Young, hip & brown

Why we need new platforms for South Asian stories

Sanvir Singh Chana and Ramneet Baidwan

Sanvir Singh Chana and Ramneet Baidwan have partnered with Dishoom founder Shamil Thakrar to dish up candid and unapologetic South-Asian stories… welcome to the creative world’s ‘brown renaissance’

We have the power to change
how brown people are represented.

Ramneet Baidwan

How can a hustler mentality create real representation? What does non-tropey representation look like? Was Churchill really as good as the books say?

London-based Sanvir Singh Chana and LA-based Ramneet Baidwan are the producers behind Dialogues of Diaspora, a YouTube web series focused on celebrating the lived experience and layered identities of the South Asian diaspora. Formatted as a chat show of sorts, each episode features two well established personalities from across a variety of industries, getting together to discuss their experiences. 

The pair had been planning this since before the pandemic, wanting to see themselves represented in a way that helped ease their sense of belonging, in search of a way to make it happen. Powerhouse guests for the web series first season included Shalina Patel, a secondary school history teacher and founder of the popular instagram account The History Corridor, Dishoom’s Shamil Thakrar, singers Priya Ragu and Leo Kalyan and fashion industry consultants and influencers Arooj Aftab, and Simran Randhawa.

It is often down to the establishments, a popular restaurant or well-known writer or artist to help usher in new voices and champion new perspectives through support and partnership. It shows a sense of security and confidence – no one’s coming to take your spot! And yet, this kind of behaviour is still a rarity to find across many industries, which is why it feels so good to see a partnership like their one forming with Dishoom, whose restaurants still elicit queues of eager crowds hoping to get their hands on a bacon naan, daal or chocolate chai.

Since launching in 2010, Shamil Thakrar has established Dishoom as the top UK Indian restaurant group

Dishoom has had an undeniable influence on the British media and narrative around South Asian food in London. By pairing up with two dynamic creatives from the South Asian diaspora who know a thing or two about what it means to be young, hip and brown, they’re setting the tone for future discussions. 

TOPIA asked the tastemakers why it’s good to shake things up with new perspectives and who benefits from the representation.

The Dialogue: Sanvir and Ramneet

First things first, how did you two meet?

Ramneet: . Sanvir and I met in 2018 at a party in New York. We shared a bond over creative things: music, fashion, arts and creative media. My career is in finance, but I’ve always been involved somehow in the creative world. Empowering the community and representing South Asians has always been a passion of mine. Storytelling has always been near and dear to my heart, and creating the right representation for South Asians is one of the many goals of Dialogues.

Sanvir: I pursued an academic qualification in English at university, but wanted to go into film. A documentary on the Sikh identity and experience in London was my initial creative outlet in 2015, through the lens of skateboarding, titled ‘The Culture Club’. Alongside, we ran an unreleased podcast addressing the major issues and themes we would eventually approach in our film. Dishoom was interesting in tackling the same themes and everything kind of fell into place. Upon which, in 2020, we had the time to really flesh it out, and Ramneet and I worked to make it happen.

The pair direct Shalina Patel with Dishoom founder Shamil Thakrar

Ramneet: Visually, everything an audience sees is meticulously crafted by Sanvir who’s far more experienced in the world of production than I. On the flip side, I focused on the narrative, structuring the show in the best way possible for an audience to feel as if they’re part of the conversation. Our goal was for an inclusive atmosphere while touching on nuance topics our diaspora could relate to.

Sanvir: I’m confident in saying we are the first generation to be widely experiencing the consequences of the ‘muted’ generation before us. We’ve become the first generation to tell these stories through films and art in a more accessible way.

Ramneet: Dialogues has always come from a genuine place. We wanted to both create something that was timeless, while also empowering our community. For me, a platform for South Asians betters our generation and the many more to come. I want to feel represented.

We’ve become the first generation to tell these stories through films and art in a more accessible way.

Sanvir Singh Chana

Where does that drive and passion stem from?

Sanvir: Without meaning to be glib, for me it comes from a place of sincere loneliness. Not feeling represented impresses upon oneself that the national story doesn’t concern our feelings of belonging. During the making of our show, we found the filmmaking process acknowledged the feelings our community had around the lack of representation. It was rather meta in a way and happened on many tertiary levels during the creative process.

In working with Dishoom specifically, does food fit into the story you want to tell?

Ramneet: For immigrant communities, food is such an important part of our identity, who we are, what our comforts are. Food is in the middle and everything kind of goes around it. It’s like, if you can identify with a dish, you’re going to identify with the cuisine, and that in itself is representation.

Not feeling represented
has an impact on you.

Sanvir Singh Chana

Do you feel that South Asian food has been boxed in? 

Ramneet: In the US [where I’m from], most Indian restaurants you go to don’t really serve the kind of Indian food we see at home. The way mom cooks is a lot different than what you’ll find at restaurants. Growing up, there was a genuine interest from the kids in school in what we ate at home. From that point, I understood the power food had in bringing people from all different walks of life together.

Sanvir: On the flip side, I was raised in a predominantly South Asian environment. I feel fortunate that Hounslow surrounded me with all of the comforts I was used to at home. Looking back now it was sort of holistic experience to have to grown up that way.

Ramneet: When I came to study abroad in the UK for three months, going from Connecticut to Birmingham was a welcomed change. Even though I grew up thousands of miles away, there was such a common bond – a common language, common music, and common food. So even though we grew up in such a different area, the Punjabi culture and the South Asian-ness of us just crosses borders. We still come back to the same brownness.

The Punjabi culture and the South Asian-ness of us just crosses borders. We still come back to the same brownness.

Ramneet Baidwan

With Dialogues. How did you choose your guests? 

Sanvir: We connected quite organically with Dishoom who had a plethora of ideas, but ultimately we had already connected with some of our guests online, and Simran at the local Gurdwara (temple).

Ramneet: At the end of the day, we knew the type of people that we wanted. We wanted each episode to be unique and distinct. The first show is very history centric and explores South Asian British history. I didn’t grow up in the UK, so I learned an incredible amount just sitting there! The second episode featured musicians talking about their upbringing and their musical process. And the final episode of the season explored topics ranging from fashion, representation to food.

Epi 1 whimsically reflects on South Asian British history from chapatis in WW1 trenches to history at school

Did you have an audience in mind while making it?

Sanvir: Originally it was intended for people just like us, ultimately. I think the only sincerity is to make something that we ourselves would want to sit there and watch. It’s a pleasure then to have audiences from outside the community reach out with praise. Much like you have done with this interview

Ramneet: Funny story, one of Sanvir’s friends messaged us to say she showed her dad our channel who became a complete fanboy of Shamil’s. In the same episode, her mom fell in love with Shalina Patel. I guess the target audience was people our age or our generation, but that quickly changed after the release. That kind of opened our eyes, that this can span the entire diaspora; kids, to adults to elders. That for me was one of the first real surprises. That our parents could also enjoy it and be inspired. Ultimately, the hope is that people do feel like they belong.

Sanvir: It’s tough when you sort of brush colonialism under the carpet and pretend it doesn’t exist. We grew up with those stories; we know these things exist and so they connect with all of the diaspora who have lived the same experience.

What’s next?

Ramneet: We have begun planning for season two, alongside our two or three documentaries for 2023. We still are aiming to continue the talk show format, using the momentum of season one and keeping authentic conversations relating to our diaspora. 

Sanvir: One of them being an animated documentary on Indian Independence in partnership with Dishoom, while the other two follow a Punjabi producer in Toronto and a Sikh R&B artist from New York. 

Own your roots

Why we do we need new platforms for South Asian stories to go ‘beyond the stale’?

Ramneet: As the community grows and expands, to develop intergenerational differences and further integrate the diaspora into new fields of creativity, we constantly tell fresh stories that reflect our lived experiences. There is a sort of ‘brown renaissance’ that’s going on in the creative world and we are all uplifting each other, which is amazing to witness. The collective endeavour is ultimately why Sanvir and I are here now!

What is your favourite place to find inspiration?

Sanvir: Old movies, in particular La Nouvelle Vague.

Ramneet: Through figures that inspire me, both from my personal life and public figures. 

What advice would you give to someone who has a fresh story and doesn’t feel like it’s represented?

Ramneet: Email us.

Sanvir: Pick up a camera and start shooting.

Pick up a camera and start shooting.

Sanvir Singh Chana

What if you don’t have the gear?

Sanvir: Beg, borrow and steal. When a story is original and connects with people it’s far easier to call on that specific community to get the story made. That’s what we did. Now that we have, the community can reach out to us too.

Ramneet: We have the power to change how brown people are represented. Instead of us waiting around for others to give us “permission” to demand representation, we have all the power and resources to do it ourselves. It’s in our hands to make that change.

Do you have a ritual or daily activity that brings you joy, peace or helps you separate yourselves from your work?

Ramneet: I like to take time in the morning to meditate and really prepare myself for the day. Then thanks to an eight hour time difference, I call Sanvir.

Sanvir: Once my alarms are off, I prefer to get up without getting sucked into the virtual environment. But, by the time I’ve got stuck into the tasks of the day, it’s then time to call Ramneet.

Lastly, what does it mean to be “good” in 2023?

Ramneet: Being good is just staying true to yourself. Even kind of tying back to Dialogues, being good means keeping the idea and essence of it in line with its pure intentions. It came from a place of simply creating and helping the community. Being good is staying true to that.

Sanvir: I think the only sincerity is doing something or making something that you would watch yourself. Not to play into all the trappings of clickbait. If it doesn’t get a million views, if it gets two views, at least there is a purity in that. For me that’s “good”.

The Dialogue: Dishoom founder Shamil Thakrar

Shamil, do you think some of the narratives around South Asian food in London are changing?

Shamil: Ten or so years ago, the South Asian food stereotype here in London was still largely in part the curry house. There’s nothing wrong with the curry house. Curry houses were an organic process, created by immigrants who came here and created dishes that were suitable for the local population. There can be enormous snobbery by saying, ‘oh, curry houses are bad’. They’re not. They’re really good. However, it’s only one story. What we have maybe been able to do is to help give others the confidence to do something different. There’s a whole world of people who are also working to change and expand the narrative, places like Hoppers or Gunpowder… and what Sanvir and Ramneet are doing with Dialogues. I think we are helping to capitalise something much bigger than us. And, there’s a lot of young Indians doing it. They really care. They want to create something beautiful. They think deeply about these things.

Why do we need to go ‘beyond the stale’?

Shamil: Firstly, history doesn’t need to be dull. And it doesn’t need to be shouty or sanctimonious. I also think the question is how do you go beyond the stale? We’re in a particular moment of looking at things with fresh eyes. I mean, I can only speak to my British experience. I’m an immigrant and technically a refugee. My family were thrown out of Africa. Now, we’re much more comfortable here than we were. The first stage of integration is to just get a foothold.

Once you’re established yourself, you can then begin to say, well, actually, we’re part of the society as you know. We have roots, and I think that there’s a sort of re-examination of stuff. And whilst 20-30 years ago, a narrative of the British Empire being glorified was commonplace. Today, we’re more like, well, hang on, that’s not quite right. Churchill was a great guy because he beat the Nazis, but he did also made decisions which led to the death of two or three million Bengalis. I can hold both of those ideas in my head at the same time, I can believe that a good man can be very flawed, or a flawed man can do some good things. We’re mature enough to have those discussions. It’s a sign of great health. That’s why we need to move beyond these older stale ideas and embrace this kind of fresh thinking.

Ramneet and Sanvir’s top tips on where to eat South Asian food (other than Dishoom)

Badmaash LA – An interesting chicken tikka poutine and Indian ice cream sandwiches.
Punjabi Deli New York – It was originally created for taxi drivers specifically to give them a place to be — its 24 hours. Now it’s become a bit of an iconic restaurant.
The Kati Roll Company  – NYC and now 1 in London. “Good for a roti… it’s either a lunch spot or a 3am spot. There’s no inbetween”
Akbar’s in Birmingham – I studied abroad in Birmingham and this was the one of the first places I went, it holds a special meaning for me. 
Gupshup, in NYC – Cool ambience in an even cooler neighbourhood 
– Roxy’s in Old Southall (no website) – This is a West London staple! 
Delhi Wala – It’s a vegetarian restaurant with endless options!
Prince of Wales in Southall – Their mixed grills are iconic as well as the overall vibe!
Shahanshah in Southall – Another West London staple that’s a must for any foodie.
Karahi Express  – I frequented this place often growing up. Food that can carry all of West London if it wanted to!

What’s so good about this?

BEYOND THE STALE is an ongoing interview series that celebrates the indie storytellers and tastemakers changing food media for the better by addressing its blind spots – building communities and creating spaces that don’t have to cater to the masses and mainstream narratives. This trio is part of a new generation creating fiercely engaging and compelling work that provides a window into a more nuanced range of cuisines, histories, neighbourhoods, politics and global perspectives.

Dialogues of Diaspora

Meet the writer

Adrienne Katz Kennedy is a London-based food and culture writer. The former Clevelander and former New Mexican dance anthropologist is a contributing writer for the travel cookbook Hong Kong Diner and has also been featured in Whetstone Journal, Pit Magazine, Heated by Bitman, Courier Media and Sierra Magazine. Her work focuses on storytelling, identity and communication – whether through dance, food, cultural practices or Instagram Stories. She often wonders how she ended up living on a chilly island, and how late is too late to make the day’s last cuppa without risking the sacrifice of sleep. Follow @AKatzKennedy.

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