The screening room of Williamsburg’s Videology hummed with anticipation. I sat in the back, next to the girl I was falling in love with, teetering on the edge of my seat, a little tipsy from the signature drink — dubbed The Scissor, naturally — we had crafted for this special occasion. We’d rented out the space for the evening so we could premiere Sidetrack, our ten-episode web series about a group of queer people living and loving in New York.
Sidetrack tells the stories of Allie and Jo, a couple that appears perfect on their YouTube channel but struggles off-screen; of Sato, a bubbly, bisexual dancer who serial dates and knows everything about every show that has ever aired on the CW; of Asa, a Muslim and queer DJ who is more than the impossibly cool girl her fans see her as; of Radhika, a standup comedian who uses her comedy to come out to herself and the world; of Sloane, a competitive but sincere soccer player who falls for the wrong girl; of Camille, that wrong girl who can’t seem to be honest with anyone but her best friend; of Adrienne, a wandering food lover whose family has turned on her. But Sidetrack is also about me, Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, that teetering girl on the stool in the back of the bar. That girl who struggled so long to grasp that loving women could be good, fulfilling, easy. That girl who wrote a web series about her life and herself, told through the eyes of eight other characters.
At that premiere party, I finally fully registered that other people were going to see this show I had created. Other people were going to see the parts of myself I had woven into these characters. It was no longer a project just for me and Kirsten and Celina, my two co-creators, who were sitting up at the front, probably spiraling through the same exact realization. In the seconds before the first episode started, I held my breath. This packed room of our friends and family were about to watch a bunch of women fall in and out of love with other women, a narrative I spent most of my life seeking but rarely finding in the movies and shows I watched.
Growing up, I loved romantic comedies and action movies equally. I would leave Blockbuster clutching When Harry Met Sally and GoldenEye. I loved the bouncy banter and heightened emotions of rom-coms, and the explosive glitz and glam of action. Though they usually aren’t lumped together, rom-coms and action movies have at least one thing in common: They both tend to be aggressively heteronormative, and often even homophobic.
Queer women are almost entirely invisible in big-budget, mainstream action releases—or otherwise exist only to be sexually objectified or joked about. Mystique’s bisexuality was written out of the X-Men movies. Sure, I loved Lara Croft like the predictable little closeted baby lesbian I was, but the Tomb Raider movies still force a male love interest on Lara (but hey, at least she ultimately gets to shoot him!). The closest I ever got to seeing a lesbian action-adventure movie in theaters was with 2003’s Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, and the queerness of that film remained entirely subtextual.
As for romantic comedies, the lesbian landscape looks pretty similar. Gay men could exist in the world of rom-coms, but usually only in the narrow role of the Gay Best Friend (Matthew Rhys in Love And Other Disasters, Paul Rudd in The Object Of My Affection, Justin Walker in Clueless, Rupert Everett in My Best Friend’s Wedding, etc.). But queer women were nowhere to be found. Just like with action movies, I couldn’t see myself in these movies, and I felt that distance even before I realized what it was or what it meant. I hadn’t fully figured out I was gay yet, but I still watched romantic comedies about women falling in love with men and men falling in love with women with a sense of disconnect. Now that I know myself more, it’s no surprise to me that I used to latch onto the female friendships in rom-coms. I found the love stories beneath the surface, and sometimes, they were admittedly a stretch (though I’m convinced to this day that Natasha Richardson’s character in Maid In Manhattan is in love with J.Lo, and Judy Greer’s Tom-Tom definitely loves Jennifer Garner’s Jenna Rink in 13 Going On 30).
Nothing was a bigger letdown than Bend It Like Beckham. Complaining about Bend It Like Beckham has become so common among the queer women I know that I wrote jokes about it into Sidetrack. But I remember watching the movie for the first time and knowing then—even though I hadn’t yet parsed out my own feelings toward women—that Jules and Jess were in love with each other. I saw it in their body language, heard it in the way they spoke when it was just them. I saw parts of myself in Jess, even though some of those parts were still blurry. Bend It Like Beckham isn’t a rom-com, but the version of it that I imagined, the version where Jules and Jess end up together, was the rom-com of my dreams.
Last spring, Kirsten Ariel Bledsoe contacted me on Facebook out of the blue. We hadn’t spoken in years—not for any particular reason. We drifted apart in the way casual friends sometimes do. Kirsten and I met on the internet when we were teenagers. Our mutual love for Glee (it was 2010, which was still an acceptable time to love Glee!) led us to each others’ Tumblrs, and we developed an easy friendship built on the foundation of Naya Rivera and Dianna Agron. My freshman year of college, I texted Kirsten while drunk one night: “I think I’m in love with my friend? My friend is a girl.” She was one of the first people to whom I explicitly expressed my queerness. We joke that she was my gay guide during those early days of self discovery. But still, we eventually drifted apart. She never really knew about the two girlfriends I was constantly on and off with for most of college. But she knew from my never-wavering social media presence that I wanted to write for television, so in April 2015, she she sent that Facebook message:
“Hey Kayla! So this is sort of out of the blue, but I’ve been thinking lately of starting a web series about gay ladies in New York. I was wondering if you would want to help out or contribute to it in any way.”
Hell yeah, I would.
(Our messages before that were from four years prior and were about Lost Girl, which seems like a detail too good to leave out.)
Kirsten introduced me to her then-girlfriend, Celina Vicioso, and the three of us started brainstorming what quickly became Sidetrack. We were the perfect team: Kirsten, a director with a clear vision for how she wanted our show to look; Celina, an untrained yet powerful actress and woke producer; and me, a writer with years of quotes collected from ex-lovers and friends and crushes begging to be crafted into a story. We still jokingly call Sidetrack our baby, even though the gestation period only lasted about seven months. I wrote all ten episodes in two blurry weeks. We spent the summer of 2015 shooting everything, with Kirsten filling the roles of director, editor, and executive producer and Celina producing and starring as one of our eight main characters. In November, we premiered at Videology and released our baby on YouTube that same week.
Shortly after I finished writing Sidetrack, I sat at a bar with a new friend who wanted to know more about the project. “What’s the show about?” she asked. It was the first question that always came after I told people I was working on a web series, and I already had my go-to, generic but accurate, answer: “A bunch of lesbians in New York.”
She had another question, though. “What’s the genre?”
She was the first, though not the last, to ask about Sidetrack’s genre, and I hesitated for a second, taking a sip of my whiskey ginger. She laughed. “You don’t know the genre of the show you wrote?”
“Romantic comedy,” I finally answered. During our conversations about Sidetrack, Kirsten, Celina, and I had never used the phrase romantic comedy, but the second I said it, it felt right. We were making a romantic comedy told in ten chapters.
Above all else, we wanted to make a show that reflected ourselves and our lives. For Celina and I, that meant making a show centered, primarily, on lesbians of color. I’ve been working as a full-time television critic for the past two years, and before that I spent three years writing about television at my school paper in Michigan. I’ve been obsessively watching television for 23 years (okay, so maybe I wasn’t really channel surfing when I was an infant, but my mom regularly watched The X-Files when trying to get me to nap as a baby, so I count it as one of the first shows I ever watched). I’ve seen television and film change through the years to incorporate more queer narratives.
I spend so much time thinking and writing about television, and yet when I pause to think about the times I’ve seen someone like me, a queer Indian woman, I come up with barely anything. There was Kalinda Sharma (played by Archie Panjabi) on The Good Wife, but the show was definitely more interested in developing her relationships with white men than exploring her sexual fluidity. Rebecca Logan (played by Dilshad Vadsaria) had a very short arc on Greek where she was sexually involved with a girl, but it was played mostly for laughs and quickly forgotten.
Sidetrack is a show largely about my life and my experiences, because after years of watching so much television that erased me, I just wanted to write myself in. The Sidetrack character Radhika is an unmistakable stand-in for myself. Her episode is a near-exact retelling of the time I came out on stage as part of my stand-up set. Writing myself was a murky process. I felt both narcissistic and vulnerable when developing Radhika, wanting to make her a character people would like (because hello, I want to be liked) but also wanting to make her flawed and imperfect (because hello, I am both of those things too).
When it came to casting, we got lucky with Stefa Marín. She was one of the first actors we saw for Radhika, and she won us over instantly with her humor and charm. During the initial table read, every one of Stefa’s lines filled me with a weird sense of excitement. They weren’t just words I wrote—many of them were words I had said in my real life. And I trusted Stefa to be the one to capture Rad, to capture me. Before she filmed Radhika’s episode, we met one-on-one to discuss the character, and I told her Rad had to be strong and afraid in her episode. I was speaking in the third person, but of course I was talking about myself. Stefa understood, and when I watched the final edited version of the episode, I was almost scared by how similar it was to my actual memories. It was a feeling I had never felt before: seeing myself, quite literally, on screen. Stefa and Rad might not look exactly like I do, but the feelings captured in the episode, the point of view, the things bouncing around in the character’s head—it’s all me.
When I sat down to write Sidetrack, I wasn’t consciously thinking about romantic comedies. I was only thinking about telling my own stories. Still, the rom-com tropes came spilling out of me like they had been sitting there brewing. Sidetrack was my way of placing myself in the romcom world.
The two-part finale of Sidetrack contains all of the most overt rom-com tropes, and even the characters are aware of it. Radhika and Sato split a joint as they sigh about how they’ll never have a meet-cute. But then Sato finally does get her meet-cute moment with a girl named Mariah. The episode ends with a declaration of love and a breakup. The only one of my favorite rom-com tropes missing from the finale is the classic “getting ready” montage (but don’t worry, we covered that in the opening of another episode).
I couldn’t be on set for the entirety of Sidetrack’s production, but I was there for the six days when we shot the finale. Sato’s meet-cute, and especially the kiss it leads to, was very important to both Kirsten and I. I literally wrote the words “huge rom-com kiss” in the script. Sato has parts of me in her, too. In particular, she loves ABC Family shows and, well, romantic comedies. At one point in the pilot, she laments that her life is more like a romantic tragedy than a rom-com.
Andrea Lee Christensen, who plays Sato, and Yessenia Rivas, who plays Mariah, were getting excited to shoot their kiss. Originally, Mariah was supposed to be played by someone entirely new, but when we met Yessenia while shooting an earlier episode, we knew we wanted to bring her back for something special. Andrea and Yessenia had chemistry even when the cameras weren’t rolling.
But before we started, they wanted to know exactly what “huge rom-com kiss” meant. So we decided to watch a couple to get them in the spirit of heightened, steamy rom-com fun. I took my laptop out, and Kirsten immediately knew what we could show them: Imagine Me & You, a queer girl movie that doesn’t suck. It’s a rom-com about a woman falling in love with a woman—the first I ever saw, in fact. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect way to start shooting Sidetrack’s most climactic kiss. After watching Piper Perabo and Lena Headey lock lips a few times (okay, we may have rewound and rewatched more than just a few times), Andrea and Yessenia were ready. Right after the first take, after they both fell over on the couch, Andrea exclaimed “I think we met-cute!” It wasn’t a line from the script, but the excitement in her tone captured how both Kirsten and I were feeling. We did it! We made the lesbian rom-com we had always dreamed of.
The disconnect I felt when I was growing up watching straight rom-coms made me think I wasn’t capable of the kind of love shown in movies. It wasn’t until I was older, until I started having serious relationships with women and figuring myself out that I realized I could have those rom-com moments. Most of my relationships, crushes, hookups, and heartbreaks of the past few years are all present in some way in Sidetrack. I turned my life into a romantic comedy that people can watch on YouTube. And just two days after shooting Sato and Mariah’s huge rom-com kiss, I had one of my very own, against a cab on Bedford Avenue with a girl I’d just met—the same girl who sat next to me at our premiere party, the same girl I’m dating now. I got to make a rom-com and live one at the same time. If my teenage self could see me now.