I’m sure I’m not the only brown girl who grew up falling in love with the story of “Aladdin.” It was one of those Disney movies where I actually felt that my people were represented. But the trailer for the new remake of “Aladdin” isn’t inspiring the same positive feelings.
For those of you who don’t know what this classic tale entails, (where have you been living?) here is the plot in a nutshell. A poor, young orphan boy in Agrabah has only one friend who is always by his side, an adorable monkey named Abu (oh, the irony).
One day, this poor boy runs into a gorgeous, bombshell of a girl at the local bazaar; he later finds out she is the princess of Agrabah, Princess Jasmine! Like many brown girls, unfortunately, Princess Jasmine needs a man to marry ASAP otherwise a man will take over the kingdom after her father passes, in this case, the man is the evil Jafar.
Fast-forward, Aladdin gets his hands on a magic lamp that Jafar has been coveting. This magic lamp contains the infamous blue Genie who has the gift of granting three wishes. Of course, Aladdin takes full advantage of that. Aladdin feels bad for the Genie because Aladdin knows how trapped he must feel, so he promises that his last wish will grant the Genie his freedom. Aladdin wishes to be a prince to win Princess Jasmine’s hand in marriage. After receiving everything he wants, Aladdin gets greedy with his wishes and almost breaks his promise to the Genie, before Jafar causes some hardcore trouble.
Long story short, Aladdin ends up winning Princess Jasmine and her father the Sultan over, after defeating Jafar in an intense battle because, hey, it’s a Disney movie! I’m sure you knew that’s how it would end!
Now, in the year 2019, Disney has decided to revamp “Aladdin” with a live-action cast, and the result is… Interesting.
While I was watching the trailer, I already wasn’t expecting much because I feel that every time Disney tries to revamp an old classic, it comes off super cheesy. It looks like that is exactly what has happened again. A sigh of disappointment! I saw “Aladdin” on Broadway and it was actually pretty good (even though the actors should have actually been played by Middle Eastern or South Asian people!).
But watching this trailer and seeing how awkward it looks—and how out-of-place Will Smith is as the Genie—I am actually terrified. Why is Will Smith ruining his reputation like that, why didn’t someone tell him he should NOT on this role? I can’t decide if his personality as Genie doesn’t come off right in the trailer or if it’s the weird blue bloated version of him that’s throwing me off. Either way, it is not working.
The fact that in Entertainment Weekly‘s first-look photos Jafar looks more handsome than the actor who plays Aladdin? Rolls eyes. Princess Jasmine’s outfit from the trailer was also very disappointing, Disney could have researched historical Middle Eastern or South Asian garb, or better yet, they could have asked our girls Priyanka Chopra or Deepika Padukone for advice on how to dress like a Bollywood princess! It would have made a huge difference. I don’t see this movie doing well, but I guess we’ll have to wait till it hits theaters this May.
Check out the trailer for yourselves and let us know what you think!
Often referred to as hijras and kinnars, transgender men and women are a part of society just like any other individual, regardless of how different their lives may be. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Deepa Mehta and actress Sirat Taneja have created a documentary to bring to life a story about dual identities and the hardships that the LGBTQIA2S+ community members continue to face, despite the support they have found around them. Mehta and Taneja take the baton and continue the fight for equality in “I Am Sirat,” a documentary, presented at the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), on Taneja herself.
“I Am Sirat,” set in Delhi, India, is shot completely on a smartphone. Talking more about filming the documentary on a cellphone — a conscious choice made by the ace director — Mehta confidently says:
It wasn’t a creative decision. It was the only decision we had [to] make the film the way we wanted to, which was very intimate and with nobody else around us. When Sirat was telling her story, she was free to tell it without a crew. That’s the way we wanted it. There were no cameras, no sound, no lighting. It was her life, she was in control of it.
The story highlights the deep intricacies of Taneja’s dual identity. At home, her mother cannot accept the idea of a trans daughter and requires her to be a man, even though she’s made many attempts to tell her family that she does not identify as a male. With her efforts to express her true, authentic self, falling on deaf ears, Taneja sets out to live a life that appeases both her family at home and herself. She goes as far as being her mother’s son in the house while renting out a room for her beautiful clothes and makeup elsewhere in the city; this room is the keepsake of who she really is, the woman she always longed to be.
At one instance she is even physically assaulted for expressing her true gender identity. While the film does not depict the assault, it showcases the traumatic aftermath of it. But the violence doesn’t discourage Taneja from living out her truth. If she’s oppressed at home, she leaves that baggage at the door on her way out — in public, she’s a woman.
The documentary allows viewers to see how Taneja carries this dual identity and how it impacts her as a person. We see her lose many things she considers important in her life, including her job with the Government of India and the love of her life, all because of her trans identity. The myriad of hardships that she faces can be seen throughout the film with struggles not limited to personal and social, but also financial and psychological.
Taneja lives in a single-parent household with her siblings. As the eldest child in a low-income household, she is required to take on her late father’s responsibilities as the breadwinner of the family. In addition to financial issues, the lack of a father figure in her life creates more obstacles for Taneja, including those around sex reassignment surgery. Enter, the idea of following tradition.
It would be remiss to not mention that “I Am Sirat” grazes over the idea of how paradoxical modern-day India really is. On one hand, there are talks about progression, making space, and living your most authentic life; on the other, people like Taneja are asked to put up facades in the name of tradition. Tradition, conservative ideals, and possibly even patriarchy are at the forefront of the oppression that Taneja and her counterparts face. So, even for a country that’s made some notable changes to its governing policies, many of its outdated conventions still trump the law.
“I Am Sirat” really makes the viewers reflect on how far the world has come in offering support and camaraderie to the LGBTQIA2S+ community on a broader level — mainstream media has made important strides to bring equity and inclusivity to the forefront — while hardly ever paying heed to the struggles these minorities face day-to-day with their loved ones. There’s an element of duality even for them in their fight to be recognized; they want acceptance from the public as well as their families. A story like Taneja’s puts into perspective how transgender men and women will never choose the easy way out; they’re determined to be an honorable part of society regardless of what it will cost. A heartbreaking truth, to say the least.
“I Am Sirat” brings about an important message for its global audience: never forget to celebrate who you really are, undeterred by the trials you’re put through. And Sirat Taneja is a living example of this simple life lesson, who danced her way from the TIFF red carpet right into our hearts with her soulful story.
Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh is known for creating a mix of stylish (read: Channing Tatum-starring “Magic Mike”) and influential films (like “Traffic”).
It’s no surprise to see his name attached to stars like Claire Danes, Dennis Quaid, Timothy Olyphant, Jim Gaffigan and writer Ed Solomon (of “Men in Black” and “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” fame). But a story about the Guyanese community in Queens, New York was quite unexpected.
“Full Circle” is a whirlwind thriller that released in July on the streaming platform Max.
The six-part mini-series centers around the foiled kidnapping of Jared Browne (played by Ethan Stoddard), the son of Samantha and Derek Browne (Danes and Olyphant) and grandson of celebrity “Chef Jeff” McCusker (Quaid).
The scheme is devised by Savitri Mahabir (played by CCH Pounder of “Avatar” and “NCIS: New Orleans”), a wealthy Guyanese businesswoman with a host of nefarious ventures, and her right-hand man, Garmen Harry (Phaldut “Paul” Sharma). Mahabir is seeking revenge for the recent murder of her brother-in-law by rival Edward Chung, but what does this have to do with the Brownes?
The answer to this question and the unraveling of other dark secrets is what “Full Circle” is all about.
Now, if this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. The show is fast-paced and makes good use of cliffhangers to keep you watching, but, frankly, the episodes are shaky — quite literally in terms of camera work and figuratively.
Early on, Soderbergh darts between stylish, abstract shots of objects in the shadows and minute details that may create an air of mystery, but ultimately just confuses viewers, raising questions that never get answered.
Most of the acting also leans toward melodrama, but many of the supporting cast members — particularly Sharma and Zazie Beetz (as Detective Mel Harmony) — are commendable, delivering natural performances with the right doses of intimidation and snark.
On paper, the plot of “Full Circle” has all the pieces for suspense, but writer Ed Solomon seems to lack confidence in the viewer to figure it all out, opting against compelling revelations in favor of long-winded monologues summarizing everything for the viewer. This is needed, unfortunately, as most other dialogues are unproductive; consisting solely of characters responding to questions with more questions.
Another major point of contention is the portrayal of Guyana and the Guyanese community.
While The Hollywood Reporter suggests the team had several creative consultants, those with knowledge of the country could say the series actually offers a convoluted image.
The attention of Guyanese viewers like myself may pique hearing familiar words like pickney (children) and bad eye (evil eye) and catching glimpses of Georgetown. Those in Queens may smirk at the mention of real-life venue, Gemini’s Lounge, but other elements arguably come off as reductive and a bit unflattering.
The Guyanese characters are the antagonists. Mahabir is shown lying, cheating, stealing and plotting murders with a smile on her face. She doesn’t use facts or strategy to guide her actions, but Obeah practices and fear of curses.
The casting of these roles is also up for debate considering several staging choices were made by the creators.
For example, an early scene shows a Hindu funeral with a pandit reciting prayers and a chowtal (North Indian classical music) group sitting by in white kurtas and shalwars. This is a familiar sight for many Indo Caribbeans but, as the camera pans, audiences are introduced to several Afro-identifying actors playing the mourning family including Pounder and Jharrel Jerome (as Mahabir’s nephew, Aked).
Guyana is a diverse nation where cultures and racial identities often intermingle and, of course, there very well can be Afro-Guyanese Hindus with Indian names, but one could argue the series missed a huge opportunity to offer rare Indo Guyanese representation in these roles.
While Pounder (born in Guyana) and Jerome are talents with impressive resumes, it begs the question if they were the right talents for the roles. To some viewers, the answer is no.
“Guyana is trending right now. There’s the oil, the booming tourism, chefs on TV and Instagram,” shared Sonia, a young Indo Guyanese woman from Queens, reflecting on the show with me. “In that way, I’m happy [the country is] on people’s radar, but [it seems like] nobody looked into the characteristics of the people before casting. Some things are just not culturally correct. The Obeah is dubious and the Guyanese accents will leave you scratching your head.”
This reaction is not surprising. Aside from Pounder and Sharma, none of the cast is Guyanese, let alone Caribbean. In fact, Pounder shared in an interview that pages of the script were rewritten several times to play with Guyanese elements.
To be fair, I wouldn’t be surprised if the creators had difficulty finding actors for the characters, especially Indo Caribbean actors. But for those familiar with the country, “Full Circle” could appear to have haphazardly mixed the actors as well as bits and pieces from a variety of Guyanese cultures in an attempt to create a catch-all portrayal, rather than a necessarily accurate one.
Today, there are talks of not one, but two Jim Jones biopics starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon Levitt, respectively, but Guyana is more than the dark history of Jonestown or shady acts like those orchestrated by Mahabir.
Guyana is a country with a rich history, diverse culture and proud people. As one of the first high-profile Hollywood productions to highlight Guyana, it’s disappointing to see “Full Circle” fall into Jonestownian tropes of using it simply as a poverty-stricken place to be exploited, where people will do anything for money and personal gain.
While it’s exciting to see Guyana and the Queens community in a mainstream series and to hear Hollywood bigwigs utter names like Essequibo, “Full Circle” also exemplifies just how much room for growth there is in Indo Guyanese representation.
Hopefully “Full Circle” is just the first of many productions to explore Guyanese culture and, in the near future, we can escape the negative stereotypes that remain so prevalent. For the time being, the series is one that leaves a lot to be desired on many fronts.
It is the strength of both British and South Asian cinema that every few years, and with increasing regularity, a film comes along that is able to successfully and thoughtfully bridge the highs and lows of both cultures. With the recognisable cross-cultural DNA of films like “Bend it Like Beckham”, “Bride and Prejudice”and others before it, Shekhar Kapur brings to the silver screen an honest and comedic representation of East meets West with “What’s Love Got To Do With It” — an exploration of love and marriage across international norms.
Written and produced by Jemima Khan, the film draws from elements of her own experience of marrying then-Pakistani cricket star and now ex-Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and relocating to the country for 10 years.
“Particularly in the West, Pakistanis would quite often be seen as terrorists, fanatics and backwards,” says Khan, as she reminisces about her time spent in Pakistan over Zoom. “My experience of living in Pakistan was very colourful, vibrant, and fun. I always felt like the rom-com side of Pakistan was more surprising than anything else.”
A film not just about the heart, but with a lot of heart of its own, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” touches on South Asian families, culture, individuality, and marriages in the 21st century. Set in the UK and Pakistan, this is a feel-good and fun story about childhood best friends and neighbours, Zoe and Kazim, AKA Kaz. And as the narrative unfolds, new light is shone on their friendship and questions are asked about the cultural norms and practices we have grown to accept.
It isn’t your usual ‘boy-meets-girl’ tale. On the contrary, they’ve known each other forever; the fabric of their lives intertwined. Kaz is a British-Pakistani doctor of “marriageable” age, opting for an “assisted” marriage set in motion by his own desire rather than parental duress.
“I think we’ve replaced the term “arranged” with “assisted” because South Asian parents now trust their kids more to make the right decision for themselves,” said Shahzad Latif, sitting next to Lily James, who nods in agreement. “It’s still a process. Some parents may have more confidence in their kids than others, but we’re getting there.”
Zoe – played by Lily James – is a professional documentary maker living on an inexplicably fancy houseboat (bit of a stretch for somebody having difficulty funding projects, but, at this point, a crucial ingredient for London rom-coms). As a white British woman, her method of finding love isn’t one that involves parents or family.
“It was a no-brainer for me to be part of the script,” says a smiling James in response to whether any culture shocks were encountered during filming and table reads. “Pakistani culture is so rich and colourful, and it was important for me to showcase this side of the country. So no, no culture shocks per se, just more singing and dancing in comparison to British culture!”
Zoe’s camera is the vehicle through which the film examines Kaz’s “contractual love”, as she trawls dating apps while following her best friend down the assisted aisle.
Emma Thompson’s Cath plays the comedic matriarch to Zoe, eager to witness the conclusion of her daughter’s swiping days by being with someone suitable. She’s found a family in Shabana Azmi’s Aisha Khan – a more layered mum — one that is embracing both tradition and modernity. It would be fair to say that Azmi successfully sells cinema-goers on the difficulty of that struggle.
“Today’s society is slowly coming to terms with providing children the space they rightfully require and deserve to make decisions,” says Azmi, reflecting on how scripts and films have evolved over time. “Gone are the days when parents would blackmail their children into marrying the first person they come across. Just because they are their kids doesn’t mean they are actually children. They are adults with views and minds of their own.”
Kaz is then introduced to Maimoona (Sajal Aly); a shy introvert from Pakistan, unsure about the idea of moving permanently to London. She’s dealing with internal battles of her own; battles between personal desires and societal expectations.
“Maimoona may not have verbally said much, but her face said everything,” explains Aly, looking beautiful and radiant as ever. “She is torn between what she wants and what society silently shoves down at her and eventually, she goes with what the latter expects.”
The film navigates between London and a fabricated Lahore filmed in the suburbs of the British capital; a feat that comes as testament to the film’s production design. Kaz and Zoe’s jaunts across Lahore, backdropped by its magnificent architecture, set the stage for Pakistani music legends to shine, including the mesmerising voice of Rahet Fateh Ali Khan.
And if this wasn’t enough, Nitin Sawhney and Naughty Boy add further melody to the film’s music, as they talk about their experience of creating appropriate tunes such as the foot-thumping “Mahi Sona”.
“It was a great process and experience to create an appropriate language and expression of music which added elements and flavours to the film,” says the duo enthusiastically. “It’s also an ode to our South Asian heritage.”
Even though the tone of “What’s Love Got To Do With It” is distinctly feel-good, the film thoughtfully explores the unconventional ways that relationships may be built, and what multiculturalism can teach one another. Is it, in fact, more sensible to be practical about relationships? Is it possible to learn to love the person we’re with? Is love really the only ingredient needed for a successful marriage? Why was Kaz’s sister shunned for marrying outside of their culture? And do Western relationships draw more on the ideas of assisted partnerships than we realise?
A clever reference is drawn from the moment Prince Charles shattered many royal dreamers’ hearts with his dismissive “whatever in love means” comment upon his engagement to Princess Diana, thus proving that these notions may be closer to home in the West than one might believe.
James and Latif are a charismatic pair, with Zoe married to her independence and Kaz gently questioning her prejudices. The film is also a vivid demonstration of British talent, with Asim Chaudhry playing a hilarious yet questionable rishta uncle, comic duo Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen appearing as a pair of TV commissioners with a briefcase of ridiculous ideas, and Nikkita Chadha as the confrontational Baby — the film’s feisty rebel, in love with dancing.
“It’s incredible to be part of such a diverse and stellar cast,” smiles Chadha animatedly, while sipping on tea at Soho House in London. “My character is defiant and nonconformist — perfectly conflicting with the name “Baby “. I’m really excited for everyone to watch the film.”
Divorce is still stigmatised in South Asia — a theme often carefully avoided in desi films and television. Khan gently addresses it as a twist in the film – with a reminder that be it love or assisted marriage — amicable and mutual separations are a possibility.
As a complete package, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” deftly wraps up all the emotions associated with love and family in its joyful, musical, and vibrant 109-minute runtime. With its cast, music and direction, this classic rom-com is set to make you laugh, cry and, even more importantly, make you think about the multi-dimensional nature of love within and across cultures. The film is now showing in cinemas worldwide, and we highly recommend it.
Desk bound by day and travel bound all other times – Queenie thrives on her weekly dose of biryani and chilli paneer. She recently released her first book called The Poor Londoner, which talks about comical expat experiences people face worldwide. With degrees in Journalism and Creative Writing, her work and research on gender inequality in the travel industry is taught in universities across the globe. Her travels and everyday fails can be found on Instagram (@thepoorlondoner) and YouTube (The Poor Londoner).
Originally from Karachi, Pakistan and now blended into the hustle-bustle of London, Marium is a trainee technology consultant, by day and sometime also night, and also finishing her bachelors in Digital Innovation. In the midst of striving to be someone, she enjoys dreaming about the impossible (impossible according to desi standards and sometime Harry Potter impossible as well), and writing about them. She enjoys baking, decorating things and a cup of chai!