From the first scene itself, Insomnia is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It is very decidedly NSFW (not safe for work), loaded with dark humour and undeniably queer – none of these are premises that you’d commonly associate with Indian stories that have had a long history of catering only to a heteronormative, fairly conservative audience. The six part limited series follows Nikhil, an Indian American bisexual man who moonlights as an escort and works at a publishing agency by day. Vishaal Reddy, a bisexual Indian American man himself, has written and starred in the series, lending his lived experience to the script.
The series explores a different aspect of Nikhil’s character in every episode, through his relationships with the people around him. Nikhil breaks the fourth wall (like the eponymous Fleabag) often in the beginning of the series, giving context and narrating. As the series goes on, and we find out more about his grief surrounding his mother’s death, it is apparent that the supposed candour was another mask. Nikhil’s family isn’t perfect – his mother died by suicide, and he lives with his sick aunt, who nags at him for his cooking instead of doting over him like most Indian aunties do with sons. Every family has dysfunctions and issues. Insomnia isn’t scared to show us what happens when these issues go unresolved. Nikhil himself accepts help from the stranger who offers him an escort job in a bar instead of talking to his aunt or seeking professional help. It is often tough to process grief and loss in Indian families, and Insomnia gives us a simple and raw depiction of that struggle.
The show is unapologetically desi in other ways too – Nikhil’s life is populated with Indian American friends and even clients. Their conversations don’t feel inauthentic and they switch in and out of accents, making references that are very specific to the culture. It is a refreshing change from the usual diaspora content, which often whitewashes the desi characters or stereotypes them cruelly to the extent that they’re almost unrecognisable.
The comments under the show’s episodes are filled with bisexual people explaining about how they feel seen and represented, finally. In a crafty montage, Nikhil talks about what it’s like to date as a bisexual man – all of the stereotypes that can make you feel isolated and invalidated. There is the “you don’t look bisexual”, the “oh but you’re basically straight/gay, right?” and my personal favourite “which do you prefer?”. In a dialogue that sums it up pretty well, Nikhil says to the camera, “the gays think we don’t exist and the straights don’t know what to do with us.”
The show also deals with sex work pretty well, without demonising it or looking down upon it at any turn, while also recognising the stigma that Indian culture attaches to the profession.
Insomnia is a nuanced show. It incorporates a milieu of heavy themes – grief, sexuality, racism, mental health – and it does so with utmost care. Every element, every dialogue, every look is purposeful and fits perfectly. Vishaal Reddy and his team embraced the multilayered nature of this story and this character and did justice to it, instead of simplifying it. The effort has paid off with a series that tells a sharp, funny, surprisingly hard-hitting and unapologetically authentic story.
Watch the entire show here: https://www.insomniatheshow.com/