In its entirety, Holi Cow is a six-part YouTube series that follows the adventures of four constantly arguing friends (Vishvesh Prasad, Tara Sen, Subbu Venkat, and Aman Rashid) who come together to buy and run an Indian restaurant in Edison, New Jersey. But, you start scratching the surface, and there is more one takes from this tongue-in-cheek comedy.
And one of the key aspects of Holi Cow is that the characters are flawed, and the creators of the show embrace this imperfection. And this ‘flaw’ is what makes the characters human. And more importantly, outsiders or American—they are people! ‘They really don’t have it all together’, and it’s okay.
Like every individual, they are fighting for things they believe in—selfish or otherwise. It might feel ridiculous at times, but Holi Cow addresses all the rigmaroles we go through to get somewhere. The series is a roller-coaster ride that takes you thought things you might have experienced—the pointless conversations with friends, life crisis, and the importance of making it in life, among others. In a nutshell, Holi Cow is a story about relationships of people from ‘other’ backgrounds in America who simply aren’t perfect.
We catch up with actor, writer and producer Naren Weiss who tells us more about Holi Cow, working with fellow actors Pooja Devariya, Danvir Singh, Mohit Gautam, and more.
How did the idea of Holi Cow come about? Could you take us through the concept and the creative process, please?
So, in 2016, Sid (our director Siddarth Prakash) came to me with a pilot he had written. I knew him from our days in Chennai, where he was an aspiring filmmaker and I was an amateur actor. By this point, he had become a trained filmmaker and I a trained actor. The pilot script was very interesting (and quite good) for the first stab at a pilot. He and I went back and forth for a bit, and we decided there was indeed something there.
He asked if I knew of any other comedy writers who might be interested in something like this. The writers whom I thought would fit the project were engaged with their own projects at the time, and so I asked if he’d be interested in having other actors on board. He said he’d be open to it, and I brought in the other two.
Mo (Mohit Gautam) and I went to grad school and was actually living with me at the time I showed him the script. And he too thought there was something there. Then, I showed Danvir Singh (who had understudied a show with me at the Geffen Playhouse in L.A. the year before) and he was in as well. The four of us hopped on a call and Sid said, “So, what do you guys think?”
Everyone liked what we had but knew we needed to go deeper. So, in 2017, the four of us set about charting out a series and a story arc for this show. We spent close to 9 months just writing. Hopping on calls, writing some more. Doing Skype read-throughs. And writing some more. And finally, that summer, we all convened in Los Angeles and filmed the thing.
Why did you pick a title like Holi Cow? Why and how did you think it would be relevant?
This will probably feel a little cliché, but it felt like the title picked us. There were several hurdles we had along the way, but the one that was never a hurdle was what the title of the piece would be. It was ‘Holi Cow’ from the beginning. We liked the idea of the restaurant eventually being called ‘Holi Cow.’ The only thing we struggled with was whether we should spell it ‘holy’ or ‘Holi.’ I think I was in the camp for ‘holy’ but I’m ultimately happy we stuck with ‘Holi.’ It lends an obscure and absurd flair to the entire thing that is the exact undertone we have throughout the entire series.
Interestingly, we never say the words ‘Holi Cow’ in the entire series. Also interestingly, no one has seemed to notice that.
Holi Cow is a six-part series with episodes under five minutes run time—any reason why you kept the episodes short?
This is an interesting question. We charted out the series as an eight-part season, with each episode at 22 minutes. And, when we gathered, we shot the entire pilot. Self-produced it and set about gathering the crew and actors on our own. However, once we’d assembled a final product (post-shoot and edit) that we were all proud of, we were unable to do much more with it. We were simply unable to get into rooms with actual decision makers for relevant platforms. So we started looking at suitable next steps.
Our initial thought was to release it on our own as a pilot. And then we realised we had a lot of footage, and also a pretty decent start to a story. So, what if we just cut it up into a web series?
We did so and, to your question, intentionally kept episodes on the shorter side. Attention spans aren’t what they once were and, even though all of the episodes are under 5 minutes, there are still some that are too long for my liking. With that said, this is a case where a web series popped up out of nowhere. We didn’t write it as one, and so we didn’t put in the kinds of buttons or even shots that would’ve been more conducive to an intensely short-form series. Thankfully, it still stands on its own two feet. The response has been largely positive, even if it is with a much smaller audience. But that audience seems to enjoy the way it’s been made. There are a lot of takeaways for us on the creative side of it all.
You write (along with Siddarth Prakhash, Mohit Gautam, and Danvir Singh), act and produce the series too. Was it a challenge juggling in and out of each role?
I think there will always be challenges when you don too many hats and aren’t necessarily getting paid handsomely to do so. With this, we had the added advantage of knowing it was going to be a lot of heavy lifting on our parts. So, we were smart about it. We only focused on writing for many months. None of us really concerned ourselves with the production elements until we had a script we felt we could lock on to.
Then, when we gathered for rehearsals, we all had to put on our producer hats. We’d be jetting around the place trying to make sure everything was in order but ensured we were only doing that. And then we’d come back to the script as actors and start rehearsing again. We’d make changes to the scripts while improvising certain scenes, but then we’d lock up the script again to make sure we could smoothly go about shooting it when the time came.
And then we jumped in as actors. We had four consecutive days of 12-hour shoots. This was particularly gruelling, honestly, especially because it’s a comedy and we needed to retain the fun we were having on set and not lose that because of fatigue. For me, it was also tiring as I ended up having a pretty meaty role in this particular season, and ended up being the only actor who was required to shoot all four days. That said, that’s a great problem.
I’ve also been acting alongside Mo and Danvir for years, so it was really just a lot of fun. And Pooja Devariya (who plays Tara) is my classmate from middle school (we’ve known each other since 7th grade) and having her opposite me was incredibly fun. We added in a couple of great guest stars in Andrew Frank (who was just freakin’ hilarious) and Joanna De Castro (who’s an absolute angel) and we ended up with just a lot of people having fun together on camera.
The crew that came in also ended up becoming great friends. And, because the atmosphere was so enjoyable and filled with jokes and laughter, we were able to kind of bring that into the final performance and edit as well.
Your co-actors Pooja Devariya, Mohit Gautam, and Danvir Singh are all accomplished theatre actors. How and why did you think that they would fit the characters?
When we first started writing, we knew we needed to have certain ‘roles’ filled in terms of which character would end up being the straight man or the wildcard or the hopeless fool or the uptight one or whatever. So, we were pretty clear about which character ended up fitting each role in our early readings and conversations. However, when we actually got into the improvised rehearsals before the shoot, something weird happened.
Our personalities and dynamic with one another influenced the outcome of the characters’ relationships with each other, and we no longer had our characters fitting neatly into certain roles. In a way, that made sense. In our actual lives, we are not always the straight man nor are we always the wildcard; it really depends on the company you keep in any given moment. And the same thing happened here, so we chose not to ignore that.
That made all of the roles that we were playing slightly more complex. We weren’t always as successful as we would’ve liked, but we didn’t fail at it either. We jumped in and ended up with a story that was very much about the relationships between these deeply flawed people. And we really liked that we could tell a story with people from ‘other’ backgrounds in America who simply aren’t perfect.
And, after all, when we set about developing this, we were pretty clear from the beginning that this was first and foremost a story about relationships. Mo, Danvir, and I were the first to be cast. We were able to write our parts in with our voices in mind. Tara was written in as older than the rest, as we wanted her to be the actual grown-up in the group. But then we started talking about Pooja in the role, and I was all for that. She and I have worked together extensively: we’ve been onstage together, she’s directed my plays, we’ve even performed Silambam together—the list goes on and on. So I had no doubt that our past lives and chemistry would bleed onto the screen and make something happen. She’s also a dope actor, so I had no doubt she’d be great in the role. And, of course, she killed it. People love her in this role.
We put out casting calls for some of the other roles, which is how we found Andrew, Joanna, and Raj Bhavnani. Raj’s self-tape had us all in splits. We watched it so many times. He pretty much showed up on set as a celebrity in our eyes because we’d memorised his delivery already. Andrew’s improvisations between takes literally had me on the floor laughing multiple times. And Joanna’s moments with Mo on camera were freakin’ beautiful. There was more of them both but, for the sake of the story, we, unfortunately, had to cut that footage down. They showed up and delivered like the professionals they are.
Holi Cow is a tongue-in-cheek comedy, but below the surface, it somehow tries to showcase the struggles of a modern Indian in a foreign setting. Could you tell us more about the underlying themes, please?
One of our big things was to not be afraid to show these characters as flawed. We dehumanise people of colour when we present them as perfect or the perpetual victim. In this case, we wanted to show that these characters really don’t have it all together. And that that’s okay.
We also wanted to show that characters like these, even when viewed as being outsiders, actually are American (or American-ish or Indian-American or whatever) as well; essentially, that they’re people. In a way, they’re all fighting for something with everything they’ve got. But, like many people, their fight is a selfish one and (from the outside looking in) it can feel stupid or ridiculous.
When you’re fighting for something with everything though, you don’t always have the wherewithal to realise how pointless or trivial it may be. And that’s kind of the point with these characters. It doesn’t matter what they’re fighting for. It just matters how hard they’re fighting for it.
The series features the song “Moonchild” by The F16s. How and why did you think they would fit onto Holi Cow? Did you initially have other groups in mind?
So, when I spoke of hurdles earlier? I am not gonna lie, this was the biggest hurdle we had. We searched for a song for freakin’ months. We went through so many different music choices over the course of 9 months. It was absurd.
Finally, one day (when we’d already all convened in Los Angeles and were getting ready to go into our shoot dates), I asked the guys if they’d heard of this band or their song. They all said no, and I felt like this could’ve been the exact tone we were looking for. We threw it on and, almost immediately, everyone had a sense of ecstatic relief. We’d finally found the song we needed. It was perfect. We listened to the song on repeat in the car for more than half an hour. And then we spent the rest of the afternoon listening to the rest of The F16s’ songs. It was just the most chill afternoon ever, despite all the madness we were facing approaching the imminent shoot.
Then, we had the next problem. Just because we’d found this perfect song, didn’t mean they’d be willing to let us use it. Especially, if we didn’t have a solid budget yet. I’d gone to Madras Christian College with a couple of the members of the band and reached out to Josh Fernandez (their frontman) describing what we had in mind. Those dudes as a whole could not have been kinder, they let us use it and said we could talk about licensing if and when it came to it. But, for the time being, they were more than happy to let us use their track.
Honestly, their track has meshed so well with the series. People reached out and talked about how much they love the music and the way it just fits. It was perfect that we had this eccentric group of musical geniuses supplying their track to another eccentric group of artistic… well, you get the picture.
I shudder to think of what this story would’ve been if we’d never found this song (and, more importantly, if they’d never agreed to let us use it). It was the only track we ever considered.
The challenges of Holi Cow?
I’ve detailed a few of them above, but I guess I’ll answer this on a more personal note. The entire first season that we’d initially charted out (eight 22-minute episodes) really focused on Aman (Danvir Singh), Subbu (Mohit Gautam), and Tara (Pooja Devariya) getting on board and helping make Vishvesh’s idea become a reality. It was about them picking up the slack where my character left off. I was to come to them with a crazy idea and they, although reticent, were the ones who would really be driving the story of opening the restaurant forward.
I’m certain all of us actors faced incredible challenges like this, and theirs will be shared in due time. One of the things that made this worthwhile though, was the knowledge that we always had each other’s backs along the way.
Your takeaway from something like Holi Cow?
That it can indeed be done. It’s daunting to put something together, but the takeaway is that it can be done. If our group of jokers can do it, you can too.
Has platforms like YouTube changed the way we look at cinema and video content these days? Comment.
Oh, most definitely. Content is now bite-sized, it’s easier to digest. A friend reached out and said they were really happy that the size was so small, which meant they could enjoy it in a non-committal fashion but also in short breaks in their life. YouTube (and other platforms) makes the work more accessible. Most importantly though, it means anyway can become a creator. You don’t need to be an expert and you don’t need access to anything but whatever talent you may have and a little bit of work.
Will we see more of Holi Cow in the future?
We’d planned to just throw this up on the interweb and call it a day. Then, people started reaching out asking when season 2 was releasing. And then more started doing the same. And so on.
We ended up realising that we may have a small audience, but they’re pretty invested; dedicated, even. Once the emotion of all of this dies down a bit, we’re going to hop on a call and decide as to whether we think we ought to do a second season or not. The fact that people have even been calling for it is genuinely more than we’d anticipated. So that, in and of itself, is an incredible compliment to us.
Anything we missed that you would like to add?
Yes. I’d just really love to thank the people who took the time out to watch this. It really validates what all of us are doing, and there’s obviously so much incredible content out there, so I’m very grateful to all of them. We all are.
Watch the entire series below:
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