‘Representation has an incalculable impact on young people’: In conversation with Bisha K. Ali and Nish Kumar
When Zoom finally allows us all to be on the same call, the energy between Bisha K. Ali and Nish Kumar is palpable. It’s clear that this call is partly an interview, partly an excuse for both of them to have a long-awaited catch-up.
As soon as all technical difficulties are aside, I hit record and say how excited I am to have them both in the same (virtual) room. Through hosting my podcast, RepresentAsian, South Asian representation – in any industry – is something that I have always longed for and been proud to champion.
Whether they intended to or not, both Bisha and Nish are putting South Asian talent on the map. By taking up space, championing other South Asian people in the industry, or using their experiences to influence their work – they are the role models I wish I had ten years ago.
Before I have a chance to mention any of this, they jokingly threaten to leave the meeting.
“Sorry Safiya,” Nish says, mid-hysterics. “I haven’t seen Bisha in a while and it’s brought out the child in me.”
From the off, the chemistry and familiarity between the writer and comedian are clear. They make each other laugh, offer support and have created a joyful space in their famously tough industries.
“The interesting thing about our friendship is that you were friends with my girlfriend first,” Nish says to Bisha, “but then we met because we did a gig together at Union Chapel and you drove me home.” Since that fateful car journey back in 2015, the pair have respectively continued to smash their careers going from strength to strength, exciting project to exciting project.
Splitting her time between Los Angeles and London, Bisha is a screenwriter, director and producer. Whether you know her name or not, you’ve almost definitely enjoyed her work. She was a writer on Netflix’s Sex Education and is currently working on the first Muslim superhero for an upcoming Disney+ show. Bisha says; “I want to write about stories that I can specifically relate to. I want them to link to who I am and where I’m from. Whether it’s about this new show or not, it’s exciting that I’m in a position where I can get to tell those stories in any avenue that I choose. That feels like a gift.”
The Marvel comic book protagonist is relatable to a whole generation of young Muslim girls, who like me, may never have identified to characters on the screen. The American-Pakistani Marvel superhero, Kamala Khan, was written and drawn as part of the Ms Marvel series released in 2014. By night, Kamala uses her superpowers to fight evil; by day she faces daily microaggressions from school peers and navigates her Pakistani-American identity.
From the outside, it seems to be pretty clear that Bisha is not only taking up space in writing rooms across Hollywood, but having a great time while she does it. When I tell her this, both Bisha and Nish make it immediately clear it hasn’t been an easy path. From failed projects to struggles to stay mentally afloat amid the multiple lockdowns, the journey will always be turbulent.
“For me, the emphasis [of the lockdowns] is less on ‘how do you keep your creative brain going’ and more ‘how do you not die in a pandemic – how do you keep your mind above water’,” says Nish.
“I also wasn’t focusing on how to stay creative,” agrees Bisha. “I was focusing on how I would survive and just stay okay. All I’ve been managing to think about is how I stay less depressed. I’m doing okay now… but it’s been a long-ass lockdown.”
This may have been the case, but now we’re (hopefully) clear of lockdowns, both are onto the next big things and enjoying their successes. After it was cancelled by the BBC, Nish’s show The Mash Report has been recommissioned on Davethanks to the huge demand from fans. The show, which is written and presented by Nish, perfectly intersects comedy and politics, taking on tough topics whilst simultaneously making them hilarious. The show may have been attacked by right-wing media – the reason for its demise in the so-called ‘objective’ BBC – but for people who, like me, are terrified of climate change and panic at the Tories’ immigration policies, Nish’s commentary only lands.
“The show had never received so much press coverage. After we were cancelled, there were lots of very positive things said about the show by fans,” Nish says. “It was a strange old year for the show, but we were very happy to be back.”
“As a viewer and a fan, the show itself is something that I yearned for a long time and it finally exists,” interjects Bisha. “I’m very excited that you found a new home for it. I’m really happy for you.”
After a successful run on Dave and five years in total for The Mash Report, Nish has announced that he will be leaving the show to focus on touring. You can check out his post on Instagram for the jam-packed touring schedule he has planned for 2022.
Whilst they’re not working on anything together, it is so clear from my conversation with Nish and Bisha that they constantly influence and support each other’s work and are proud of the space they are each carving in white-dominated spaces.
“When I first saw Bisha’s credit come on at the end of the show Loki, I sent her a four-page text message that was like a long, sad play,” says Nish. “If you saw a South Asian person’s name on the credits of a TV show when we were kids it was like ‘oh my god, come quick!’” He continues, “My family would all gather around and watch a brown name just slowly scroll up the screen and at the time, that was enough. So when I saw Bisha’s name on the end of a multi-million-pound comic book franchise it was unbelievable.”
Representation, Nish says, “has an incalculable impact for young people. It’s had an incalculable impact on me, and I’m an old man. This is how change is made. It was epic.”
I feel pretty inspired at the impact Bisha and Nish have on each other as well as the creative industry as a whole. The support they have for each other’s successes comes from a longing for more people like themselves to take up space and be fairly represented in TV, radio, politics – a feeling that I can definitely relate to and explore constantly through the RepresentAsian podcast. Despite the slight progress that has been made over the years, they continue to champion increased South Asian representation and are creating a celebratory space around everything they are both achieving.
“We’re trying. We’re definitely doing our best,” finishes Bisha, when I relay how important I think their careers are for not only myself but for younger generations. And fittingly, the advice they give me as we leave the call is to keep going and should I ever get my foot in the door – hit them up for support.
I thank them for their time, and just before we hang up, Bisha kindly checks; “did we give you enough? Or did we just laugh at each other the whole time?”