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When Melanie Met Surina: On Representation, Improv, and their debut film, Hot Mess Holiday

When an overachieving young finance exec is unceremoniously dumped by her cheating fiancé during the Diwali holidays, her free-spirited bestie is determined to help her get over it. Along with an an outrageous crew of friends of friends, they embark on a wild holiday adventure to party across Chicago, but when they come into possession of a multi-million dollar diamond, their messy antics place the posse squarely in danger. Hot Mess Holiday is a smart, fun female-driven film centered around Diwali, where nonstop laughs are grounded in the reality of being an Indian-American woman in the world, and the irreverent, outrageous circumstances Surina and Mel get themselves into. From Gunpowder & Sky and MTV Entertainment Studios, Hot Mess Holiday debuts on Comedy Central on December 11th.

Written and EPed by award-winning comedy writer, Sameer Gardezi (“Modern Family”, “Aliens In America”), and inspired by the real-life friendship of co-stars Surina Jindal (“Outsourced”, “Succession”) and Melanie Chandra (“Code Black”, “Brink”). The comedic duo co-star in the film and also executive produce alongside Penn, Gardezi and Gunpowder & Sky. Comedy legend, Kal Penn (Harold and Kumar franchise, “House”), stars and EPs alongside Chandra and Jindal.

The Lipstick Politico spoke to the lead co-stars and executive producers of the special, Surina Jindal and Melanie Chandra on the making of the movie, the challenges they went through, and South Asian representation on screen and behind the scenes.

Daaman: We're finally seeing a South Asian female-driven comedy project, featuring wholesome characters that are ethnically diverse, beautiful, yet flawed. The South Asian community is being represented this holiday season and that too, on Comedy Central, which is huge. How did this come about? Walk us through your journeys on how you made this happen, and what led you to this point.

Mel: Surina and I have been friends for over a decade now, and about seven years ago, we decided we wanted to write and produce these comedy shorts and put them online. Along the way we met this fantastic writer, Sameer Gardezi, and the three of us got together and we decided to make something larger than just this web series that we were doing. We developed a web series that was based on these characters that Surina and I had created, and over the course of seven years we tried to shop this around town, had a lot of rejections, life happened, we had a lot of pauses. Long story short, we ultimately sold the project to Viacom and through the development process, we switched gears a little bit and decided to make this holiday movie. That's the short version, but there are a lot of false doors along the journey, a lot of rejections, a lot of us taking things into our own hands, but we've definitely learned a lot. We're just so excited to be where we are.

Daaman: The friendship dynamic between your two characters was really funny and heartwarming, but also very real. It makes sense because the movie is inspired by your life stories. Could you tell us more about the experiences that translated into these very distinct characters?

Our personality types in the characters are very much who we are with just a bit of hyperbole.

Surina: Our personality types in the characters are very much who we are with just a bit of hyperbole. When we were figuring out our character breakdowns based on these sketches that we did seven years ago, it was like “Surina is this and Melanie is this based on real-life, now let's do the heightened version of that”. Surina’s character is brash and has no filter, let's go all the way with that. Mel's more type A and calculated, let's go all the way with that. In the development process with Sameer for the original concept that we came up with seven years ago, we would call him and just tell him stories about our lives, about our friendships, I would tell them about horrible hookup stories, Mel was talking about work stuff, very much in line with what our characters would be talking about. He compiled all that stuff and said, “okay, I'm gonna take this story and this piece” and threaded it together into the larger picture of what the storyline could be for the holiday movie. I'm trying to think if there's anything super specific in the film that’s true to real life, situationally speaking.

Mel: The dry humping. When Surina walks into a room, whenever she sees me, her first impulse is to come near me and start just like dry humping. I'm always cringing, very self conscious about what people are going to think, but at the same time, it's my friend so it's just funny and we laugh about it. That definitely made its way into the movie, I don't know if you caught it but I think there's two or three times. It actually made its way into the trailer of the movie.

Daaman: I guess the fact that it's been practiced over and over again and is so natural to you comes across. It was cute and so funny and relatable, despite being an odd thing.

Mel: I don't know how many other friends do that to their friends, but we do that.

Daaman: Going back to the beginning of the movie, the first scene. Surina’s character walks in and says “I'm Indian, but this is so Indian.” This is something we’ve heard before in shows like Never Have I Ever. Even though no one ever defined this, we all understand what it means. I come from India myself, and as an “Indian Indian” I also know what you mean by that. I really wanted to hear from you guys on how you draw the line between these two and define the diaspora experience.

Mel: For a lot of first-generation folks like Surina and I, you know you’re in an “Indian Indian” function when you feel bad about not being Indian enough because you don't speak the language, or you're not dressed appropriately, or you're not aware of every single reference. That's one aspect of us being at this function in the movie, and we've all been there. We live in New York City, it's very diverse, very ABCD: American Born Confused Desis, but also those people that just moved here from India. We were in that middle ground where we don't identify completely with this, and we don't identify completely with this. That's where you see us in the beginning.

Daaman: My next question is on South Asian creators. Do you think you're held to a higher standard when producing fresh content, simply because there isn't so much offered in the industry? As two South Asian women, both executive producing and starring in the special, do you feel that there's additional pressure for you to deliver?

Surina: I love that question. We talked about this before, Mel and I on another series we did with our two other best friends Gayatri Bahl and Reema Sampat called Diner Banter. It’s four Indian Americans improv-ing in a diner, and it spread really well throughout the community. Then we found we would get comments even on our pilot episode, of “there aren't enough dark skinned people here”, or “next time, I would love to see a disabled South Asian”. We were getting very specific comments on what was lacking in what we were showing, and so we were realizing that this naturally comes up with the onus of representation. Anytime you put out something that represents a niche community, it can just get further and further niche. Within that nice community, there's further representation to be had. As that niche community, you’re so excited that finally pieces of them are being represented. However, it's not the whole picture. It's not their whole experience, but it's so close. So it’s like “why can't you just put in this type of person when you also just put in that type of person?”

In that sense, there is this burden to represent people who have been feeling invisible for a long time. But it's difficult for us to say we're going to bring in these types of characters for representation’s sake. It's always creativity first, it's always story first. We do create intentionally for the purpose of representation but it's got to make sense in line with what we're doing creatively so that we're not compromising this just for appeasement of a certain group. I think that the South Asian “I need to get an A plus on everything” side of it comes naturally with who we are as people, we have a high quality standard for anything that we put out there. Forget about what the film represents and the fact that we're first time female leads, or all the “firsts” that come with it, even in our sketches or even in our emails, we still have a high standard for what we want to show. Our names are on this and our artistic licenses are being used in this stuff. Why do something if you're not going to do really well? We have that strong standard that we live by.

Mel: Ultimately we really want to make our community proud and we're just putting our best foot forward. There are definitely a lot of constraints; we had to make this movie in a really accelerated timeline, but we're doing the best we can and we hope that people are proud. At the same time, we still know we can't be everything to everyone. That is definitely a huge burden.

Daaman: Mel I was just reading about you before this interview and I noticed that you've had two children, one in the last year whilst you made the movie. That couldn’t have been easy. How did you pull off all of those things in the same year?

Mel: I get questions from actresses that are thinking about having a family and not knowing when to do it, and another wonderful actress gave me this piece of advice which I really appreciate. She said that there's no right time to have kids, and the great thing about an acting career is that having kids is only going to fuel you to have a more emotional life in the work that you do. I completely resonate with that. It's also helped me prioritize the projects I want to take on and focus my time. It’s really tricky. Surina and I from day one have known that something like this needed to exist, we never doubted in our mind that this was going to happen eventually, even if it took seven years. I didn't know where or when I'd be having kids, but a few years ago, I said “I don't know when this thing is going to happen, I'm going to have kids”. While I was five months pregnant with my first child, we decided to self produce a proof of concept episode of what this could look like because while we were pitching the show, or this idea of a series, no one was biting. We got told that, “we've never seen a comedy starring two brown women, it's a little risky”, this was several years ago. So we decided to just make it. I was five months pregnant when we decided to do that. We shot that when I was seven and a half months pregnant with my first, then we eventually sold the project, the pandemic hit, we were in development, and I decided I really want a second kid. I had my second child and five months postpartum is when we shot this movie. I was definitely exhausted during the whole thing and I'm exhausted now as we race to finish this movie and promote it. But it's all worthwhile and I'm hoping I could take a little bit of a vacation after this.

Daaman: Wow, that's really inspiring. I can't even fathom how you would manage to do all of that, and I didn't realize it was two children, and not one, you had during the making of the movie.

Mel: So essentially, this movie is like the third baby I’m birthing.

Surina: This is me and Mel’s baby together. A seven-year-old.

Daaman: I want to step back to the last question on minority women in writers’ rooms and minority representation in Hollywood. Are things actually changing in Hollywood, is the direction different? Do you feel it's a different Hollywood today in 2021 than it was before?

Surina: We came up with a group of people - South Asians that were in the scene - that was 11 years ago, and the same group is still in the game. It’s people that we know from New York and LA, and for the most part, we all sort of started around the same time. It was interesting to see the struggle throughout the years as we all saw each other at auditions, because there's like one role or there's the one Indian pilot. For women, especially, the roles were quite sparse and they were very traditional. Now what we're seeing is our friends are working, really, really working, and it's really beautiful. It isn't just stereotypical roles, it’s also in large streamers, it's been major series. Also the dynamic of pilot seasons have changed so much with the digital game, I feel like there are more opportunities for actors in general, but that's what we're seeing our South Asian friends are acting more in. From a business standpoint it is a great time and there has definitely been an evolution. I still feel like a tipping point needs to happen so that it's more commonplace and not an anomaly to see a South Asian lead in a series who wasn't written as the token Indian character or token South Asian character. It was just a character and they loved that actor for the part, they were comfortable showcasing someone with our skin color or our background as a lead. It's not about filling a quota or to be trendy or whatever, it's just that we are also people who live in this country and we exist as Americans as well. Welcome to the melting pot! I am happy for the progress, but I do still feel like that tipping point is yet to happen.

Mel: Our hope with this movie is that people can see even though something has a predominantly brown cast, it still has mainstream appeal. The industry shouldn't just greenlight one of these projects every three years. We can have multiple shows on air that star brown people, whether or not it's about brown people specifically, or just happen to be brown people in that we’re just like everybody else. People can create shows and movies around this, and people will tune in. That's what we hope.

Daaman: Absolutely, it’s refreshing to see the changes that are emerging, especially in terms of representation, although there still is a long way to go. It's been so lovely talking to both of you wish you. All the best for the film release.


“Hot Mess Holiday comes from Gunpowder & Sky and MTV Entertainment Studios and primers on Comedy Central December 11th December.



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