‘Welcome to Surrey’ presents a wholly Canadian – but rarely portrayed – experience
South Asians don’t lack for representation on the big screen: since 2004, Bollywood has churned out more movies than Hollywood or any other film production centre in the world.
But when you’re second- or third-generation Indo-Canadian like yours truly, watching Bollywood films isn’t as fulfilling as seeing your own life reflected on screen – and opportunities to see our lives on screen have been few and far between.
“As young South Asians, we grew up watching Bollywood films, and while they looked like us, they didn’t live or sound or act like us at all,” says Kashif Pasta, co-creator and co-writer of the locally made web series Welcome to Surrey, in a recent phone interview. “And then the movies where someone did live and sound and act like us, they didn’t look like us at all. We were completely erased from that reality.”
Enter Welcome to Surrey, which was funded by Storyhive and is in the running for three 2018 Leo Awards, including Best Web Series for Shyam Valera and Best Performance nods for lead actress Suneet Man and Pasta.
Mann stars as Suneet, a recent graduate from a Toronto medical school who is chagrined when she’s placed in a Surrey hospital and is forced to interact with old friends (played by Pasta and Valera) and the other trappings of her hometown.
“It’s as much a brown show or South Asian show as the average show on CBS is about being white, which is to say, a lot of them are, but not explicitly,” says Pasta. “I think that’s something that we haven’t seen as much of yet: that you can just be a normal person and have a story and it’s not how you exist in relation to whiteness, and it’s not a political statement. We just want to be normal people at some point and not have everything be about conflict of identity. The identity crisis in this show is around career and family; am I this person that I became when I moved away for four years, or am I still the same person from before I left, or can I be both? That’s a real identity crisis that a lot of us feel.”
The six episodes in Welcome to Surrey’s first season have logged more than 500,000 views since hitting YouTube and the Telus Optik network last September; Pasta attributes these high numbers to a rampant hunger for on-screen representation. “In Canada, because we push away the idea of the melting pot and people in some respects actually do live their own culture, we have come up with this unique hybrid where South Asian parents take chai to hockey games and we have Kanye West and Bollywood on the same playlist,” says Pasta. “We already have this unique combination of cultures, but we don’t realize it because there’s nothing reflected back.”
Surrey was the perfect place to set this true-to-life comedy, because “Surrey is a really great place to raise your kids and it’s a really great place to be a kid, but in between those ages, it’s not really designed for you,” says Pasta, who co-created Welcome to Surrey with Valera. “We thought, ‘This is our lives, and this would make a fun show.’”
With the exception of Manoj Sood (who plays Suneet’s dad), everyone else who appears in Welcome to Surrey is a non-professional actor – including the co-producers. “We were pretty much there for scheduling reasons: we’re cheap and we’re on set anyways,” chuckles Pasta. “That’s why we act – and that somehow leads to a Leo nomination.”
Even Mann – now a Leo-nominated series star – is a lawyer in real life. “We shot for two weeks, and each Monday, she would have her law school finals in the morning and then she’d be on set in the afternoon and then during the week, if she had moments when she wasn’t shooting – which was tough because she was the main character – she would be studying for her next final,” marvels Pasta. “She finished her finals during our principal photography, passed them with flying colours, and is now a lawyer in Vancouver.”
Adds Pasta: “She’s such a great actress, but that is not necessarily a path that she can jump right into with the opportunities that are available.”
Pasta and Valera – whose production company is called Dunya Media – are intent on making a second season of Welcome to Surrey, but whether it’s as a 22-minute network show or on the web has yet to be determined."Now that we’ve done season one, it’s a chance to do something bigger, which may be possible, may not be, but we’re going to go for it, and if it’s not possible, then we learn how the system works a little more," says Pasta.
Dunya’s productions are “all about unlocking people’s imaginations and showing what’s possible,” according to Pasta. “That might sound like sci-fi, but in a world as diverse as ours, we’re seeing surprisingly few stories about how people really live, and media’s job is to hold a mirror up to people and reflect their actual lives.”
Follow @KashifPasta and @dunya_ca. View Welcome to Surrey’s first season on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8OI05bSCTAM&list=PLw-ZhjLUhK9_TLdbrFRWDgLxiLzuoL1rA
The 2018 Leo Awards will be handed out on May 26, June 2, and June 3. The awards aren’t broadcast or live-streamed, but YVR Screen Scene will be present for all three ceremonies. Follow @sabrinarmf and @yvrscreenscene for live tweets and red carpet coverage, and watch this space for pre-event interviews with the nominees.