In our new series #NotYourTokenAsian, R29's Asian & Pacific Islander staffers take on the pop products, stereotypes, and culture wars that surround Asian American identity. Stay tuned as we celebrate our multiplicity during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
Watching the web series Unfair & Ugly feels like stepping into some of the most uncomfortably honest moments of Muslim-American life. Nothing is sanitized or simplified for the “average” viewer. Outside their local mosque, two young men wonder if the white man casually bringing up Afghanistan is an FBI agent. A Black Muslim American has her faith probed repeatedly by a fair-skinned woman in a hijab. Over milkshakes after Friday prayers, a young woman bemoans that she’s so thirsty for a job that “all of my DMs are to recruiters.”
Unfair & Ugly was released by Stranger Magic Productions, the brainchild of Yumna Khan and Nida Chowdhry, two friends who both felt stymied by the entertainment industry. Their partnership was born over a catch-up session between two old friends that turned into a seven-hour conversation about their frustrations, hopes, and the work they wanted to create.
Throughout their time in the industry, the women had been frustrated by the lack of complex characters and storylines they saw for South Asian and Muslim Americans. By the time they met over cups of Jasmine tea, both had had a realization: “No one is going to make the shows we want to see,” said Chowdhry. “We have to make them ourselves.”
The show was born during a renaissance of sort for Asian-American programming. Mindy Kaling is all over the box office, and Hasan Minaj, Aparna Nancherla, Hari Kondabolu, and Ali Wong are comedic stars in their own right. Shows produced by Indian-American Aziz Ansari and Chinese-American Eddie Huang have opened pathways for Asian Americans and their stories. But Chowdhry points out that while this list exists, it’s incredibly limited. A handful is not enough. And, Chowdhry and Khan specifically wanted to focus on South Asian Muslim American stories, which they felt were either being ignored, vilified, or dumbed-down.
The ensuing series focuses on the deep, dysfunctional bonds of the Shaikh family: Mushtak, the patriarch, an immigrant from Pakistan who loves Piña Colada-flavored hookah and exculpates his casual racism by telling his children not to disrespect him; Zaynab, the glamorous and unfulfilled mother who has spent her life taking care of her kids but is often baffled by them; Haaris, their son, is trying to get his fledgling art business off the ground while getting his parents to accept his Black girlfriend; and Sana, their daughter, is a newly engaged recent graduate trying to figure out what’s next.
In some ways, the series is part of a larger trend. Shows like Master of None and Fresh Off the Boat treat immigrant families’ experiences with humor and poignancy. But Unfair & Ugly’s original working title was South Asian Arrested Development; the characters are messily human, and no issue receives a sunny sitcom polish.
The series is also notable for the way it tackles issues often swept under the rug in Asian families, particularly anti-Black racism and the stigma surrounding mental illness. “We imagined what a collective group in the O.C. [goes] through,” Chowdhry said. Zaynab spouts negative stereotypes of Black women, and Haaris reminds her that white Americans feel similarly about Pakistanis. Sana tells her mother she’s suffering from depression and is told “Desis don’t get depressed.”
But Chowdhry and Khan wanted to avoid simply skewering the parents, especially because of the way media tends to mock immigrants. The producers wanted to make sure that they were creating an entire universe of characters that felt thorny and lovable and real; all the actors received pages of backstory.
Khan and Chowdhry are still amazed at how smoothly the show got off the ground. They spent December of 2016 developing it, shot a concept trailer that March, raised funding in April and May, and nailed down the logistical details and finalized scripts in June. The following July, the show was filmed in 10 days, and was in post-production till the season was released this past April. Funding was the biggest hiccup, but widespread community support meant they were able to execute a robust crowdfunding campaign. Fans are already clamoring for a second season.
In crafting the world of Unfair & Ugly, Khan and Chowdhry saw the opportunity to right two wrongs. They could bring the art they wanted to see to life by creating opportunities for actors and writers who looked like them, something both experienced firsthand. “It’s not a coincidence I wasn’t getting hired because my name is Yumna Khan,” said Khan. “It’s a cycle: We don’t get the opportunities, so we can’t be better, so how can we then be qualified for the next thing? It was important to take a chance on people.”
“Should we be so lucky, we’ll be doing this for the rest of our lives,” she continued. But Khan doesn’t want Unfair & Ugly to be the extent of Stranger Magic’s contributions; she hopes her and Chowdhry’s work will prove to other minorities — people of color, Muslims, female creatives — that they have the power to tell their own stories. “We want people to feel like ‘Oh, I can do that.’”
As the industry slowly changes and American media gets more diverse, Khan and Chowdhry are part of a rising tide of creators determined to expand our understanding of who deserves to be in an American story — and who gets to tell it.