Rekha Shankar’s ‘Hustle’ turns freelancing into a video game that’s impossible to beat

Rekha Shankar's 'Hustle' turns freelancing into a video game that's impossible to beat

Shankar’s some talk but all ‘action!’

By the time I arrived to meet Rekha Shankar for a scheduled afternoon coffee, the comedian-turned-filmmaker was already sitting down, hard at work on another project. She waved at me as I came in and then turned back to her iPad, which I noticed as I approached had a baby cow as its desktop background.

“I love everything about this cow,” she said.

In fact I knew this already, since the cow photo is practically a signature for the 26-year old Brooklyn comedian, whose Twitter page and personal website feature the very same picture, tiled over and over onto the screen. A calf isn’t the first spirit animal that comes to mind for Shankar, though. She’s more the beaver type, all due diligence and self-actualization. And as we chatted about her comedy, her morning routine and her latest project — a web series called “Hustle” that portrays freelance life as if it were a video game — it sounded like she was about to birth a new baby cow.

Rekha Shankar lives at the intersection of two worlds: she’s a freelancer, and she’s a woman of color. Of course there’s more to her than that, but these are the factors that govern both Shankar’s day-to-day hustle and her attitude about the same. We talked about how freelancing in New York was a seesaw of high-stakes expectations to low-stakes reliability.

“That’s the thing about being a freelancer: there’s this permitted bail, this understood flakiness,” she said. “Like ‘the confirmation text,’ that’s such a New York thing. I never had to do that before I moved to New York.”

Shankar is referring to the New York practice of sending a day-of text message to confirm a meeting that was already set up in the days or weeks prior.

As a former permalancer (yeah, that’s a thing) for NBC and a current assistant editor on a number of projects, Shankar has become well-versed in the volatility quotient specific to the city. Add gender and skin color to the mix, and you’ve got a woman with good reason to complain.

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The heroines of 'Hustle' share a hug.

The heroines of ‘Hustle’ share a hug.

“[Freelancing] is exacerbated by things you have to do in addition as a person of color. Like [the other day] I was on my way somewhere and I was catcalled, and it was like ‘Oh. I gotta deal with you now? I thought I was just being a freelancer, but now I’m a meat bag.”

Shankar’s intersectional grief led her out of the house last summer to meet a friend — Sam Knowles, a fellow WOC freelancer in film —  for a glass of cheap wine. And there, their mutual gripes were codified into a viable series idea.

“We were talking about how little ‘up the ladder’ we feel we move, and how we’re reliable people but we’ll permit those things. Like, we deal.”

A prospective career manager had asked Shankar to write a pilot, and when she got home that evening, she wrote the spec script for “Hustle.” The manager didn’t end up signing her, but Shankar got enough positive feedback to seed her desire to have it produced elsewhere. The script was rejected from almost every festival she applied to with it— for the very reasons that had led her to write it in the first place.

“What happens is it’s not just your idea that’s not viable, you’re not viable,” she said. “But what is my script about if not hustling?”

Shankar decided to self-produce the series. Since a pilot episode alone would have cost her $90,000 to produce for television, she quickly downgraded her plan to a web series instead.

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The first episode of “Hustle” was filmed at the end of September, and you can watch the a scene from it above. The project is currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter, and is currently 81% funded, with 16 days to go.

Unlike the slacker comedy that pervades the web series genre, Shankar’s series lives at the opposite end of the spectrum, where the heroines are hyper-productive young professionals whose ambition is constantly challenged by their circumstances. Shankar co-stars with Rachel Pegram, a fellow UCB comedian

The series’ tone and style was inspired in part by the incisive visual comedy of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

“I love that movie so much,” Shankar said. “I watched it and I was like, ‘Oh. You did it right. There is every reason in the world that this is a movie. The sound, the cinematography, the editing, the lighting. Every person was a comedian on that crew.’”

In the series, two women of color, Nina (Shankar) and Paige (Pegram), freelance (battle) their way through a world of racism, unequal opportunity and patriarchal power structures, as well as “demanding bosses who can’t fucking Google stuff,” with video game effects to enhance the comic tropes. 

You can imagine how some of these scenarios play out: a catcaller whose jeers are overlaid with a “Do you wish to engage? Y/N” option, a Mortal Kombat-style fight to the death with a white man for the only computer station left in a café, and so on.  

For their tries, the heroines are rewarded with tongue-in-cheek game tokens like “privilege points” and spinning racial profiling medallions over their heads.

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You've got a decision to make.

You’ve got a decision to make.

“‘Hustle’ is not two 20-so-and-so’s doing something-something. It’s not ‘We are slackers, we don’t have our shit together,’ ” she said. “It’s that we do, and it doesn’t matter if you have your shit together because the cards are stacked against you.’”

Shankar’s resumé is certainly stacked in her favor, even if the industry cards aren’t. The comedian’s credits include MTV’s Decoded, Clickhole and Reductress, among others. 

Earlier this year, Shankar did something else to alleviate stressors: she purged her possessions, after reading Marie Kondo’s The Magical Art of Tidying Up. 

You’ve no doubt heard of this popular book-borne trend, wherein someone self-actualizes by touching every item of clothing or sentimental value they own and seeing if it “sparks joy,” and disposing of it if it doesn’t. Shankar certainly wasn’t the first comedian to #KonMari her life, but she’s an advocate for the after effects that it’s had on her life and her career.

“When I make a video, that’s a mini #KonMari. When I made my website, that was a mini #KonMari. I built a dresser, I painted the dresser,” she said. “That’s now an intentioned piece of furniture.”

For Shankar, it’s all about intention — especially when it comes to presenting yourself in the industry, regardless of how they’re planning to pigeonhole you.

“I never understood the phrase ‘Fake it ’til you make it.’ That always sounded alienating and scary,” she said. “I believe in owning the credits I have and not being ashamed of it. Like, present yourself with intention instead of passivity.”

“Hustle” has just 16 days left in its campaign, and anything you can donate helps. Despite her optimism about the project, Shankar still gets sucked into the wormholes of angry video commenters from her earlier work, who remind her that she still has a long way to go.

“In one Funny Or Die comments section for a video I was in, it said ‘This would be really funny except for the smelly Indian girl and her hairy armpits,’ Shankar recalled. “Another one was like ‘Curry muncher!’ Spoiler alert: everyone loves curry.” 

Wanna more on the New York hustle? Follow Sam on Twitter: @ahoysamantha