Queer cinema

In ‘Signature Move’ film, queer identity, wrestling, secrets and Shabana Azmi for a mother

Actor and writer Fawzia Mirza stars alongside the thespian in the inaugural film at the Kashish queer festival in Mumbai.

“We all take different paths to find love, to find happiness. And the queen of my dreams, I know she is out there,” says actor and writer Fawzia Mirza in her debut short The Queen of my dreams (2012), which examines the 1969 Sharmila Tagore starrer Aradhana. Since then, the openly lesbian Canadian of Pakistani origin has worked on breaking down the multi-layered personalities of South Asian queer women through storytelling and comedy.

Mirza’s first feature Signature Move, which was the opening title of the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, attempts to explore mostly uncharted territory in cinema. “I started writing the film because I didn’t see stories that reflected who I am as a person,” she told Scroll.in. “As a queer Muslim brown woman, I didn’t see a lot of stories like mine in the media and I got tired of waiting for someone else to tell my story.”

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Signature Move.

Directed by Jennifer Reeder, the film has been co-written and co-produced by Mirza. She also stars as Zaynab, a 30-something Pakistani lawyer in Chicago who grapples with two secrets: her queerness and her newfound interest in wrestling. The film explores her relationship with her recently widowed mother Parveen (Shabana Azmi) and her Mexican girlfriend (Sari Sanchez).

The romantic comedy draws from Mirza’s own life and is based on her relationship with her Mexican ex-girlfriend. “When we were dating, we found a lot of connections between our family, our culture and our food,” she said. “It was inspiring to me that two seemingly different people from two seemingly different communities actually have a lot more in common that you think.”

The wrestling bit was inspired by a former professional wrestler whom she met during a comedy talk show, and who spoke about her signature move. “One of the things I love to do is look at a situation or a story and give it a twist,” Mirza said.

The script was first a short film, which was turned into a full-length screenplay when Mirza’s friend Lisa Donato joined as co-writer. Except for Shabana Azmi, the cast and crew is based out of Chicago.

“The role of Parveen [Azmi’s character in the film] is very nuanced and complicated role,” Mirza said. “When I was asked, ‘Who is your dream person for this role,’ Shabana Azmi was my number one choice.” Mirza reached out to Azmi through her agent. The two of them met in Chicago when Azmi visited with her play Kaifi Aur Main.

Unsurprisingly, working with Shabana Azmi was a dream. “With a single glance and a single movement, she tells a thousand stories,” Mirza said. “She is also one of those actors who elevates everybody around her. That to me is one of the greatest privileges of creating art. You want people to elevate your game, elevate your art and elevate your film.”

Fawzia Mirza and Shabana Azmi in Signature Move.
Fawzia Mirza and Shabana Azmi in Signature Move.

Apart from authentic casting, Mirza was keen on a female director for the film. Enter Jennifer Reeder, director of the short films A Million Miles Away (2014) and Blood Below the Skin (2015). Signature Move was Reeder’s debut feature. “You know, we joke about finding a Pakistani or a South Asian Muslim lesbian director, but that is really hard, so the most important thing was that it had to be a woman,” Mirza said. “A woman’s eye for a story is very different than a man’s.”

Like Zaynab, Mirza too was a lawyer before she switched tracks. While she had a fascination for acting since childhood, she put it on the backburner to pursue degrees in political science and law. At law school, she reconnected with acting and also trained in improvisational comedy. “I just knew that nothing that I had done up until that point made me as happy and connected to myself as performing and creating,” she said.

Fawzia Mirza.
Fawzia Mirza.

Mirza earned acclaim for starring in the Emmy-nominated web series Her Story (2015), which follows the lives of queer and trans women. She co-created and starred in the mockumentary The Muslim Trump (2016), in which she played the fictional Muslim illegitimate daughter of Donald Trump.

“Using comedy to talk about serious topics is something that we naturally do without even realising it,” she said. “A lot of us survive really intense moments through laughter. It is more normal than we realise. You are not making fun of the issue or people who are hurt by it. You find different ways to talk about the components that makes up that issue, and break it down to understand the culture that creates the problem.”

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Her Story (2015).

While Mirza has been forthright about her sexuality and ethnicity, her candour has not been without its challenges. She faced online wrath when she came out on Twitter as a Muslim lesbian in 2016 in a bid to support an online campaign that empowered Muslim women. “Dealing with hate speech is hard sometimes because you want to respond and I can be sensitive,” Mirza said. “It definitely hurts my feelings. Sometimes you have to let things go. Everyone has an opinion on who you are. And if you listen to everyone, you wouldn’t be anybody.”

Mirza is currently working on turning her one-woman play Me, My Mom & Sharmila into a feature length screenplay. It chronicles her strained relationship with her mother and their mutual love for legendary Hindi film actress Sharmila Tagore. Mirza has roped in Indian writer Terri Samundra as a co-writer. “We are planning to shoot it in India, Pakistan, United States and Canada,” she said. “To have a strategic production partnership around the world would be the dream.”

Me, My Mom & Sharmila.
Me, My Mom & Sharmila.
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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.