Masala: Punam Patel on What Makes Netflix’s ‘Special’ … Special

There are thousands of ways to show diversity on screen but to show diversity within diversity is a new feat that writers are beginning to navigate. Netflix’s comedy series, “Special” does this successfully, highlighting the many different ways that make actress Punam Patel feel … special.

Patel recently starred in the critically acclaimed show for which she was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama series back in 2019. The series is loosely based on the memoir of Ryan O’Connell and centers around a young, gay man with mild cerebral palsy who finally goes after the life he wants. Patel plays Kim Laghari, Ryan’s outgoing and body-positive co-worker and best friend. But being the typical confident best friend is only the surface of who Patel’s character is.

“She is curvier than the average woman you see on TV, she is browner than the average woman you see on TV,” she points out, “but her whole identity is not based on that and you don’t see her only being discriminated [against] because of that.” In fact, Laghari is a three-dimensional character with desires and insecurities just like any real-life person off the street and is hardly there just to fill the diversity quota. 

“Special” highlights many different identities that audiences would not usually see represented in media, including ability, sexuality, race, age and body size, that are meant to be normalized and celebrated. “The fact that “Special” is such a diverse show in so many ways actually contributes to how relatable it is,” Patel summarised. “I think sometimes people are afraid of diversity because it’s going to isolate different populations. But if you do it correctly … it actually brings people together … And I think that’s one of the most powerful things about showing different types of people … It shows we’re all inherently human and that we can all go through the same things.” 

Patel also noted the amazing people behind the camera who made sure that people were being represented correctly. In addition to O’Connell, who starred in and created the series, she names writer Keshni Kashyap and the production crew for doing the research themselves to create authenticity on set. “I remember Props at one point was like, ‘We looked up the type of Indian you are and the specific food they would eat for this meal during this holiday,’” Patel shared. “I had just never been surrounded by people who were just so incredibly thoughtful.” 

Patel’s experience working on “Special” is just a testament to the entertainment industry that it is possible to create diverse and authentic stories if the creators behind the scenes care enough to put in the work to make it happen. 

Watch the full interview above to hear more of what Patel has to say and check out “Special” only on Netflix.