Writer-Actor-Producer Fawzia Mirza On Her Latest “Signature Move”

In 2010 KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Festival was the first LGBTQ film fest in India to receive clearance from the India’s Information and Broadcasting Ministry. Since then, it has become an annual event, which aims to provide a platform for LGBTQI stories. This year will see the eighth edition of the festival from May 24-28. 147 films from 45 countries that is reflective of this years theme, “Diverse, One,” will be screened at two venues in South Mumbai—the art deco theatre Liberty Cinema and Alliance de Francaise.”This year’s programming is unique and diverse, encompassing LGBTQ diversity from across the world as well as racial and ethnic diversity in the films that are being screened,” said Sridhar Rangayan, festival director. “Several new countries debut in this year’s KASHISH, including films from Armenia, Nigeria, Kosovo, Rwanda, UAE, Trinidad & Tobago and Aruba! Being South Asia’s biggest LGBT Film Festival we have made a concerted effort to program films from Asia, South Asia and Asia Pacific.”

The four-day event will kick-off with the screening of Signature Move, starring Shabana Azmi and American-Pakistani actor/writer/comedian Fawzia Mirza. The film written by Mirza along with Lisa Donato, and directed by Jennifer Reader tells the story of Zaynab, an American Muslim lesbian, who hides her sexuality from her conservative mother, Parveen. Shot in Chicago, Signature Move is the indie-feminist-romantic-comedy that you didn’t know you needed. However, that is not the only reason why Signature Move is a must-watch. As much as Signature Move is a love story, it’s also a story about the deep connections of family— the things we do out of respect for them, the frustrations that arise as a result—the struggle with identity, and the efforts by three “outsiders” to fit in.

Fawzia Mirza (Source-Bravelux)

Gaysi managed to catch hold of Mirza in between her busy schedule and spoke to her about everything from life to work and everything in between.

For those who might not be in the know, 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. Before she ventured into the creative space, she was a litigator. It was after she turned 29 that she quit her job, came out as queer, and gave up law to pursue acting. In all her works she uses her experiences as a South Asian (desi) Queer Muslim Woman. “My first short film, The Queen of My Dreams, was a very public conversation about a very private dialogue I was having with myself regarding my identities: is it possible to be queer and south asian and Muslim all at the same time? Do you have to sacrifice your culture, your stories, your history, in order to embrace who you are? I also found that there were very few voices that represented my identities and my experiences and it felt important for our stories to be heard”, she shares.

From then on, she has used comedy to dispel the stereotypes associated with her identities. When I asked her how she came about to discovering humour as her weapon she said that she thought of it as a tool, rather than a weapon. “I was five years old. My family had just moved to Nova Scotia, Canada. I was the only brown kid in my school. It was lunchtime. I was the kid with the “smelly” lunch. Everyone else was eating bologna sandwiches, I had a keema roll. Delicious. The kids wondered what the smell was; it was me, obviously and I felt like the weird kid in the room, the outsider. The next day, the same thing happened, but instead of allowing it to bother me, I jumped up on my desk and started dancing. Everyone laughed. The conversations started. That was the first moment I felt the power of humor”, she adds.

Azmi and Fawzia (Source- Indiablooms)

In the short five years of her career, she has managed to carve out a space for herself. She’s a 2016 White House Champion of Change in Asian American and Pacific Islander Art & Storytelling, she’s also a 2015 3Arts Awardee in acting, and Indiewire named her a “Top 10 Creative”. She’s done theatre, made web series, short films, and plays! Her recent mockumentary The Muslim Trump gained worldwide attention and her feature film, Signature Move, is currently making festival rounds.

Much of the movie has been inspired by Fawzia’s life or experiences of her friends. The character of Parveen, played by Shabana Azmi, for example she says, is modelled after their mothers. “Signature Move was inspired by my ex-girlfriend,” she shares. “She is Mexican and we found that even though she and I came from seemingly different communities, we had a lot in common. I wrote a short film of the same title. My producer Eugene Park and a fellow filmmaker Rolla Selbak recommended I turn the short into a feature. So one day, I called Lisa Donato, who had cast me in her short film Sugarhiccup, and with whom i had a great creative connection, and I asked her if she wanted to help me turn the short script into a feature screenplay in 7 days, for the deadline of a festival submission. She said, “Yes!” That was our first draft. Our director, Jennifer Reeder, once we brought her on, was instrumental in shaping the script into something we could film within our time and budget constraints. We also reworked every scene before we shot it, to ensure it was where we wanted it to be.

One of the greatest things about the movie is that while we come to see Zaynad as the main character; the background, culture and experiences of both, Zaynab and Alma, the Mexican-American love interest, have been given equal weightage through the movie. “Chicago has one of the largest populations of South Asian and Mexican people in the country. But often films about or made in Chicago don’t depict those groups of people. And Mexicans and South Asians have a lot in common! Just think how much we love cilantro. My experience of Chicago is very different than the typical narrative I had seen and so showing these communities, these people, these neighborhoods and these families in a very real way was very important. The English to Urdu or English to Spanish transitions was deeply intentional because that is a reflection of how our families speak, of how they connect, a deeply accurate representation of the immigrant family, of having multiple cultures. And also, it was important to show the connection and similarities”, she adds.

Another aspect of the movie that will strike the audience is how they have used the wrestling arena as a safe space. The women meet as a result of Fawzia’s newfound passion for lucha libre, a Mexican form of professional wrestling. Zaynab spends a lot of her time in the area: training, and working through her emotions. It is here that Zaynab and Alma have their date night.We also witness Zaynab and her mother, finally reconnect and come to an unspoken mutual understanding here. “In Chicago, I once met a former WWE wrestler, and I saw her perform her ‘signature move’ or ‘finishing move’ on a late night comedy talk show that I was also a guest on. I wondered about this woman, her stories and how she might be reflected if she existed in my world. It also felt like a fun and unexpected connection to create between Zaynab and Alma. I think marginalized communities have had to create safe spaces and I have been to many events, whether poetry, storytelling, drag, roller derby, dance nights or arm wrestling, I’ve been to queer events that created safe spaces for our community. Wrestling seemed like a fun world that would be part of this”, she says explaining her decision to use the arena as a safe space.

Zaynab and Alma (Source-Twitter)

The film balances comedy and drama effortlessly. Fawzia believes that our lives are always threaded with comedy and that it is just a matter of whether we are willing to see it. This thought has driven the plot of the movie. The movie could have been easily melodramatic, but the team has used the right amount of humour in the right places, to make the movie a refreshing watch.

I’m influenced by everyone I meet. And I learn from everyone I meet. Although I can say that in the last two years of my life, i have gotten to meet two of the most influential Indian film icons, Sharmila Tagore and Shabana Azmi. Ms. Tagore was a huge influence on me and my play, Me, My Mom & Sharmila and Shabana Azmi is a trailblazer and when I thought who could play ‘Parveen’, she was the first choice”, she says, when I asked her who inspires her.

At the moment, Fawzia is working on turning her play, Me, My Mom & Sharmila into a screenplay with a friend and co-writer Terrie Samundra. “I also have a short film The Streets Are Ours that just world premiered at the Nashville International Film Festival in March about how my life intersected with slain activist Sabeen Mahmud. I’m working on a television pilot and planning on doing some stand up comedy later this year. I also just filmed a series of satirical PSAs (public service announcement) for American Asian American Heritage Month featuring an all-Asian cast which are releasing the rest of the month of May”, she shares.

When asked if we would be seeing he soon on the director’s chair, she said that while she deeply respects the job, it is a complicated one. “Maybe one day, but I love being directed. I love knowing that I am in the hands of someone who sees much more than me.”

Signature Move will be screened at Liberty Cinema on 24th May, 2017 at 8.30PM. 

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Armed with a B.A in English Literature from St. Xavier's college, Mumbai she set out to become a writer about a year ago. When not binge eating and watching reruns of any show she can get her hands on you will find her talking animatedly/ day dreaming/ glued to a book.
Krupa Joseph

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