“I never really wanted to be at home, which is why I gravitated to the basketball court.”
What do the 90s, hip-hop, and basketball have to do with one another? For a good number of youth who grew up in Toronto, especially those from immigrant backgrounds during that decade, the answer is everything. Anish Bhalla has embarked on a playful, yet therapeutic journey of documenting his upbringing in the animated series Bhalla Show (@bhallashow). It’s playful, because of nostalgic humour, and therapeutic because of the role that basketball played in Anish’s life. Lucky for us, Anish’s honesty and willingness to share his story is resulting in a relatable depiction of the immigrant family, even though Anish’s intention is “just to tell the story of his family.” The idea of documenting through animation is such a great way to illustrate an otherwise uncaptured past, bringing Season 4 of Root & Seed to a close.
About our guest: Anish is a husband, father, writer, producer, basketball player, and tech aficionado. He has been creating basketball content since 2010 and has worked with Canada Basketball, On Point Basketball, and the Toronto Raptors organization. His current project, The Bhalla Show, won the Just for Laughs Stand Up and Pitch contest in Montreal earlier this year. Follow its journey to production and air at @bhallashow.
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Welcome back to Root & Seed. A podcast about tradition seekers, who are sparked to explore, define and celebrate their family and cultural identity. I’m your host, Anika Chabra.
Today we bring you the finale of season 4, a season that has been all about documenting. The close of the season, maybe, but not the close of the topic. We think the range of stories on documenting are not only helpful, but also inspiring… and a bit nostalgic. Sounds like a perfect Root & Seed trifecta.
They say that art imitates life. Yes, there’s always the enthusiastic Auntie who likes to tell (& retell) her favourite tall tales, and the grandpa with a flair for exaggeration & embellishment… but some of us have a life that’s actually crazy enough to fill a sitcom! Extreme TV concepts, storylines and characters may get the ratings but a good show is one that connects with people, often while also imparting a lesson in each episode.
That’s why we are so excited for you to meet Anish Bhalla. Anish’s story is the type we want to see more of and a story that we hope opens the doors to a million others.
While Anish’s life was unfolding, I’m sure he never thought would make a storyline worthy to hit the screen one day, but a serendipitous friendship with a producer, and way too many daddy-chaperoned playdates at the park, was how the animated tv series, Bhalla Show, got its start. Now in pilot stage and looking for the right champions to help bring it to air. The show is based on Anish’s upbringing and early years. Anish has literally recounted some of the more hilarious moments from his own family and concepted a funny, honest, relatable story of the immigrant family. And don’t just take our word for it - the show was awarded the top prize at Stand up & Pitch put on by Just For Laughs earlier this year, a day that started pitching and ended with Anish rubbing shoulders with the cast of SNL.
A devoted son who was raised in the pop-cultural epicenter of the 90’s which in some ways not surprisingly included a mad love of basketball and hip hop. Except as a brown teenager raised in a traditional family there was little else than studies and the dedication to those studies that would lead him to pursue a career that definitely did not involve sports.
Now a husband, father, and technology executive, he has made time, real-time for his passion in writing and producing. This space to express his creative side came out at first with leaning back into his first love and interests. It’s probably best if we let him explain his journey and start in content production.
I started in 2010. I was transitioning away from teaching high school and looking for my next endeavor. And while I was doing that, I came across the brand new director of marketing at Canada Basketball. Her name was Maria Le Clark. And if you remember in 2010, there was no Instagram, there was just Facebook and viral videos on YouTube. And so we rebranded the Canada Basketball website with some videos that I was creating. I basically got a shot to do two videos for them and I did it for free. And I told them “I'm gonna do such a good job. You're going to pay me for these after.” So for the next year, myself and my videographer, his name was Jay Irving, we shot all over Canada. We did a video about the national team out in Vancouver. They were playing Team China at the time. We had an unbelievable Junior Men's National team with a number of current NBA players. So we got a lot of exposure. We got paid to do this and got a chance to just learn and have a lot of fun.
That's how I got started. Then I started my own web series on Instagram called The Pivot. And the Pivot basically shows….one minute about a portion of someone's life, not necessarily highlights, but really a transition in their life. They have people who are injured, who are now trainers, people who thought they would never play again because they got into car accidents and how they recovered. Those are a lot of the things that I've been doing on the content side.
Now even with some experience with content, it doesn’t mean that Anish would know how to write his own story and make it a story that others would want to watch. Doing something like that is highly personal and in some ways even more difficult than being a producer of content for other people. And like any new creative pursuit, it came with insecurity….he wondered things like “is anyone actually going to think it’s funny?” Perhaps that’s something that all creative people go through - it's part of the creative process. And we wondered, what is the vision behind Bhalla Show?
Now, in my heart of hearts, what I want for it…..I want it to be a show about my family, not an Indian family. If my mom was alive, she would've been in this country for 45 odd years, the majority of her life, and she has never seen someone who actually looks like her on TV... They have these “holier than thou”/ “Convenience Store” portrayals of the Indian person in Western Hollywood.
But to have someone who's an actual family who has their quirks, secrets….laughs to show that is something that I'm really striving to do. It's set in the mid-90s. It's 1998 and Vince Carter just got drafted. He helped bring a whole set of cultures into basketball.
My mom didn't know basketball. She knew who Vince Carter and Michael Jordan were, right? Those were the names she knew. And it was also this amalgamation of basketball and hip-hop culture because at the same time, You had ethnic kids, especially in Toronto, gravitating towards everything that's urban…. Jay-Z DMX, Lauren Hill, all of these people came out in 1998.
In my head, I want to make it so authentic to that time….I want to have original music. I want Vince Carter to play the voice of the coach. I want original sounds to bring you back to that era. Similar to what Michael Jordan did in the last dance on Netflix, when they were talking about those eras. It really took you back there. And it's something where my daughter who might be 10 or 11 when this comes out can also watch with me. She'll appreciate it for the high school humour and I'll appreciate it for everything that's the 90s that we're kind of bringing back. Nostalgia kind of takes you back there.
It’s the care and intention that Anish has put into his vision - from the details of the voice of the coach all the way to the resulting reactions he hopes to inspire amongst even younger generations that speaks volumes….it’s about documenting, yes, it's about preserving and encapsulating a moment in time too and we’re sold. I have full intention to PVR that, or add it to my Netflix List… heck, I’m going to channel my inner 90’s kid and schedule my VHS to record it. Haha, but seriously. We want more… so we asked about the pilot!
The pilot episode is during high school. There's not a lot of places to play basketball. You can play in your high school or you can go to the YMCA and pay $11 for two hours. And within the Punjabi/Indian/Hindu communities there were not any sports tournaments. But I had a friend Tanvir who came up to me one day and he said “Hey man, you want to play in a tournament this weekend? I'm like, “what tournament?” He's said “A Muslim basketball tournament.” I said “The Muslims play basketball?? What? Nobody told me this.”
So I went there. It was at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, and I dominated this tournament. After the semifinals, the organizers, one of the Imams at one of the Mosque, literally came up to me and started grilling me.
He said “Who are you? What are your parents' last names? What Mosque do you go to?” I had no answers. Thank God. It was time for afternoon prayers. I thought it was saved and walked away. And the Imam grabbed my hand and he pulled me into prayers and he was like, “Come do prayers with us. So I grabbed Tanvir and I was like buddy, you're sitting with me.”And I was three seconds late for every move, but I sat there. And I did the prayer. I hope it doesn't come across as an insult. It’s literally the biggest way to embrace a culture, I think is to be involved in that. And I wasn't trying to, uh, make fun of anything, to be honest.
I was a kid who just wanted to play one more game of basketball and we ended up winning the championship. I actually have a trophy at my house under the name of Hussain Ahmed, because that's the name I gave them for this tournament! And so that's what the pilot episode is about, is about this young kid trying to just play another game of basketball lying that he's Muslim.
If that doesn’t give you a sense of what to expect from this show and running to tell all your producer friends about it, we really don’t know what will! Relentless is another word to describe Anish - the opportunity to play ball is something he was never willing to let go; and luckily, he never truly gave up his creative spirit as well. So we asked him what he hopes his experience can inspire in others
I think there's two things. I think number one… you're never too old to be creative. Especially in our community, in our Indian community, creatives are not recognized or put on a pedestal at all. It's the finance, the math engineers, the STEM-type things. So just to understand that at any age, you could be creative. I'm turning 41, I know I've been doing creative things for the last 10 years, but I started late.
I didn't start until I was almost 30 with creative endeavors. And I think the other part is if you have a good idea, there's a process to execute on that good idea, whatever it might be. And you know, you started something and it could end at something very big and grandiose, but there is a process to get from point A to point B. I personally feel like I learned that way too late in life. And I've learned it by trying again, with Canada Basketball….I had this idea and I was able to kind of execute on it. And I wish that was something that someone taught me at a young age that is something that's doable. I just wonder what I would've accomplished by now knowing that at 21 or 15, or my daughter, she's 8. I'm trying to teach her that at 8…to see what she can come up with. So I think those are probably the two.
It was indeed another time and place, another society that we grew up in. And our parents were just trying to do their best to give us a good future. Best of intentions, and if we reflect on it, we can learn from it, and that’s the “seed” in Root & Seed. The ability to nurture the future and with the opening up of perceptions around creativity and creative works we hope we see a lot more freedom in the future. To dig into that topic of stereotypes, with a platform like a TV show, we wanted to know if Anish had anything he wanted to dispel with this project.
I think I want to dispel the immigrant journey. I don't know if dispel is the right word, but shine light perhaps on the immigrant journey. I think it is such a universal and relatable journey. This show is not only about me, it is about my parents, and why they came to this country and what they had to go through in this country. In my head, there's also a flashback episode that shows them living in their countries and what they were doing and what it was like coming here: Culture shock and racism and weather shock, and all the things that they dealt with coming here. So I definitely want to shine light on that.
I want to dispel the fact other cultures can't be funny or interesting. I find on TV, there's not enough instances of that. We're starting to see it with Fresh Off the Boat and Never Have I Ever. But it's weird that I can name them all. There's so many comedy shows, but I can give you a handful that have cultural references in them. In my head, this is a Toronto show, and Toronto was different from the rest of the world, especially in the late nineties. It was an inclusive society where anyone or anything could be a part of any type of group. You know, I was an Indian guy trying to play basketball. Would that have worked in Kentucky? I don't know. Would that have worked in Hawaii? Who knows? Right? So I think Toronto was such a specific place in the 90s… that's something else that I really want to shine.
There is something to be said about capturing the quintessential experience of a special time and era - and for Anish that was Toronto in the 90s. As Anish mentioned his mom passed several years ago and with her passing never would get the chance to see this on screen but the love that Anish has for his mom is strong and continues and so we wanted to know what mom would have thought….
What would Usha think about the show? Usha would've yelled at some of the production companies I've already talked to for dicking me around for a few months! But she would be really proud. It would knock her off her feet. I think she would've never believed in a million years that something like this would even get on TV. The fact that there's a character about her, I think she would love it - but she would never be happy with it. She would probably want to edit everything. She would just be really proud. She's not here to see our family or my brother's family, but I know she's up there continuously blessing us, with happiness and good fortune.
I’m feeling all the feels just thinking about how Usha Aunty has to be so proud of Anish right now. Storytelling IS so full of nostalgia and introspection - going back and documenting things from your life, looking back allows yourself to remember both the good AND the bad. So in a sense it’s also therapeutic. In many ways you almost have to go through that process to then sift and sort what you consciously want to take forward and what you accept as something that happened but would rather keep in the past. And in doing so, resolution can occur by healing the inner child that needed tending to at that time.
And even if you are not ready to unearth all the parts of your past, other people’s stories can help you heal too. So Anish’s answer to our conversation card question was one we thought many of our audience can relate to. Truthfully, his answer wasn’t one that I expected -it was far more somber than we typically get. Sigh. We asked him “As a child, what was something you wanted but could not have,”
My father struggled with alcoholism ever since I was young. And I think the one thing that I wanted that I never had in that house was peace. I always tried to be the peacemaker at home, and I'm learning now about the byproducts of that and how I'm raising my own family and things that I'm doing differently….So far opposite to a fault potentially. I'm in therapy and talking to people about that. But I would say like in my house, there was never peace for more than two to three weeks at a time.
There was always conflict, always issues, people upset. Addiction was very hard at times. And it's something I've always wanted to change when I had my own family to make sure there's peace, happiness, and to make sure home is a place people want to be.
I never really wanted to be at home, which is why I gravitated to the basketball court. I was good at it. It was a place I had confidence. It was a social place, but more than anything, it was a place where I didn't need to think. I just react on the basketball court. It was so nice to turn your brain off for a bit.
So I would say that was the biggest thing that I wanted as a kid was peace. Now if you ask anybody that I played basketball with and they would say I was NOT the peacekeeper on the court. I was the guy choking the referee at half the time!
Leave it to Anish to strike the right balance of an emotive, right from the heart answer and ending it in a way to lighten the mood. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Anish and I go way back. He’s a cousin, with quotation marks, yes the type of cousin that your parents tell you are cousins but you aren’t blood-related.
We were having so much fun, I decided to ask Anish another conversation card question (which you can always access from our website rootandseed.com). A question that I had a feeling Anish could answer but the depth of his empathy surprised even me. I asked him “What do you remember about your grandparents”?
You want to hear something really interesting. My father never spoke about his family ever, never spoke about his family. The only thing he talked about was that his brother was a doctor and a world famous cardiologist. He talked about him with a lot of pride, but he never really spoke about his parents other than he respected them. And I think that’s a truism around every kid to their parents, especially coming from India.
So I didn't hear any stories about them. My dad's whole family struggles with addiction and mental health, and I can guarantee that there was a lot of stuff going on. India was a crazy place in the sixties. They weren't even birth certificates for half the population in the sixties, you know what I mean? It was just such a crazy wild place. And there were things that we never would know about that probably took place there in schools and, and other religious institutions. I’m sure people are dealing with it to this day.
On my mother's side, my Grandma was still alive until a week after my mother died. It is crazy that she outlived my mom by a week. So I knew a lot about her and I knew my Grandfather, went to Kenya to manage sugar cane fields and then eventually worked for the city. He would wrestle. He was a wrestler. He was a big guy, but it was actually your Dad, two summers ago when I visited you guys at the cottage who told me a lot of stories about my Grandfather that I'd never heard before. And it was me, you, and him sitting there. And I remember leaving there, like that's crazy. First of all your Dad has one of the best memories I've ever seen in my life.
It was unbelievable the things he remembered. Just having him, like a historian, to tell me those things. It was wild. They were stories I'd never heard before.
Super cool to hear Anish recount this and be really reflective and respectful once again about what he does know and awesome that my dad was able to help act as the ‘historian’ in that moment. It struck us that while my dad doesn’t know about your family, there is usually someone in every family or community who does have all the stories. Find them, ask them… odds are, they would love to reminisce with you!
Well that’s it folks… Season 4 feels complete. A huge thank you to all of our guests this season. You have inspired not only with your words, but with your actions by documenting. We will be back in the new year, 2023 with a new set of incredible guests. Bye for now.
Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, Executive Produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel and edited by Camille Blais
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Edited by: Camille Blais
Music credit: Something 'bout July (Instrumental) by RYYZN
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