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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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

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For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.