The Sunny Side of Ngongotahā’s stars are becoming world famous in New Zealand – and beyond – and it’s doing big things for the small North Island township too.
Rajneel Naickar was in Auckland recently when he was approached by a stranger on Queen Street. “I was like, ‘Oh, shit, what did I do?’” says Naickar, who works in HR but makes short-form comedy videos for YouTube in his spare time. That, it turned out, was what he’d been recognised from. “He’s like, ‘I saw your webseries. I loved your character. I loved the story. You guys did an awesome job.’”
Reneel Singh is getting used to being recognised too. People come into his parents’ Ngongotahā store where the lawyer helps out sometimes and just stop and stare. “Just yesterday, I had a customer come in and he started looking at me real weird,” he says. When he left, Singh peeked out the window. “I saw him in his car, excitedly talking and pointing at me.”
On a recent trip to Australia, the same thing happened to him at Sydney Airport. “A guy came up to me and he’s like, ‘Oi, Ren, where’s Raj?’” he says. “I think there’s this expectation that wherever I am now, Raj has to be there.” Are they celebrities? Not quite. “D-list celebrities maybe,” Singh laughs.
The pair have been creating YouTube skits together for years as the popular comedy duo Ren & Raj. But it’s their new webseries that’s attracting all this extra attention. Called The Sunny Side of Ngongotahā, the six-part YouTube series tells the story of Rav (Naickar) and his cousin Ron (Singh) as they navigate life in a small town.
Their mission? To find Rav a girlfriend to avoid a relationship arranged by his parents.
The story and its setting draws largely from their own experiences. Singh moved to Ngongotahā, a small township 10-minutes north of Rotorua, when he was five years old. With a population of around 5000, he found it an isolating experience. “We had Māori people and we had Pakeha people and that was it,” he says. “We were completely isolated from all other ethnic people.”
He didn’t see anyone who looked like him on the streets around him, and he didn’t see himself represented on screens either. The Sunny Side of Ngongotahā is their attempt to correct that, says showrunner Kishan Raman. “We had this concept of wanting to do a Fijian-Indian Sione’s Wedding,” he says, referencing the hit 2006 comedy about a group of Samoan friends trying to find girlfriends to take to a wedding.
Raman worked with Ren and Raj on their YouTube series and in the 48Hours film competition, and they wanted to be the first to represent Fijian-Indians on screen. He believed in the project so much he took three months off to write scripts and work as the showrunner. “Being Fiji-Indians, there’s no representation at all out there,” he says. “Ren and Raj are pretty much the only ones that we know who do it with the YouTube channel.”
Much of the series examines what it’s like living with a confused sense of identity. Awkward moments involving casual racism – “What’s for lunch? Curry?” asks one white character – make it into the show, as do moments exploring that fish-out-of-water feeling. “A lot of the gags are driven by stuff we’ve gone through,” admits Raman.
But there’s a serious side too. “This Indian stuff, it’s nonsense, bro. We’re Kiwi,” contemplates Naickar’s character Rav at one point. “Are we though?” replies Singh’s Ron.
Filmed over three months at the end of 2021 in spots around Hamilton and Ngongotahā, Naickar, Singh and Raman called on family and friends to play roles on and off-camera, often shooting on evenings and weekends. They initially thought they’d operate on the fly like the 48Hours competitions they’d taken part in. They soon realised they wanted to make something a little more polished. Better sets were organised, scripts were tightened and Jake Tait was bought in as sound director, creating an original score.
Many favours were called in. A waiter used in just one scene was the only actor to receive compensation. “He was a bit iffy, like, ‘Am I getting paid for this?’ Ahh, not really,” Singh recalls. Rav’s mum is played by Raman’s mother. She wasn’t the easiest to work with. “She’s not an experienced actor. We had to be very patient with her and shoot line by line,” he says. But she soon picked up what they were doing. “She really enjoyed the fact that we were having a go at it, and we’re representing [our] culture.”
Details were changed to make references to real life scenarios less obvious. “We have a few family members where things have gone wrong at their weddings that seemed like a TV show [setup],” says Singh. “We didn’t want to make it too specific in case people thought, ‘Actually, he’s talking about me’ and were upset by it.”
The results, including recognition in international airport lounges, seem to have surprised them. Thousands of people of watched the series across YouTube and Facebook, where they write things like, “Couldn’t take my eyes off the screen,” and, “Please make more.” Recently, tourism representatives Rotorua got in touch asking if they’d like to host a premiere there. “We’re still trying to get that arranged,” says Raman.
While they all have day jobs, it’s spurred them on to chase their dreams, and they’re hoping to end up with full-time careers in the film and TV industry. Meetings with networks have been had, funding applications are being sought, a spinoff show is in the works. That’s why Naickar was in Auckland being recognised everywhere he went: he was finishing his training as an actor. “It’s a very complex industry to crack into it,” says Raman. “We have made some good connections and those doors have opened.”
They’re treating The Sunny Side of Ngongotahā as a calling card, showing off what they can do with just an idea and the help of some friends. It says, “Look at what we did with no money,” says Raman. “It just shows you that when the community comes together, volunteers come together, we can pull off something pretty awesome.”