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Deportation, pollution and TikTok collide in ‘The Disposables’

Centring on a Tamil-Australian family in Western Sydney, this innovative youth series packs big issues into a fresh TikTok format.

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The refugee crisis, overconsumption, and mass illness are just a handful of the colossal themes tackled in new youth drama series The Disposables, the first-ever ABC production to premiere on TikTok.

The series follows 16-year-old Priya, a Tamil refugee racing to stop a terrifying plastic-eating creature and find her missing father Sri, all before an important visa interview. Debuting as an hour-long feature on TikTok Live on Friday 22 September, the series will be also released as three half-hour episodes for television, and 32 two-minute Tik Tok videos.

Starring South Asian rising talent Sumi Gunaratnam, with established names Rajan Velu and Zenia Starr, the series is a huge step forward for nuanced South Asian storytelling.

Sumi Gunaratnam on set for The Disposables.
Sumi Gunaratnam stars as Priya, a 16-year-old Tamil refugee in The Disposables. (Source: Felipe Neves)

Tamil Australian writer, director and producer Renny Wijeyamohan is a co-creator of the series, working alongside Sonia Whiteman and Karen Radzyner. He feels grateful to be able to share this multi-dimensional story.

“The building blocks of the last generation have created a platform where we can make a project like this, and I’m thankful to everyone who has paved the way for us,” he says. “Priya isn’t just defined by being a refugee; we’re shifting to another level now where it’s about sophisticated [representation].”

Shot around Granville, Auburn, and Bankstown, but set in a fictionalised Western Sydney, The Disposables attentively conjures life in the western suburbs, observing details like spice shops and neck chains but also drawing attention to the inequity and marginalisation of its residents.

“We came up with the concept pre-COVID, then had to change some things because they became so on the nose, especially with the COVID response in Western Sydney; it was an interesting ‘art predicts life’ moment,” says Wijeyamohan.

Priya, hands on knees, is panting, and Obi is comforting her, in front of a spice shop.
The Disposables observes many of the details of life in Western Sydney. (Source: Felipe Neves)

The series draws inspiration from real world events, including the Murugappan family’s fight for asylum, the collapse of recycling initiatives such as REDcycle, and the student climate strikes. Equally, it takes influence from Netflix blockbuster Stranger Things, couching its big ideas within interpersonal drama.

Stranger Things has a supernatural shell but is also about human relationships – we liked that idea. We wanted to present a social comment and have real world touchpoints, but we wanted it to be fun, engaging, and humorous,” says Wijeyamohan.

“You need to be gentle with audiences, and you can never convince someone with confrontation; sometimes the best journey is one you don’t realise you’ve been on till you’re talking about it afterwards.”

Jordan Rodrigues, Lakota Johnson, Sumi G and Rajan Velu in The Disposables. Still by Jono LeGrice
The Disposables deals with many hot button issues such as asylum seeker deportation. (Source: Jono LeGrice)

Inspired by found footage films like The Blair Witch Project and previous ABC web-series venture Content, The Disposables unfolds entirely in digital arenas such as video calls, livestreams, and CCTV footage.

“We borrowed a lot from the screen grammar of social media when constructing the show; you can jump on Instagram or TikTok and see heaps of videos with the [found footage] vocabulary we used in this series, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to draw on that,” says Wijeyamohan.

Wijeyamohan hopes the series will tap into Gen Z’s appetite for activism, leveraging social media in its construction and distribution to speak directly to them.

Renny Wijeyamohan directs his actors on set for The Disposables.
Renny Wijeyamohan on set for The Disposables. (Source: Felipe Neves)

“In this series, social media is a place where Priya can express herself and where traditional powers like the government or police aren’t controlling or restricting her. We wanted to explore it as a place where young people are free,” Wijeyamohan says.

“The power young people have to affect change is massive; we want to speak to that generation and empower them to build the world they want to live in.”

The Disposables will be available on TikTok and ABC iView in various formats from Friday 22nd September.

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Lakshmi Ganapathy
Lakshmi Ganapathy
Lakshmi Ganapathy is an emerging journalist and theatre-maker based in Melbourne.

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