Code-Switched is the thoughtfully curated care package only your fellow South Asian friend from high school can make. The one who’s been to your house for chana chaat and also smoked weed in your parent’s garage while they went to prayer. And then snacked on said chaat in a satisfied frenzy. It’s nuanced, surprising yet familiar at the same time, and delivers the type of unexpected pairings that always hit the spot.
Following the interconnected lives of five millennials from the South Asian diaspora, the webseries is a testament to the diversity of culture and religion that comes from the geographical region.
We meet unapologetic Priya (Sonal Aggarwal), whose family hails from India. Still forced to go to her mom’s dinner parties with hopes of not finding a husband, she shows up in ripped jeans and a patched denim jacket combo she knows her mom will hate and reminds her mom that settling down isn’t always the best sequel to a good career.
Her roommate Zara (Sabeen Sadiq) is Pakistani and muslim and as serious about getting her next promotion as she is about all things A$AP Rocky. She still watches Pakistani dramas with her mom and still has to sidestep awkward conversations with her white boss about the muslim ban and women driving in Saudi Arabia. When Zara matches with someone who’s Hindu on a dating app, there is clear hesitation there. Spoiler alert: After a nudge from her friend Simi (Nikhaar Kishnani) to “stop being an auntie and just get nasty in his DMs,” Zara goes on the date.
After holding focus groups with South Asian millennials with experiences outside his own, Karan Sunil, the show’s writer and director, was both eager to showcase the range of stories from the continent, but also keenly aware that one show can’t capture it all.
“As I grew up, I realized what it means to be first generation and how being an immigrant is a very, very multifaceted experience,” Sunil says. “There’s so many types of stories.”
Graduating from DePaul’s filmmaking program in 2017 and feeling unsatisfied with the lack of TV content available by and for South Asian Americans, Sunil decided to fill the void himself.
“It’s a way to wake Hollywood up. Hollywood is always moving slower than our zeitgeist. And they’re playing catch up,” Sunil says. “And they’re playing catch up oftentimes without us in the race.”
Growing up in Seattle as a self-described immigrant “Indian kid with an accent and a name that sounds like a girl’s,” Sunil had an early brush with the confusion and pressure that comes with the third culture experience.
“There’s so much belief in hope when you come here. You start a family and you start a legacy,” Sunil says. “In a lot of South Asian homes, at least I can speak to mine and friends of mine, it’s the pressure to find yourself, find your identity, find out who you are as an individual while carrying the weight of that legacy.”
Code-Switched is also very rooted in the millennial experience. And for Sunil, that adds to the confusion of being first generation American.
“These characters are millennials, and as one, I can say we want our cake and we want to eat it too. I want my parents, friends, and aunties to love me. And I want to have a great job. And I want to have friends that I can trust and care about,” Sunil says. “And I think having to have all these things ends up causing even more confusion.”
The show also underscores the resonance of global majority-centered stories that don’t feel forced. In one instance we see Rahul (Saurabh Pande) and Krish (Vik Pandya), both in their late 20s and unmarried, skating in the uneasiness of indecision. Their friends, who’ve steadfastly chosen wives and medical careers, coast in the uneasiness of a decision maybe made too early. A flashback to a smoke session during their late teens reveals the two who are now married once vowed to never do so.
“It’s not so outlandish that it can’t happen to an American family or can’t happen to a Chinese family,” says Pandya, who plays Yeezys enthusiast and med school avoidant Krish. “It makes these stories kind of relatable to everybody. But they’re still told with the lens of a South Asian, which gives you that additional context and clarity.”
Sunil says he was adamant about creating characters rooted in their ability to be Asian American without conforming to whiteness. Priya’s mocking reference to a “white boy punch card” when her friend Simi mentions a Steve she met on a dating app is the type of incisive millennial commentary on race tropes that we all need.
“The characters in Code-Switched are not interested in chasing whiteness. It’s the other side of it that was more interesting to me. It’s the confusion of being of two cultures. It’s all the things that come with being here and assimilating,” Sunil says. “And that’s big for me because I think a lot of the media we’ve seen before with Asian American characters in general is about chasing whiteness.”
The response to the show is further testament to the universality of nuanced, well-produced (a nod to the production work of David Hughes Jr. and Michael Ray) shows about the first generation American experience—the pilot currently has more than 100,000 views.
“While I would say it centers South Asians, the experience is for all and that’s what we were really blown away by when we dropped the show. A lot of people who are not South Asian responded to the show because they saw something of themselves on the screen,” Sunil says. “It’s like a good buffet. You show up with the plate, you get your favorites. You might not touch the weird things that you don’t like. And then you might try something new.”
And that’s exactly what can happen when South Asians create their own work.
“A lot of our history was written by other people and for us to reclaim more of our own stories, we have to write it ourselves,” Sunil says. “When we tell our own stories, it just feels right. It just feels more wholesome.” v