“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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”