Sisterhood and the Power of Representation: In Conversation with KayRay

“Imagine if we kept seeing more images of ourselves. How much more love would we have for ourselves?”

KayRay Kiran Rai
Filmmaker, writer, actress, activist. These are just a few of the titles Kiran Rai, better known as KayRay, has under her belt. Her first short film, Kirpa (Punjabi for blessing) was released on the eve of her 25th birthday. In the year since, KayRay has taken off, leaving a blazing trail of accomplishments behind her: she’s written two more short films, held film screenings across the continent, and is currently playing the title character in the hit YouTube series Anarkali, which just finished its second season.

In anticipation of her trip to Vancouver for VIBC‘s (Vancouver International Bhangra Celebration) City of Bhangra Festival, I had the opportunity to talk with KayRay. She had a lot to say about representation, diversity, sisterhood, and having the courage to pursue your dreams.

You‘ve gotten to travel quite a bit to showcase your work – you’ve been to London, LA, San Diego,  and you’re coming to Vancouver! What’s your favourite thing about getting up in front of a group of people and showing them your work?

You know, when you’re in this workspace, and you’re just editing and shooting and doing all this work, you forget that there are actually people who are inspired by the work that you do. It’s just like, what? Me? I’m just working as hard as anyone else! But it’s really cool to see, and it really brings me back to Earth.

It’s one thing to put your stuff out there online as a creator, but the internet is so vast, and it’s something you don’t really get to experience in physical form. You don’t really know if people are actually watching it, or if they’re actually engaged. But when you’re in person, in front of these people, you can see they’re engaged, you can see their reactions, you feel their emotions, you feel their energy – and this is something that makes me so much more motivated to work, it’s one of the reasons I do what I do. When I was in California showcasing Ananke, it was unreal for me, just because of the amount of people from all these different universities who were engaged, and who felt open enough to share their stories. It was so nice to make those personal connections. I really bonded with everyone there. I think that’s what’s so beautiful about actually getting to be in these places, just really seeing that your work has affected people.

It seems like your work connects with a wide range of people, of all ages, and all genders. What’s your experience been like, interacting with your audience?

Yeah, I really got to see that when I was in California because we were going to different cities, and even though it was hosted at universities, there was still different groups of people. Some schools were more female-centric, others would have more males, there were also queer folks who attended, and it was just so nice to see different people coming out, being engaged, wanting to have open discussions about taboo topics in our community. That for me is just …wow. I’m just planting the seeds, but the fact that they want to water that seed and keep it going, that’s amazing to me.

And, ok this is me rambling a little bit, but this is really funny. So my brother just got married recently, and there was this uncle from Edmonton there who came up to me, and I thought he was just going to congratulate me on my brother’s wedding, but he pulls me aside, and he says “Listen, I’m such a huge fan of your work, can I please take a picture with you?” and I’m like, “What, Uncle!?” He watches all my videos, all my vlogs and everything. It was just so amazing, and then we danced the whole night, it was great [laughs]. That’s the kind of stuff that makes me realize that I’m not so limited.

I think that really speaks to the lack of diversity in the media. You’re a 25-year old woman, he’s an older man – the fact that he relates to you is amazing, but I wonder how much of it has to do with the fact that there is nowhere else he can see himself on TV outside of the Indian channels.

I definitely think that’s what it is, because there isn’t anything else out there. And that’s why I feel so responsible – I don’t know if responsible is the right word, but I do, I feel very much like I need to make this happen, I need to break these barriers so that it’s easier for more people to create more work and so there can be more of us in the industry doing these things, because there isn’t anyone. Now it’s starting to happen, now you’re starting to see more artists, actors, comedians, musicians, whatever else there is in our field, but it’s still very new. We’re breaking more barriers now, and it’s us that are going to go through the hardships, but it needs to be done for the youth, really. The most amazing thing is when younger kids come up and talk to me. That makes me feel so good, because it reminds me of my younger self, and how much I needed that when I was their age, so to be that for them is something I can’t even explain. That means more than anything.

Anarkali Ms Mutta KayRay

The cast of Anarkali.

I asked Horsepowar this question when she was in our studio a couple of weeks ago, but I want to get your perspective. One of the things that stands out about Anarkali is the sisterhood, and the community of support you’ve built through it. You use it as a platform not only to represent Indian women, but also as a platform to showcase other artists – you feature Rupi Kaur, Selena Dhillon, Keerat Kaur, Horsepowar, Babbu the Painter. What’s it like working within this community of women, and why was it so important for you to include them in your work?

When I started out, I was the only one who was willing to pursue arts as a career. I remember being surrounded by guys, like Jasmeet (JusReign), Young Fateh. These guys were all doing it, but there were no girls! It was frustrating because of course I’m supportive of the guys, but they still have their own boys club to support one another. It’s different for a female to be doing this, and feeling secure, feeling like we have the confidence to do it. Luckily, because I was a part of community organization, I was able to connect with so many female artists. That’s how I met Selena [Dhillon], and Rupi [Kaur], and then Keerat [Kaur] was one of our artists we would always feature, so I built these connections through community organizing. When I started creating my own content, I just thought, I don’t know who else I would want to feature besides the sisters that I know. Why not give them the space that they deserve? Nobody else is making these spaces for us, so it’s up to us to make our own opportunities. So that’s how that happened, and now we are all actually friends, we have a sisterly bond. It’s really beautiful to see that all these women are just learning, and growing together, and being supportive, and that’s something that we haven’t gotten to see. Where have you seen that before, in any shape or form? I think it’s so important that we start building that, creating that whether it be through photographs or art pieces, or shows like Anarkali, I think we need to support the sisterhood.

You’ve written a few short films, each one addressing a different topic or issue that affects the Indian diaspora. Kirpa is about a girl trying to pursue a career in the arts, with her fathers disapproval. Ananke addresses dating violence. You have another one coming out, Haneri, which deals with depression, and mental health. What is the creative process like for you, in both writing these stories, and showcasing them?

As much as I like to be comedic, and celebrating life, and spreading positivity through whatever other outlets I have, I also find it very important to use art as a way to address issues that are happening in our community. Especially taboo topics like mental health, and the stigmas around that, or dating violence. Dating itself is already a taboo in our community, but people aren’t talking about dating violence, nobody’s addressing it or taking it seriously until it gets to a point where we can’t help anymore.

Kirpa is interesting because it’s about being in a household with miscommunication, double standards which is what women are dealing with daily. But it’s not just women – I did write Kirpa specifically about a Punjabi woman, but there are so many men who came up to me saying this is exactly what I have to deal with at home, those pressures of living as a second generation youth, and not being able to communicate with their families or have open conversations about what they want to pursue. It becomes toxic when we’re growing up and trying to explore ourselves, but have so many limiting beliefs enforced on us. A lot of our youth are trying to find themselves, and I definitely think art is the way to go.

After watching Ananke, one woman came up to me and said that she finally understood what she had gone through because she saw it from a birds-eye view. This was crazy to me, like whoa, she didn’t realize that this happened to her, the only reason she knew it happened to her is because she saw it on screen! We don’t see these things on screen – we see it in Hollywood, and Bollywood, but it’s not our story. The diasporic story isn’t being told, and it’s different than what we see in the fantasy worlds of Bollywood, and even Hollywood. And if we’re not writing these stories, then who will?

KayRay Kiran Rai

“The baddest #curryscentedbitch @ ur service” @kay__ray

In an interview we did with Waris Ahluwalia last year, he said we need more Indian writers and storytellers. As an Indian writer who has taken it upon herself to write her own stories, what’s your piece of advice for the writers, and artists out there who dream about pursuing their art, but are afraid?

I think most of us live in fear, and we allow fear to take over. I’ve lived in fear for a long time, that’s why I didn’t pursue this as quickly as I wanted to. I wanted to do this years ago! I just thought, it’s too late for me, who’s even going to even want me? It’s just like Waris said, there aren’t roles being written for me. I went to Toronto Film School, for film, theater and television, and even there, there were no roles that were written for me. Any role that was written for a different ethnicity would be given to me, because I was the only woman of colour in that class. There are literally no roles written for us, so we have to write our own. That’s why Kirpa came to life, that’s why Ananke came to life, and that’s why Anarkali came to life. I know there’s a lot of anxiety in putting yourself out there, but it is so important, and so healing to do that for yourself. Putting yourself out there in itself is a little victory, but then so many people are going to come out and say, “Oh man, I relate to you, I see you, I understand you.” You may think you’re the only one who is experiencing something, but trust me, there are so many people who are dealing with the exact same things, or similar things, or even just want to understand, because you can educate people through all the work that you do as well.

Imagine if we kept seeing more images of ourselves. How much more love would we have for ourselves? This is important, we need to see more images, we need to see more stories, because our stories need to be told. I can only write so many things, I can only put out so many things, we need more people doing this, it shouldn’t just be one person.

This comes up every time a South Asian/Indian artist puts out a piece of work. Most recently, when Aziz Ansari put out Master of None, some people thought it was great, and were just happy to see brown skin on TV – but others were angry that he wasn’t properly representing them, or they felt they were being represented in a way that was inaccurate. If there were more people doing this, each individual wouldn’t feel the pressure to represent an entire diaspora, because over time, they would all be covered by the various pieces of works out there.

That’s the same thing that happened to Mindy Kaling! The way she writes, she clearly has more experience being around white folks – and that’s not going to represent everyone, but that’s her experience, so we can’t judge that. If people see more and more of these stories being told, people will feel like they have something to connect with. That’s why for young writers and actors, I think it’s time now. That’s it, it’s happening. Four or five years ago it felt like there was no one doing this, but there’s so many of us now! There’s Lilly [Singh], there’s Jasmeet [JusReign], there’s Aziz, there’s Waris, there’s Mindy, there are so many people out there doing it, and it’s just time. You can’t wait for opportunities to come for you, you have to make your own opportunities. Our existence is so temporary, why are you going to wait for someone else to fulfill your purpose?

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

In 5 years? I want to have my organization that provides support for girls in Punjab. I would like to have a few feature films under my belt – being the lead in, but also hopefully being able to create one, or co-produce. I also want to be able to attend more shows, and work with bigger directors, and bigger actors, and get my foot in the door for Hollywood. I want to be able to come back to my hometown in Brampton, and be able to do a screening of my own feature film at my local movie theater. I want to do something for this community. I grew up here, and it’s really shaped my identity, and my politics, and why I am the way I am. I feel like Brampton has so much to offer. And not just Brampton, it’s our Punjabi diaspora – coming from that, it means a lot for me to do something for my community.

Check out KayRay at the VIBC Festival this week in Vancouver!