cutthroat at times. Have you endured any hardships along the way? What did you do to overcome them? 

I’m still at the beginning of my career and it is definitely a challenging field. As a Latinx woman trying to break in, you have to work extremely hard and convince people that you deserve a seat at the table.

It’s an exciting time for minorities in Hollywood, the conversation is open and more studios are looking to champion diverse and underrepresented voices, but there is still a long way to go to achieve proper representation and I’m proud to be a part of this new generation pushing for change. 

4. You’ve directed three projects, “The Catch,” “Baby,” and “Memories of the Sea.” All of which are special in their own ways. Please tell me a bit about how you drew inspiration for these projects and how they are connected to you? 

Memories of The Sea was my first film which explores the sense of loss for a child. My dear friend and fellow filmmaker Sudarshan Suresh had written a beautiful script which we then worked on together to adapt for me to direct it.

I decided to set it in Brazil because that’s where I spent my first years of childhood and where I experienced a sense of loss myself.

I wanted to revisit the space and dive deep into the experience of seeing the world through a child’s eyes. This is a film about finding your own answers when adults don’t explain things to you. I think we often forget how intuitive and perceptive children are and this film attempts to remind us. 

Baby, my second film, explores what it means to grow up by messing up. It’s a film about a young woman who goes home for a weekend and has ​an unnerving encounter with her estranged father at a nightclub which reminds her that there are unhealed wounds.

Through a series of disturbing events that night, she will be forced to understand that the only person who can take care of her now is herself. I drew inspiration for this film from the memories of being that age and feeling lost at many points. Feeling like a grown up, but also like a child.

Feeling like I had all the answers, but then suddenly like I knew nothing. It’s a fascinating period in a person’s life and with this story and through this character I explore subjects such as sexuality and consent. 

Finally, The Catch, my latest film, tells the story of two trapeze artists whose trust is threatened right before the biggest performance of their careers. The script was written by another Peruvian making waves in the US, my dear friend Camila Zavala who also produced the film.

What attracted me to direct this movie was the opportunity to explore the concept of trust between a couple with such high stakes and the idea of dancing between public and private spaces in the magical world of a circus.

The film invites us to reflect on the power of a bond and what it takes to break it. 

5. Many young people are looking into the arts as careers, but of course, they may face obstacles along the way. What would you say to someone who would want to pursue a career such as filmmaking? What advice would you offer? 

I say GO FOR IT. This is a challenging career, but all good things in life require you to work hard for them. The enjoyment comes from the hours you put in day to day. I find that the most important things are consistency and your community.

Do the work, go out and shoot, sit down and write, even if you don’t end up showing that “thing” to anyone, practice makes a master. And surround yourself with a group of peers who will champion you and who you will champion. Help each other out.

Film is a collective art and you can’t do it alone, having a group of colleagues that you trust is crucial for your career. Find them. Either at school, at writing groups, at online forums. Find them and nurture those relationships. They are the most wonderful gift that a film career can give you. 

I started writing a blog for young female filmmakers who are working or hope to work on their first feature film. There you can find advice on how to embark in the journey both from my personal experience, and also from interviews that I make to first time female directors.

Check it out and hope you find it helpful, I’m always available through there for any questions you might have.  

Best of luck to you all! 

6. What are your plans for the future in filmmaking? Do you have genres or films you are particularly interested in? 

I’m currently working on my first feature film which I hope we can start pre-production for once we achieve a new normal after COVID-19. I am interested in telling stories through a female perspective in the genres of psychological thriller, psychological horror, and drama.

As I mentioned before, it is also very important for me to portray diversity on the screen through my narratives and I look forward to keep sharing stories that build empathy and hopefully invite the audience to reflect and discuss.

From growing up in Peru and moving to L.A, to transitioning from copywriting to filmmaking. Thais has achieved many great things that other young filmmakers aspire to achieve.

We hope that by reading this article, many young filmmakers or others wanting to join the industry can get some inspiration from Thais and perhaps one day join the Newcomers program like her.

Thank you Thais for your time and we wish you luck with your first feature film and your BAFTA Newcomers program!

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Spotlight

Alicia White Leading Project Petals to Repair Communities

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Alicia White, CEO of Project Petals

Nonprofit organizations are driven by a social cause. They help families in need, repair communities, teach children new things, and give hope to those who need it most.

Alicia White, the founder and president of Project Petals, had all of this in mind when starting her nonprofit. She is an advocate for all those living in low-income and under-resourced communities. Not only is she an entrepreneur, but she has also worked with the United Nations and done grant work with domestic justice civil rights issues within her community.

BLENDtw had the opportunity to interview White regarding her history with Project Petals and moving forward with her program. 

1.) You started Project Petals with the vision to help low-income and under-resourced communities. Can you tell us a bit about what the process of starting up a new business was like? What were your struggles along the way? 

The process of starting my organization has been rewarding, and I learned so much through the process. My organization started out as a volunteer-led project in Queens, New York. It was important for me to form an organization to improve the environment, support communities and future leaders.

It was challenging starting my first environmental project, and I wanted to make it less difficult for anyone coming after me. Also, to help youth learn the leadership skills needed to make an impact in their communities.

Starting a new organization for me had its challenge, but I learned so much along the way. I had to essentially learn what it was to set up an organization in what felt like overnight. Through extensive research, I had to file paperwork,  create a website, the logo, the structure of the organization, and just typical start-up activities fell on my shoulders.

Like most black women founders, my biggest struggle was finding and securing funding. For example, in 2019, Black-led organizations received less than 4% of grants and funding. That percentage dwindles when you are a woman.

2.) COVID-19 has been challenging for many small businesses and has caused people within many communities to struggle to make ends meet. How have you seen this affect them and what has Project Petals been doing in response to this? 

COVID-19 has hit the communications that my organization works, extremely hard. My organization had to change from working on the ground with large amounts of volunteers to working remotely, with fewer volunteers on the ground.

Through all of this, we were still able to support our community leaders and neighborhoods with the tools and resources that they need to improve their environments. Like every other organization, we have to abide by COVID-19 safety restrictions and guidelines to keep everyone safe while still actively providing the services that are needed to make an impact.  

3.) Going forward with Project Petals, what do you envision with your company? Where do you see it going in terms of growth? 

I see Project Petals eventually moving to a national scale. The need for environmental support and community development is needed now more than ever. With the climate crises on the brink of causing further catastrophe, it is vital that Project Petals is able to serve as many communities and leaders as we can. 

4.) You have a program called, “Youth Builders Program.” Can you elaborate more on what it is and what sort of programs it offers? And how this program can be of help to those participating in it?

Our Project Petals Youth Builders Program helps young people gain the leadership skills they need to improve their communities and futures. Our program connects youth in grades 4-12 to engineering, architecture, urban planning, environmental science, tech, and design professionals who can offer mentorship, experience, internships, and inspiration through monthly workshops.

We work to catalyze the next generation of environmentalists, community leaders, and professionals in these fields. Our program inspires them to develop a passion for these fields, thus working to create a more sustainable, diverse, and equitable world. One hundred percent of all of the youth show great leadership potential. We believe by fostering this leadership and giving them access to a network of professionals; we will start to build more resilient communities. 

5.) Before Project Petals, what sort of jobs were you doing? What led you to want to become an entrepreneur and what advice do you have for anyone also planning to pursue entrepreneurship? 

Growing up, I always had ideas that I wanted to bring to reality, but as a young person, I didn’t know how to, and I didn’t think it was possible for me to do so. As an adult, social entrepreneurship gave me the opportunity to take my ideas and actually use them to make a positive impact in other people’s lives and the environment.

If I had to give any advice, it would be to have confidence in your ideas and in your skillset as you may face many obstacles, nay-sayers, and challenges along the way. Failure is par for the course and is a good lesson plan to succeed. 

We hope that by understanding Project Petals, White, and how entrepreneurs can shape the future of the community around them, we can then better understand how to make our community and the world around us a better place. Thank you to Project Petals and White for this opportunity and we hope this program thrives in the coming years! 

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Spotlight

Using Instagram Art to Promote Anti-Racism: Meet French Graphic Artist Aurélia Durand

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Portrait of author Aurélia Durand wearing a yellow shirt and laying next to some of her pieces of art.
Source: Aurélia Durand

Instagram artist, Aurélia Durand, has been using the platform to promote her anti-racism art. She has a website on which she sells posters, stickers, and cards that she has designed herself. Her art is focused on celebrating diversity and equal representation. Durand’s dream is to help form a united community and an inclusive future for everyone. BLENDtw had the opportunity to ask Durand a series of questions about her current work on Instagram, the book she illustrated, and her goals for the future. 

1. Who or what inspired you to start creating art? What keeps you motivated?

When I begin working on a new artistic creation, I listen to music to put myself in a zone where I feel good and am inspired to create a meaningful message. I find that music settles the mood and atmosphere around me. I create to stay positive, and staying positive is essential for my well being. I need to be creative; I am addicted to creativity; imagination, drawing, and seeing the idea evolve is exciting. The most fulfilling feeling is to see people interacting with my work.

2. If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? What advice would you give to young black women with dreams similar to your own?

Create for yourself; don’t try to make the same as everyone else. Find your voice; follow your instinct.

3. What impact do you hope your art will have on our world today?

I hope my art empowers people and makes them smile. 

A piece of Aurélia Durand's art work featuring four people behind a pink background with the title
Source: Aurélia Durand

4. In what way does art communicate with and reach people better than other means do? 

It’s upon us; it happens because of many factors. I think that visuals are more impactful than words. It is universal, we see it, and we quickly react to it. 

6. You just recently illustrated a New York Times bestseller, “This Book is Anti-Racist.” What inspired this project? What do you hope readers take away from it?

I hope readers want to take action for antiracism in there every day life after they read the book.

My publisher, Quarto, contacted me at the end of 2018 to participate in the book’s conception as the leading illustrator. I have never met the author; unfortunately, due to the current global pandemic and social distancing regulations. 

The book, “This Book is Anti-Racist” was released in January 2020 and became a best seller in June after the Black Lives Matter movement spread globally. We sold more than 150,000 copies! The book has been popular in schools, but people of all ages are reading the book. It includes about 20 exercises for readers to do while thinking about how they can take action to build a more inclusive society. 

7. Do you have any plans or projects you are working on? How can people help support your cause?

I am working on many new projects, but I can’t talk about them as they are meant to be a surprise. In October, I will be participating in several talks with Adobe, Ladies and Wine, and the AOI association. The projects are very exciting and I have confidence that they will have great success when they are completed. 

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