Writer, director and lifter Shruti Saran understands the value of representation in media just as much as she values proper form in executing a power clean in her local gym. The Austin-based screenwriter, whose work has been a finalist in the Finish Line Script Competition and Austin Film Festival, eyed an admittedly different approach with her latest effort, a quirky web series called Gym Buddies. The series, which features local stand-up comedian Nikita Redkar, offers a refreshing take on gym culture with a particular focus on female friendship and empowerment rarely seen in mainstream media.
Christian Ting: What inspired you to create the series?
Shruti Saran: I wrote Gym Buddies because there was a lot of material for comedy in gym culture and I hadn’t really seen a fitness satire that was female focused — so I wrote it. I also just like strength training in general — I used to work in a gym briefly after college so this was a niche that I felt like I could really execute on and a location (in Austin) that I could work on an indie web series budget. What I’m trying to get better at as a filmmaker is physical comedy and making things more cinematic and there’s so many opportunities in a gym: it’s literally a place where people are physically active and play (laughs).
CT: What about modern gym culture, whether it be Crossfit or Equinox, struck you as a culture and community in need of being parodied? Was there a particular gym bro or cardio girl that inspired or terrified you?
SS: (laughs) Well there wasn’t one specific event, but having worked in a gym and just seeing this interesting cross section of all sorts of people, I was excited about that from a comedic perspective. I remember interviewing a bunch of trainers to collect stories more than just my own observations and experiences and a lot of people told me funny stuff — some of it even made it to the series!
(Courtesy of Errich Petersen)
Christian Ting: Nikita, how did your standup background prepare you for the weight room? What aspects of Aparna are closer to home than others?
Nikita Redkar: My goal with standup has always been to be as true to my experiences and myself as possible, while maintaining humor. Every character has one core "want" — do they want to be accepted, envied, respected, loved? Everything the character does is informed by that. So when I write a joke and think, "What do I want the audience to get about this?" I used that parallel thinking for portraying Aparna — what does she truly want?
CT: Are you an avid gym goer or do you identify with Aparna's struggle? What have you learned so far during your time in the series?
NR: I definitely identify with Aparna's struggle! And I don't think her struggle is unique to gym goers — everyone has initially started something out of excitement only to realize it's not all fun and games, and takes a lot of hard work. If anything, I've been surprised at my stamina shooting some of these scenes since I am not an avid gym goer!
CT: Let’s talk about the Internet Plan rap in episode 3. I feel like this isn’t the first time your group has done a rap video. Describe the process of going from lifting bars to dropping hot bars.
SS: It was absolutely our first time making a rap video. The whole video was our team just flying by the seat of our pants. I wrote the lyrics to it and my sister, who is a musician at Berklee in Boston, transcribed it to music. I will mention that it was her first time using [digital music software] Logic [Pro] and working that way so what you honestly had was a bunch of Indian girls rapping badly in the studio (laughs). We took it to a sound engineer named James Gibson in Austin and he worked some mixing sorcery and made the song sound dope.
CT: How would you describe the state of gym culture through the lens of social media? There’s obviously a lot of positive movements like Transformation Tuesdays and body positive posts, but regarding the more dubious elements, like people selling protein powders and gymfies, what do you hope to highlight as the series goes on?
SS: The point of this series was to focus on a gym culture through the lens of two women who were new to it. So one of the themes of the show is how confusing gym culture really is. That being said, I get a lot of information online about fitness and health really quickly, but if you’re coming at it from the first time, the amount of misleading information out there makes me angry! People trying to be “fitness influencers” and just selling crappy workout plans, man, that makes me so angry. Girls who have never lifted a day in their life advertising “12 week plans to get skinny” — it’s just bad.
CT: You guys are currently based in Austin. Can you describe the comedy and Asian American scene there?
SS: So the Austin comedy scene is great. It’s become a lot more diverse over the past few years. I moved here in 2010 and it wasn’t diverse at all but now there’s a lot of Asian people doing standup and comedy. I’m really happy with where it’s going, but it’s still pretty small! But the Asian comedy scene is growing, loud and proud.
CT: What are you guys currently working on?
SS: I’m working on a feature — another half hour Indian family comedy and I’m also working on a global finance drama that I’m super excited about. The global finance drama is about cryptocurrency and based on Bitcoin between 2009–2013. And the Indian family comedy is a semi-autobiographical comedy based on my relationship with my sister.
CT: You mentioned your sister is a musician and you yourself are an actor, writer and director. What recent South Asian characters on TV/film did you identify with?
SS: That’s a good question. I don’t see it happening a lot, which is one of my motivations for writing. I’m an Indian American. My life is a blend of Indian things and pretty assimilated things too. So when I see Asian characters that are normalized on television that makes me really happy when they’re not pigeonholed into stereotypical roles. I think there’s two ways to champion diversity: One is to tell stories about the Asian American experience and the other way is to normalize Asian characters by putting them on screen even if the stories [aren’t] about our cultural experiences. I do think people are starting to realize there’s money to be made with diverse storytelling, and diversity starts with the script.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
(Courtesy of Nadine Latief)