From Bridgerton to Never Have I Ever and even Mean Girls, we're seeing more female South Asian representation coming out of US TV and film productions. Closer to home, Aussies like Ayesha Madon in Heartbreak High, Olivia Junkeer in Strife, and Sumi Gunaratnam in The Disposables are just a few of the local names doing the brown community proud. And let's not forget Vidya Rajan.
Having worked with powerhouse companies such as Malthouse Theatre, SBS, ABC Comedy and Amazon Prime, Rajan is no stranger to screenwriting, theatre and comedy in Australia. Yet one of her latest projects, Ruby Rai P.I. is undeniably one of the standouts in her impressive showreel to date.
Developed as part of ABC's Fresh Blood Initiative, the three-part digital series is written by and stars Rajan as the titular character – a "down-and-out Private Investigator... or at least she's trying to be".
When it comes to on-screen cultural representation, there are various ways to go about it. What's so appealing about Rajan's approach is her ability to create characters that are endearingly silly, flawed and also culturally informed. But, their brown-ness is not explicitly the main focus.
Here, we chat to Rajan about Ruby Rai P.I., representation and who she's been dying to have dinner with.
Congratulations on Ruby Rai P.I. What made you decide to write this project?
Thanks! I have always loved anything vaguely P.I. or detective related. A few years ago my friend Amruta and I were tossing around the idea of a neo-noir show set in Melbourne with a South Asian P.I., that was more serious in tone with a gruff P.I.
It didn't go anywhere but over time I started to imagine a different version of a South Asian P.I. in Melbourne – a show that was more a comedy with a satirical lens, sharp jokes and loads of silliness. It has shades of shows like Black Books, 30 Rock, Los Espookys.
Given that comedy is my first home as a writer and performer, it was probably what was meant to happen for this project! I've co-written it with comedian Elyce Phillips, which has been a blast.
How would you describe Ruby?
Ruby is a bit of a beta haha. She's afraid of upsetting anyone, which conflicts with her greatest desire in life: to crack open a huge mystery that will change the system for the better. Unfortunately, the day-to-day life of a P.I. is not that thrilling at all – mostly tailing cheating husbands. My favourite thing about Ruby, is that she holds on to her delusions that at any minute she will connect the dots to reveal a grand conspiracy that is more glamorous than finding a lost cat. I also love that my girl has been permanently traumatised from her past in the spotlight as a child-actor and is now (spoilers) afraid of horses.
It’s awesome to see a new take on the outsider P.I. figure. We see a nervous brown girl with a dream to solve mysteries. How important was it to challenge the norm?
It's so interesting because initially as I said, I did think of her in that usual mould, but it didn't feel right. The P.I. figure is traditionally this (often white) dude who has a dark past and is a real down-and-out outsider. It's so self-serious, and as a comedian, I always want to send those tropes up by having someone with a very silly trauma and the opposite of depressed and aloof – i.e. anxious and people-pleasing.
But the more real Ruby has become, I've realised – as you say – that this does challenge the norm. In a way, I think it's just logical if we're being realistic. Who is the outsider in this society we're in now? Not that old-school usual figure! I also love that Ruby is an outsider not just to broader Australian society, but in choosing this life, in her brown circles as well. She does not fit in anywhere (what a loser) and that's great for comedy.
The absurdity in some of the characters from the very start is ridiculously and hilariously entertaining. How do you go about writing these characters? Where do you take inspiration from, and what purpose do these characters ultimately serve?
Thank you! I have a background in writing & performing sketch comedy (as does everyone on our team from our wonderful producers, Late Nite to the director, Jesse). I think the inspiration question is hard to answer, but in general a lot of comedic characters can start from something that you find irritating or just strange in the world.
It was important to me that the ridiculousness was very much part of current society and the circles I'm part of – a thing I am very consciously inspired by is that we don't get to see many POC & South Asian figures getting to be foolish & absurd & silly in a way that is culturally informed but not explicitly about their "cultural difference". Too often even our comedy is expected to be about our suffering in a didactic way.
Many characters in this show have Main Character Energy which is... honestly the world now, isn't it? They're a funny contrast to a figure who doesn't want the limelight like a P.I. and their purpose is often to make her life more difficult. I also feel they help to paint a picture of contemporary society/Australia/Melbourne in all its various niches in a fun way, in all its strangeness, bad and good.
Due to the nature of the work Ruby does, we really do (and especially will if the show goes further) get to see a variety of spaces, sub-cultures and people.
What was the most challenging aspect of filming this series, and the most enjoyable?
The Fresh Blood Scheme's purpose is to give you some funding to experiment with an idea – which is really so valuable – to see if it has legs for something bigger. You don't often get to do this when you're pitching work, so I really loved the chance to. It was incredible to work with some funding (rare, sadly!) and get to be on a set with some of the best in the biz.
The difficult part was probably everyone having to do multiple roles due to the fact that it's still only a limited amount of funding that you have to stretch (a good lesson though) which can dilute the focus a bit, but I think we pulled through okay.
I think it was challenging – in a great, fun way – to play such a low-status loser (such a stretch from me in real life... no). But in comedy, I have often played very confident fools or deeply narcissistic brown girl idiots with a lust for power. It was cool to play someone more vulnerable and actually intelligent who just wants to do a good job.
As you've mentioned, you've worked on an array of projects across acting, comedy and writing as a South Asian woman. How has cultural representation evolved during your career and what can be done to improve it?
It's gotten heaps better even in the last 5 years which is when I started working in this industry more. Lately, I've often had the experience of being in a writer's room and pitching a (South Asian) character and not only are people receptive, they often have many suggestions of actors for these roles. I feel sometimes I'm writing the roles I'd have loved to have had available to me when I was a teenager.
The improvement question is huge, and there are many problems still – systemic and to do with exploitative work spaces. I won't be able to begin to answer that in a Q&A. I think a lot of it has to do with proper listening and top-down work practices.
Do you have any career idols whom you look up to?
Many! I'll stick to Australia. I've been lucky enough to work with the Kates – Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan (Deadloch, The Katering Show) – and I really do look up to them not just for their excellent and genre-pushing comedy but for the way they run their writers' rooms and treat their collaborators and actors. A shining light in the industry. I also really admire Tony Ayres who has forged a path for Asian Australians at a time when it was even more difficult and who is constantly so curious about storytelling and trying new things. He is also one of the kindest, smartest people around.
Who are three people you’d personally love to invite to a dinner party? And who are three people that Ruby Rai would probably invite to a dinner party?
I would like to invite three of any of my friends to a dinner party because it can be very hard to have proper work-life balance as a freelancer and I do not see half the people I love enough and spend too much time with strangers on zoom.
Ruby would invite her ex and children's show co-star Gweniffer, her best friend Fil who tells her what's wrong with her a lot, and probably her brother, Mitch who is a gormless stoner gamer. Look, she really needs a better social life too – wait....huh....I guess you write what you know, fml.
Any final message for the viewers of Ruby Rai PI?
Please watch and share it with as many people as you can! (If you like it... or...even if you hate it, the algorithm doesn't care). It's so rare we get to make comedy in this country in general, and especially as a brown creative. The whole team would really love to show people there's an audience for stuff that's culturally diverse and funny in this way.
All three episodes of Ruby Rai P.I. are available to view on YouTube here.