“Code-Switched” Explores the Rich Diversity of Chicago
Written by Vocalo Radio on November 2, 2020
“Code-Switched” is an unprecedented community-rooted web series focusing on a group of friends figuring out their identities as South Asian Americans. We chatted with creator Karan Sunil about the communal aspects of the project and how it’s making change in a predominantly white-dominated entertainment industry.
What prompted you to write and film this web series now?
I created this show as a response to growing up feeling in-between and not having a South Asian show to lean on. I’m an immigrant kid who had to shrink myself to fit into different spaces and truly only felt comfortable in groups of friends that supported me. I think we are in a time now where we escape the troubles of the world with curated communities where we can live in our truths. This show was meant to display that. It was also a way to understand myself in collaboration with other artists.
This project was originally started as a trailer posted to Facebook in 2017. Had you planned on continuing the trailer as a web series before its overwhelmingly positive reception from the community?
The plan was always to make a full season of the web series. I wanted to make it in a robust way to provide a show for my community that looks and feels as good as what we see on TV. We took the risk of making a trailer from a pilot presentation we scraped together, knowing that we may not raise enough money to make more. But we centered the community, and the community, in turn, carried us. Once people around the world responded to what we were trying to achieve as a grassroots campaign, money and resources started coming in and we knew we could make something great and honor the people we were aiming to depict.
How do you feel the BIPOC community in Chicago interacts with or supports creative projects like this series?
I think the BIPOC community in Chicago is incredibly supportive and nurturing of art that feels honest and respectful. When I assembled this large cast, I was so encouraged by the number of people in Chicago who were willing to sacrifice weekends and nights to bring this vision to life. It’s a very hard working scene that isn’t about the noise – they’re about the art. The talent in Chicago is staggering and its spirit is on its sleeve.
How does “Code-Switched” exemplify the important role community support plays in producing creative projects?
I think any show that displays community must be made with the community. This show was meant to be an ensemble BIPOC cast with an emphasis on South Asian Americans, so I decided to cast, consult with, and collaborate with as many of those folks in the community as possible. I knew as a cis, straight, Indian male, I can’t honestly originate stories about all people even in my own diaspora, so I spoke to several focus groups of young South Asian millennials through universities and aggregated the many stories I was given to create five characters that I felt could be vessels for them. After scouting in the Chicago comedy scene for months to find five South Asian performers who could embody the roles, I was able to create something that felt bigger than myself and not informed solely by myself. I wanted to open up to the community and allow them into the process from the jump. While we had a lot to learn, we did it together. I think the show embodies it from the moment you watch it – something I’m truly grateful for.
Having been a young person of color in Chicago while attending school at DePaul University, how do you feel your own personal experiences have influenced and informed the way you approached creating this project?
At one time I was an early twenty-something trying to find my place in a city like Chicago. I felt I didn’t fully belong in several spaces I was provided and realized it was also my privilege to have options. So the only way I could enter and navigate these spaces was through “code-switching,” which is changing the way you act and speak depending on your social environment. It was my only way to survive. I met many people of color in school, the comedy scene, and the film and TV industry in Chicago that I leaned on to discover myself. I experienced a ton of moments of being “in-between” during that time and decided, why not channel these moments into a project? Into a show? It allowed the show to be a catharsis for myself and others who have had to “code-switch.”
In what ways do you feel “Code-Switched” is making a change in American entertainment?
“Code-Switched” has offered something that had not been done before: a true ensemble South Asian American friendship show. It is creating a change by being its own change. It was created by people who wanted to take the power into their own narratives. This project is also meant to challenge the entertainment industry – if we as an indie series in Chicago can cast 26 speaking South Asian American roles, what’s stopping a network with 10 times more resources? There are a sea of talented South Asian artists in this new wave and I hope projects like this can inspire more content and make more of our people feel seen.
What do you hope audiences take away from the series?
I hope audiences take away that we can display ourselves living in our truths without chasing “whiteness” as a concept. None of the characters in this show are interested in that, but rather, they all want to find themselves in a world that asks them to be everything all the time. I hope audiences can also take away that if you want to see more of yourself on media, you have a chance to empower that change yourself. That making something, as hard as it is, is worth doing so with purpose and that you can manifest the things you felt you never had, just do it with the right group of people.
Are you planning on making more episodes of “Code-Switched” after releasing the first five?
The plan is to provide more “Code-Switched.” We were truly blown away by the show sparking online and achieving overwhelmingly positive reception soon after its release. We want to build on these characters; there are so many more stories to tell. We hope in a capacity that best serves the creative and longevity of the show. We are open to collaborate with those that feel like-minded.
What’s one piece of advice you wish you had been given when you were first starting out in the film and digital cinema industry?
I wish I was told to trust my instincts. I think I got a ton of bad advice from folks who either think they knew it all or had an ego to feed. I, for a while, didn’t trust my gut – rather, I tried to make things others wanted me to make. I think finding a way to dial out that noise and just lean into what you want to make and what you want to see is the best thing one can do. And that if you have a vision, an idea, actually go and execute it. You may not make what you want, but you’ll be surprised how many meaningful relationships and good can come out of it.
Edited for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca