By Jennifer Rodrigo
“Be quiet!” “Blend in!” “Talk less!” Do the words sound familiar? I’m sure we’ve all had these thrown at us at some point in our lives, sometimes even in the most nonchalant way. “Shhh!”
Vision One (Pvt.) Ltd. General Manager Juanita Shanuki de Alwis (40), and writer, photographer, and filmmaker Shifani Reffai (29), are turning the word “Shhh” on its head with their new project – the “Shhh Talkshow” on YouTube, which premiered Friday, 14 June. The show is done by women for women and will discuss a range of taboo topics – everything from racism amongst women, rape, menstruation, mental health, and cyberbullying to porn, sex, relationships, motherhood, mothers-in-law, and even cosplay for women! The scope is wide; the content raw and rebellious; and the platform honest and meaningful – what’s not to love?
“There’s so much that society deems ‘taboo’ that we need to talk about, and we’re determined to do it,” shared de Alwis, explaining the thinking behind this first-of-its kind talk show in Sri Lanka.
“Nothing is off limits. We are hoping we get to rip it all open, and it’s exciting because we rarely do that here in Sri Lanka,” affirmed Reffai.
And they are right. Sri Lanka largely still remains a nation where uncomfortable topics are swept under the rug, sealed in a bottle, and shoved to the back of the kitchen cupboard (perhaps behind an expired bottle of turmeric powder or where cobwebs are beginning to form). “Shhh Talkshow” is hoping to shake off those cobwebs!
The first episode saw Mariam Wadood who is a Muslim, Suramya Hettiarachchi who is a Buddhist, and Shanuki de Alwis who is a Christian at one table discussing the rise in racist sentiment in our societies, how it affects our lives, and how we can agree to disagree without disrespecting each other. Both de Alwis and Reffai feel that it was the right time for that conversation.
“We didn’t choose this first episode, life in Sri Lanka right now made it inevitable to begin with this topic,” said Reffai.
“If you’re going through a hard time, people say: ‘Shhh, just be quiet about it’; if you are exploring your sexuality: ‘Shhh’; if you want to talk about negative topics like racism and war: ‘Shhh!’; so we’re responding to the ‘Shhh’ with a talk show,” explained Reffai, adding that this is probably a reflection of each of their own personalities, growing up.
Whilst lots of loud personalities were the backdrop of de Alwis’ childhood, Reffai grew up in a conservative middle-class Muslim household.
De Alwis shared that despite her parents – “mother every bit the quiet, empathetic, patient counsellor, and father the loud, dramatic entertainer” – struggling in her childhood, they made sure she never wanted for anything. But she was also quite lonely because she couldn’t quite fit in with other girls in her school. “I’d be the weird tomboy drama queen, living in my own bubble of imagination most of the time, with animals for best friends.”
Reffai grew up with a preacher, surgeon mother and a business consultant father. She was a quiet kid who read books all day and had wild dreams, had lots of friends, and “passed with mediocre marks in school”. In her teen years, she struggled with anger and negative feelings alone, which, she said, pushed her to change – “to kind of kick back and do things my way.”
As life took its course, Reffai armed herself with skills to be able to give herself and hopefully others a voice, through her writing, painting, photography, and video production. “I became obsessed with storytelling.”
How ‘Shhh’ began
“It was actually an idea sparked by my then boyfriend, because we used to enjoy watching episodes of Britain’s ‘Loose Women’, which is a hilarious and unapologetic women-focused talk show. One day, after laughing over an episode, he said: ‘You should do something like that, and the penny dropped,” reminisced de Alwis. For someone who has always been frustrated about the Sri Lankan tendency to sweep important issues under the carpet and shy away from finding solutions through open discourse, “Shhh” is like a dream come true for de Alwis.
As an advocate and supporter of women’s causes, she found that a lot of our problems stem from ignorance, “because we just don’t speak out enough, nor are we taught critical thinking and empathy skills”. Instead, she feels, we are taught to not question and to simply toe the line. “We are also conditioned to be ashamed or afraid of asking questions deemed ‘inappropriate’.”
Once the dream was within focus, de Alwis, with a full-time day job and a “million other commitments and absolutely no resources or skills to produce a show”, found an equally passionate soul in Reffai, and the union crystallised. “I called her up one day out of the blue and told her what I wanted to do. Her very first words were: ‘Cool, let’s do it!’ The rest is history.”
Reffai has always been interested in projects that have to do with women and getting female voices represented, “because we don’t have enough of that”. “A talk show by women for women is like a dream come true, but I never would have thought that I’d find someone to really help develop such a thing in Sri Lanka,” she commented, detailing her journey into the project. She thinks Sri Lanka needs “Shhh”; “we need shows where people can tune in to see that they are not alone in thinking, saying, and doing things that are considered taboo”.
As for the name, de Alwis was candid enough to admit that it came to her where all her best ideas happen – on the toilet seat! “‘Sh’ for Shanuki and Shifani, and ‘Shhh’ because that’s what is expected of women; the secrets and silence that we are accustomed to.”
Once the initial idea got off the ground, the volume of topics that could be discussed only grew.
“We’re planning to break the show into seasons with a good mix of serious and scandalous, also just so that we don’t burn out,” said de Alwis.
Reffai added: “We don’t shut up even when people ask us to. And women should know, Sri Lankans should know, you don’t have to shut up either, just speak frankly, speak bluntly – you’ll be surprised by how much good it does, how much better you feel, and how much fun you have exchanging the real stories.”
Watching the trailer to the show, I was reminded of Facebook Watch series “Red Table Talk” by American actress, singer, and businesswoman Jada Pinkett Smith, her daughter, Willow, and her mother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris, and I couldn’t help but ask if there was any inspiration drawn from there.
“We love Jada and what she does on her show and I grew up a fan of Oprah too,” said Reffai adding: “We need more shows like that, where we just lay it bare and speak to each other, whether you’re a woman or a man or anything in between – realisation, change, and healing starts with a conversation.”
Why YouTube and not any other form of media?
Apart from their biggest concern, which is the lack of money and resources to produce a TV show, the freedom to express whatever they want via YouTube without being policed is something that resonated with both of them.
“I’ve been a TV presenter and I hated having to second-guess every word that came out of my mouth for fear of getting pulled up,” shared de Alwis.
“YouTube is the new crowdsourced TV. The content there is raw and unfiltered,” affrimed Reffai, adding that the content available for Sri Lankan women on YouTube is a “huge zero”.
“It’s also easy accessibility – a way for women to watch discreetly at their convenience and in privacy if they wish to,” added de Alwis.
The platform itself is a challenging one to get into, especially since it’s relatively new here in Sri Lanka. I asked them if they had a plan towards ensuring reaching a considerable audience. De Alwis responded: “Right now, we’re simply passionate about bringing the subjects to light. It doesn’t matter if we have one viewer or a thousand, as long as we’re able to touch lives and make a difference in mindset.” According to her, the great thing about YouTube is that the shows will be around forever, so even though the audience is small at the start, if it grows, the new viewers can still watch every episode.
“You’ll see us all over your Facebook and Instagram feeds too and even on Whatsapp,” piped up Reffai, explaining they want people to stay tuned and realise “Shhh” is not just a YouTube series but a virtual space that could impact your real life.
As for monetising their series or joining a Multi-Channel-Network (MCN) to further their reach, both de Alwis and Reffai shared that their objective is not commercial or profit-based. “This is a voluntary gig that both of us took on; we only want to help women whilst staying true to our integrity and purpose,” said de Alwis, adding that if someone out there wants to help them do that on a larger scale, they could look into the possibilities.
“I love Shanuki for saying that!” said Reffai, going on to add how hard it is to find people who want to start a serious enterprise, who have years of work experience, but will not compromise on quality and integrity. “I think we have that for now and we would not give that up easily. I’d personally consider signing up with a big network only if we can keep that and not majorly compromise the message and intent of the show for the sake of views and profit.”
What men could bring to the table
Whilst de Alwis feels that for now, it’s important to allow women to have their own space and voice to discuss things that men may never get, they will “never say never” to including men in the series.
“Men are half of our society, so they’re important,” shared Reffai, affirming that the reason they started a show featuring women was because there is a need for more diversity of opinions and experiences – “how do women view conflict, sex, parenting, body image, travelling etc.?”
De Alwis furthered that they actually have an upcoming episode where they talk to a woman in transition to becoming a man. “That was a hugely insightful conversation for me,” she expressed.
Whilst how men think and behave is vastly different from how women think and behave, both these ladies feel that men can help women discuss important topics such as the ones being discussed on this show, in their day-to-day lives as well.
“For starters, men can stop running away from conversations! The male psychology prompts them to instinctively want to provide solutions rather than just listen, and they get frustrated when it doesn’t work, because most females just want to be heard and not saved,” said de Alwis. She added that we need to both try and see it from each other’s points of view in order for that dialogue to be enriching. “A little empathy, patience, and inclusivity on both sides helps.”
“Empathy! Please, please, some empathy,” implored Reffai, going on to add that women are not a weird species that speak a foreign language – “you came from a woman yourself, so don’t dismiss what they have to say…Put yourself in a woman’s shoes. You will also find that women will get along with you and love you far better when you learn to relate to them”.
Whilst pregnancy and motherhood is mostly celebrated in Sri Lanka, rarely do we find a space where the “real” side of the experience is presented. The second episode of “Shhh”, out 28 June, is going to feature two young moms – mumtrepreneur Yusra Ali Aziz and Asian Parent magazine Editor Nalika Unantenna – who will be discussing the other side of pregnancy and childbirth.
“All the yucky, gross, and even funny things they’ve been through. Total, full disclosure. I was part gagging and part laughing the whole time through, since it was all news to me,” shared de Alwis, adding” “Their husbands will cringe a bit when this episode comes out!”
YouTube: Shhh Talkshow