GROWING up in Canada’s Nova Scotia, Fawzia Mirza was the only “desi” in the neighbourhood. Her Muslim parents had migrated from Pakistan and the cultural differences, as much as her distinct appearance, made her feel like an outsider. That, until, Mirza realised she could use humour as a means to “fit in”.
Years later, she continues to use humour to transcend her identity as a South Asian queer Muslim girl. Based out of Chicago, Mirza is a stand-up comic, actor and writer who has worked in the Emmy-nominated web series Her Story and has co-created popular web shows such as Kam Kardashian and Brown Girl Problems. She has also co-created and produced a mockumentary titled The Muslim Trump, about a Muslim illegitimate daughter of Donald Trump.
The Canadian of Pakistani origin will be in Mumbai later this month for the screening of Signature Move, which opens the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival at Liberty Cinema on May 24. Mirza has co-written, co-produced and acted in the film that explores the relationship between a recently-widowed mother and her daughter. While the former struggles to cope with the loss, her single child,
Zaynab, attempts to embrace her queer identity, a relationship with a Mexican girl and passion for wrestling. “What desi mothers and daughters share is very different from their Western counterparts, who are more like friends. We, on the other hand, are brought up believing that heaven is at our mother’s feet. The film explores the conflicts and connections in this desi family where both have to confront a reality that is new to them,” explains Mirza.
The film draws inspiration from the personal — Mirza was formerly dating a Mexican. Initially, she had a short film in mind. However, while penning the script, she realised that it allowed for deeper exploration of the characters and reached out to her friend and now co-writer Lisa Donato. “Two years ago, while developing the film, certain changes in American politics also lent it a political narrative,” points out Mirza, adding, “We had a presidential candidate who was against Muslims and Mexicans. Suddenly, both Mexicans and Muslims became the ‘other’, the ‘outsider’.”
The film, which Mirza describes as a melodrama-meets-comedy, has been shot in Chicago, which isn’t a mere backdrop for the film but also features as a character. “Chicago has the largest population of desis and Mexicans. The narrative of Chicago-based stories usually revolves around white people and the mafia. But Signature Move explores the other side of Chicago that allows Zaynab to meet her lover Alma,” says Mirza. The Mexican form of wrestling, Lucha libre, she reveals, is a device that brings the two girls together.
Although the cultural and religious identities of the characters in Signature Move are at the centre of the current, tense political environment, the film, says Mirza, is deeply personal. “Lots of people want to exoticise and politicise our bodies, religion and sexuality. This film doesn’t do any of that. Instead, it attempts to show how Mexicans, desis, LGBTQ, Muslims, and all these ‘different’ people in fact go through similar struggles. This isn’t a saviour story, it’s not about saving the brown-skinned-girl from her big, bad mother or religion or culture. The film is political by virtue of embracing all these identities,” asserts Mirza.
Refusing to reveal her age, Mirza, who “can play a woman between the age of 25 and 40”, says her own relationship with her mother has been at the heart of several of her works. “I may look, dress and live very differently from my mother but I realise today that I have inherited my best qualities from her, such as integrity and strength,” says the filmmaker who explored the tumultuous nature of her relationship with her mother in the 2015 play Me, My Mom and Sharmila. Trained as a lawyer, she admits to have had their shares of ups and downs but finally Mirza says that she and her mother are friends. “We desis never openly discuss personal issues with our parents. So we have talked a bit about my sexuality but in a very desi way,” Mirza says, laughing, “But over the years, there is a deep sense of understanding we have developed and now share.”