This Writer Aims to Highlight ‘American Born Confused Desis’ in His Sitcom
“Now I remember why I married you,” a disgruntled wife tells her husband in an episode of sitcom-in-development Breakfast in Bangalore. When the husband gently prods with a “why?”, she snaps, “Because my parents made me!”
Such is the kind of humor that is peppered throughout the episode for a series in development by Michael Fontana. “My wife and I were in New York for 30 years and saw the surge in influx of NRIs, and saw how they were making a life in America, bringing their own Indian culture there, and how they — sometimes warily — interacted with the American culture,” the Bengaluru-based sitcom writer tells Little India. “I found all that funny, how their kids adjusted to being Indian and American at the same time and still being confused about their identity.”
The premise of the show formed in Fontana’s mind then. “American Born Confused Desi children brought to India by their Indianized American father and Americanized Indian mother so they can get back to their roots. They are trying to find their identity again over in a new environment,” he explains.
While two episodes of the sitcom have been shot and seven have been written, the project has seen development hell from the concept shoot in 2013. In the initial stages of development, the Comedy Central channel was on board with the sitcom. “I rewrote the pilot based on their feedback,” Fontana says. “My initial characters were largely sweet. There was still humor but it was a sweet family show. Comedy Central wanted irreverence, edginess and cheekiness. So I rewrote the pilot based on their feedback.”
Fontana was the only writer. “Most sitcoms have 8-15 writers. You need other writers to help you understand what works and what doesn’t. For me, I had to see the shoots to understand what worked,” he recounts.
Unfortunately for him, Comedy Central went through a reorganization and the team backing the project was scrapped. Another investor came into the picture but he backed out of the project in June 2016.
“We have been trying to get sponsors and get attention of TV stations or online streaming websites like Amazon Prime, Netflix,” Fontana said, narrating how TV executives here seem to believe a sitcom won’t work without some Hindi in it. He, however, believes that an English sitcom about an NRI family would work for the young affluent generation here, which has grown up on American sitcoms like Friends and Seinfeld.
“This is about them. There are a lot of NRIs, and returned NRIs based here, who would be interested in this content,” he emphasizes.
Before Fontana put Breakfast in Bangalore in production, they had staged a play involving traces of Friends, British sitcom Coupling, and Breakfast in Bangalore at Alliance Francaise. “Even though the characters weren’t as defined as they are now, people really liked Breakfast in Bangalore. Which is why I know it will work.”
Fontana and his wife Maduram play the husband and wife, while their children — the over enthusiastic activist Tara, hormonal Subbu and a punk hacker Swetha — are played by actors Fontana auditioned and flew in from New York. “The real American Born Confused Desis,” he says about Spurthi, Adit and Brinda.
Before they reached India in August this year, Fontana rehearsed their scenes with them on Skype. The cast also includes pati (grandmother), played by Kannada actress Lakshmi Chandrashekhar, who wants to “de-Westernize” the kids, a transgender housemaid who wants to become a Bollywood star, a washerman who has his clients sign contracts, and a group of quirky neighbors who want to set up Tara with their eldest son.
“Sitcoms are largely about putting exaggerated, extraordinary characters in ordinary situations,” says Fontana, adding that the American sitcom format is relatively new to India. “Production teams are used to making films. It’s in their blood,” he says. “Our team members educated themselves about the sitcom format and shot our show.”
He worked with guitarist and drummer Ashwin Shekhar for the theme song and musical interludes. The fact that Fontana himself was a musician in his younger days helped. He had dropped out of college at the age of 19 to travel across Europe with his band, Sweet Smoke. The group dissolved a few years later.
Fontana studies sitcom writing and acting during the annual trips he and his wife make to New York. “My wife wants to keep going back to New York and I keep wanting to come back to India,” says Fontana, who first came to the country in the ’70s, when he was 24. He immediately fell in love with India and converted to Hinduism. He lived in India then for six years, studying music, literature on Hinduism, and yoga.
He met his Tamilian wife Maduram towards the fag end of his stay in the country. They got married and moved to New York, where he took up a job as an IT professional and she worked for American Express. They moved back to India in 2009 for their retirement and picked Bengaluru as the city to live for its “nice weather, its parks”. The place is also close to America in terms of lifestyle, he points out. That’s when Maduram got into acting while Fontana began writing intensively.
While Fontana has been pitching the sitcom to TV stations, he is also eyeing the digital world to release his work. “I may put it up in December on my channel for online consumption if I don’t have a network backing me up,” he reveals. The ingredients are all there for a sumptuous feast, for sure.