February 19, 2016 marked a very special day in the life of model Abrar Zahoor’s life. He made his much-awaited debut in the biopic “Neerja,” which revolves around the true story of the Pan Am Flight 73 hijack in September of 1986.
The Kashmir native, one of Bollywood’s most promising newcomers, wants to be known for his skill in acting. His dimples and boy-next-door looks seemed far from the avatar of Safrini that he played in the film. We wanted to bring you a personal one-on-one interview with the hijacker of the hour,
Read on to learn more about Zahoor in our special “Fast Five” interview series, which introduces budding artists, activists and entrepreneurs to the Brown Girl community.
1. What made you pick up the passion for acting?
Well, I wasn’t very good looking during my childhood, especially compared to Kashmiri kids, like my brother. I was always fascinated by actors, and was impressed that they were household names to people who had not even met them. I’ve also always been a good observer. I liked to see how different people talk, how they walk, and how they behave. It was very interesting to me. I would practice what I would observe when I was alone. I was too shy to perform in front of people. I was really self-conscious while growing up, and I thought that people would think I was crazy. I let go of my shell while growing up, and now I love performing. It really gives me peace. The most important thing I learned is that acting is about pure skill, it actually does not have have a correlation with ‘good looks.’ It has been humbling and such a dream to receive compliments on my portrayal of Safrini.
A photo posted by Official Abrar Zahoor (@theabrarzahoor) on
2. You are probably the best looking hijacker in the world. How did you bank the role of Safrini and how did you prepare for it?
The fact that Safrini’s avatar is so different from mine is what made the role exciting for me. As an actor, you must have the art to transform yourself to get into character so that it is hard to differentiate you from your role. It’s like letting your body run with a different current. Getting to play the negative lead in such a powerful movie like ‘Neerja’ has been a dream. Actually, a lesser known fact is that auditioning for the part of Safrini was my first audition ever. When I left my house to go to the audition, I knew I had to put in my best. I still can’t describe the feeling of being auditioned by Kanika, and finalized by Vinod.
In order to prepare, I did not trim my facial hair for three months, haha! On a serious note, I did a lot to prepare. The toughest part of preparing was to learn how to be ‘stone-hearted.’ Terrorists aren’t your boys next door. Getting into character involved understanding how to be brutal. In real life, I’m completely different from the role. Other things I did to prepare included learning Arabic, physical training, and gun training. There was a lot, actually, because it was mandatory that I make Safrini a believable character on screen.
A photo posted by Official Abrar Zahoor (@theabrarzahoor) on
3. What do you have in store for us for the upcoming year?
2016 started with a bang! I have actually already signed another movie. This time though, I won’t be playing the role of a villain. I have to start preparing for that film and prepare by June. My goal is to do fewer projects, but do very productive ones. I’m not here to become a ‘star,’ I am here to be known as a good artist.
A photo posted by Official Abrar Zahoor (@theabrarzahoor) on
4. From Aamir Khan to Vidya Balan, you’ve been getting lots of praise from the industry. Do you have a special message for your fans?
I went numb when I met Aamir Khan and Vidya Balan. I’m from a very small place from Srinagar. There are not many from there that have reached where I am today. Hearing everyone in Bollywood praise me, really helps the scars of my struggle vanish slowly.
For all my fans out there. Thank you, thank you so much for loving my performance. I appreciate each and everyone who saw, understood, and appreciated all the performances in ‘Neerja.’ Please keep the messages coming! They are making me stronger. Thank you for hating Safrini, and loving me in ‘Neerja.’
A photo posted by Official Abrar Zahoor (@theabrarzahoor) on
5. We know Safrini- the Hijacker, please tell us about Abrar Zahoor.
Abrar is just like anyone. I’m no different. I chose this profession for my true passion for acting! I adore and love my family, and just like any other guy, I probably don’t tell them that enough. I love bikes, mountaineering, cooking, and I’m actually a passionate photographer.
Weddings, huh? Talk about a stress fest. And for the bride, it’s like a 24/7 walk on eggshells. However, add in a paranoid and overprotective sister, and you’ve got a recipe for a completely different degree of drama. In “Polite Society,” Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) and her gang of clumsy pals take the phrase “till death do us part” to a whole new level as they plot to “steal” the bride — aka Ria’s own sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), during her shaadi reception. But with a wedding hall packed with guests, a mother-in-law from hell, and a groom with more shades of fraud than a rainbow, this heist is anything but smooth sailing.
It goes without saying but “Polite Society” comes with a cast of wacky characters, gut-busting one-liners, and an action-packed heist sequence, making it a must-watch for anyone who loves a good comedy. I mean who hasn’t dealt with some serious wedding drama, am I right?
Lead actress Kansara agrees wholeheartedly. “I definitely have!” she chuckles, as I catch up with her at Soho Hotel in London. Despite the rubbish weather outside, Kansara is a ray of sunshine with her infectious enthusiasm.
The minute I read the script, I thought to myself…wow, playing Ria is going to be one wild ride!
And wild is definitely the right word to describe her character. Ria is a British-Pakistani martial artist-in-training from London, determined to become a professional stuntwoman. Her sister, Lena, who dropped out of uni, often ends up being the guinea pig for filming Ria’s stunts for YouTube, including one lovingly dubbed “the fury.” She reveals
I’d never done martial arts before this film. The stunt training started from the day I got the role, and it was three to four times a week all the way until we finished filming. It was a seven-week period in total, and boy, was it physically demanding. Oh my God, I think I can add a whole new skills section to my CV! But on a serious note, it was so much fun and we had an amazing stunt team. They, including my stunt double, taught me so much. It was important to me to do my own stunts as much as possible, but also strike a healthy balance.
For South Asian women, who are often expected to be quiet and agreeable, all that punching and kicking on set must have been cathartic, right?
Honestly, it was like anger management at work! I got to kick and throw things around — it was the perfect balance.
What sets Kansara apart from other actors starting out in the industry is her ability to draw from her own life experiences to bring authenticity to her characters on screen. Her career began with a degree from UCL and a communications job at a pharmaceutical company. But today, her versatile range and unwavering commitment to her craft have propelled her to the forefront of British comedy, portraying defiant South Asian women we’d love to see in real life.
From my own experience as a South Asian woman, I’ve always been told to do what’s ‘proper’ and think twice before speaking up. Playing a character like Ria and putting myself in her shoes, I felt like I was doing and saying things that I wish I had done at her age. It was almost like living through her and speaking my mind about things I never did.
Without a doubt, every South Asian woman on this planet wishes she cared more about herself and less about what other people think.
Ria totally inspired me. If only I had her mindset when I was younger, my career path would have taken off way sooner instead of worrying about other people’s opinions.
The chemistry between the cast members on and off-screen is so apparent, especially the sisterhood between Ria and Lena. The wild adventures of a bride, and her paranoid maid of honour navigating through family drama, are bound to create some unforgettable moments on set.
We both confess our love and admiration for Nimra Bucha’s portrayal of Raheela, Lena’s evil mother-in-law and share a teenage fangirling moment:
I’m obsessed with that woman. There’s something terrifying yet ultra sexy about her character in “Polite Society” that’s mesmerising. I absolutely loved the dance sequence. As South Asians, we’ve all grown up watching Bollywood films and idolising Madhuri Dixit’s iconic dance moves. “Polite Society” gave me my Bollywood heroine moment, and it was a dream come true with the costumes and jewellery.
It’s definitely a unique experience for Kansara, considering her former career was worlds apart from entertainment. So, what advice does she have for aspiring actors who may secretly wish to pursue the same path, but are unsure of the next steps? Kansara advises, drawing from her character’s heist-planning skills.
I believe starting small and honing your craft is an underrated superpower. If you’re passionate about acting, make short-form videos, and build your portfolio. You never know who might be watching.
So, grab your popcorn and your sense of humour, and get ready for “Polite Society” — the film that proves that sometimes, the most polite thing to do is kick some butt and save the day. It released in cinemas on April 28th, and I highly recommend it.
We’re rounding up all the latest South Asian entertainment news so you don’t have to. With the rise of representation in media, South Asians are making strides and we’re all for celebrating the highs. Brown Girl Magazine’sentertainment editors Aysha and Arun have compiled a list of the all that grabbed headlines in the first half of the year, so you can still be in the loop without having to stop and search elsewhere. From the latest movie buzz to must-watch live and animated shows, we are covering it all.
Here’s a round-up of some of this year’s highlights:
Star Wars Joins the Brown Side, It Must
Yoda approves this one. After wowing us with Ms. Marvel and breaking glass ceilings while doing so, Academy Award-winning and International Emmy Award-winning director and journalist, the one and only badass Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has once again proved that she’s a force to reckon with! Chinoy is set to be not only the first Pakistani and South Asian, but the first person of color, and the first woman to direct a “Star Wars” film.
“Spider-Man, Spider-Man…” if you don’t know what song we’re referring to, you better pause and run to YouTube and check it out.
The multiverse, with virtually an infinite number of heroes, couldn’t exist without South Asian representation. Insert, Pavitr Prabhakar hailing from Earth-50101. Like Peter Parker, Prabhakar grew up under the care of his aunt and uncle. Despite living in poverty, Prabhakar’s intelligence earned him a scholarship that — with additional support from his family — allowed him to attend an illustrious school in Mumbai. Similar to Parker’s story right? He even has an MJ in his life: Meera Jain, instead of Mary Jane.
He first debuted in the Spider-Man: India (2004) comic book series, but became a household name after being featured in “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” Voiced by Karan Soni in English and Shubman Gill in Hindi, the character is set to return in the film’s 2024 sequel.
South Asians are finally making their way into the Marvel universe and this is only the beginning.
Season four of the much-awaited “Never Have I Ever” came to an end filled with tears and hope, this past summer. Devi proved she can have it all (spoiler alert ahead) — a boy and her dream Ivy League college Princeton. Being a desi kid growing up, many of us also dreamt of being accepted into a school our parents could rave about to their family friends, so to see Devi’s applications rejected was refreshing and much-needed. Much thanks to Mindy Kaling and her co-producer Lang Fisher for keeping it real and showing growth with each of the characters. Seeing both the widows on the show, Nalini and Pati, make room for love and dating gave us more of an incentive to indulge in the show.
Women in Showbiz Everywhere (WISE) Hosted its First Ever ‘Hues of Heritage’ Event Celebrating South Asians in Film & Television in mid-August with actor Bill Moseley and Executive Director of CAPE Michelle Sugihara. The Hi-Tea Affair brought together South Asian creatives, writers, journalists, and other industry members, fostering inspiring and supportive conversations. The event also marked the launch of the esteemed RATNA fellowship, which Vineesha Arora-Sarin, founder & executive director of WISE, terms as a “movement dedicated to identifying and supporting emerging South Asian female writers worldwide who aspire to make their mark in the global entertainment industry.
And what better time to launch it than now when we’re going through a major cultural and a much-needed revolution in Hollywood to give writers and creators fair play as we speak.” The fellowship will select five writers from South Asia (including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and others) and the diaspora to join a one-year program and collaborate on a project alongside talented mentors. Read more about the fellowship here.
It was not something we grew up imagining as South Asians in America; children of immigrants who are often sidelined. But it happened! History was made as a considerable line-up of South Asian artists including Ali Sethi and Jai Wolf took center stage at Coachella. The highlight though, was Diljit Dosanjh’s power-packed performance that sent fans into a frenzy, enough to keep the security on their toes! It was the first time an Indian Punjabi singer performed at the event and we’d say it was about time.
Iconic song “Naatu Naatu” from the blockbuster movie “RRR” not only made history as the first ever song selected from an Indian film to be nominated for an Oscar but by also winning it, beating the likes of Rihanna and Lady Gaga. While the Oscar performance was disappointing — featuring predominantly ‘white’ ensemble of dancers, instead of the thousands of Indians who could’ve done a far better job and made more sense — this win is big for the South Asian community as a whole!
Pakistan filled with Joy as “Joyland” Made it on Academy Awards Shortlist
Pakistani film “Joyland” is the country’s first-ever film to be shortlisted for the Academy Awards. While it had a long run, it did not receive a nomination for the Oscars as expected. It was among 15 films that made the cut for the best international feature film. The critically-acclaimed film breaks stigmas by showcasing a stereotypical patriarchal family that craves for the birth of a baby boy— but with twists. Without any spoilers, this film is a must-watch for dismantling and challenging a host of patriarchal and discriminatory norms that continue to plague South Asian culture.
From “Indian Matchmaking” to Indian Idol-ing: Sima Taparia
Love or hate her, everyone has an opinion about internet sensation Sima Taparia. And with the end of season three, there’s still more to talk about Taparia’s new wedding or shadi song: “Shadi ki Tayaree Hai.”
The song follows Taparia attending a wedding while singing, dancing, and encouraging you to have a wedding of your own. And she’s not alone; her husband Anup Taparia is also singing and dancing. People are calling the song as entertaining as her show! Do with that what you must, but check out the song available to watch on YouTube.
An adaption of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel, Lolita Chakrabarti’s “Life of Pi” musical is not only the first Broadway play with a majority South Asian cast but the first to win three Tony awards.
Dubbed as Broadway’s most diverse show right, “Life of Pi” won Best Lighting Design of a Play, Best Scenic Design of a Play and Best Sound Design of a Play. Not to mention the musical is the Broadway debut of three Olivier Award-winning performers. With more than 20 puppeteers, the show takes you through Pi’s journey of survival.
After almost 15 years in development, “Monsoon Wedding” has made storms in New York’s theater scene. An off-Broadway production that ran all through the summer, “Monsoon Wedding” is an adaption of the iconic film that released in 2001.
We laughed, we cried, we sang as Mira Nair had us “literally dipped in the vat of stunning classical Indian singing.”
A show fit for anyone, as each character depicts varying shades of a personality, “Monsoon Wedding” breaks stereotypes, confronts stigmas, and reminds us of the importance of family.
“What’s Love Got to Do with It?” Brings Home Four Awards
Shekhar Kapur and Jemima Khan’s romantic comedy “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” won four awards at the United Kingdom’s National Film Awards, including best screenplay, best British film, best director and best supporting actor.
Khan, the screenwriter and producer of the movie, won the award for Best Screenplay. Asim Chaudhry’s performance won the movie Best Supporting Actor and Kapur won the Best Director award and the Best British Film award.
In another historic win for India, “The Elephant Whisperers” became the first Indian documentary to win an Oscar. Winning Best Documentary Short Film at the 95th Academy Awards, the film touches upon the relationship between animals and their caretakers. It follows the story of an indigenous couple named Bomman and Bellie who care for an orphaned baby elephant.
The film was directed by Kartiki Gonsalves and produced by Guneet Monga. Sharing the news of the win on Instagram, Monga noted how two women brought home this historic award.
”Tonight is historic as this is the first-ever Oscar for an Indian production. India’s Glory with 2 women.”
Record Number of South Asians Invited to Join The Academy
The Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts announced their list of 398 new members invited to join them. Among the prestigious names are also Indian film celebrities Ram Charan, Mani Ratnam, Karan Johar, Siddharth Roy Kapur, Chandrabose and MM Keeravani. As members of The Academy, they will be eligible to vote for the 96th Academy Awards which will be held in March 2024.
Be on the lookout for our next roundup as the year comes to a close!
September 19, 2023September 29, 2023 3min readBy Nida Hasan
There’s often an element of dysfunctionality that exists within South Asian families. Especially immigrant families, who are carrying with them the burden of intergenerational trauma, shame and guilt; holding onto the last straw of cultural traditions that they have forever known to be the convention, in order to avoid the obliteration of these said values to “Western” ideologies. But what the older generation tends to forget is that they, too, may have been the rebels of their time; misplaced, misfits for the standards of their predecessors. They, too, with their big, ‘American’ dreams (Canadian, in this case) quite possibly left their elders grappling with the loss of their legacy to the unknown. Fawzia Mirza’s “The Queen of My Dreams,” which premiered at the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival, probes into this disparity, drawing on the complexities of a strained mother-daughter relationship in what is an endearing and emotional tale of loss, love, and nostalgia.
Azra (Amrit Kaur) — a Muslim Canadian teenager — is met with the sudden news of her father’s untimely demise. Her father (Hamza Haq) was the only mediator and one of the two shared loves (the other being the ’60s iconic Bollywood song, “Mere Sapnon Ki Rani”) between Azra and her devout mother, Mariam (Nimra Bucha), who rarely see eye-to-eye otherwise. A grieving Azra hops on a plane to Pakistan to attend her father’s funeral and from here on, through fragmented images, viewers are taken on a dramatic yet poignant journey across generations, cultures, and continents, all contrasting each other, but very much in tandem in the telling of the story.
For those who’ve seen Bucha’s talent unfold on Pakistani television can probably vouch for her versatility as an actor. She may have “not fit into the industry” that loves itself a damsel in distress, but seldom has she failed to prove her acting prowess. She is now living this title of a ‘Rising International Star’ to watch out for and deservingly so. She adds a welcome eccentricity and flamboyance to the role of an aspirational, immigrant wife trying to add to the household income by selling Tupperware to white folks. And, at the same time, lends this relatable humanism, fragility, and desperation to her character of an immigrant mother reconnecting with her faith at the sight of losing control over her life and her daughter’s. She allows viewers to recognize what her character cannot see in herself.
Bucha is matched, if not completely outshone, by Kaur, who seamlessly switches between the roles of an adventurous and ambitious young Mariam and a grieving Azra. The latter is frustrated with the cultural and religious norms set out to restrict women around her; she’s also a queer Muslim teen struggling to gain her mother’s acceptance after she abandoned their once-thriving bond at the time of her coming-of-age awakening. Kaur portrays the many layers of her character with sheer nuance, depth, and sincerity. Her dexterity as an actor is evident in how tightly she grips onto the idiosyncracies of each character as if it’s not the same, but two different individuals enacting them.
It is delightful to see Gul-e-Rana play something other than a loud, overbearing, or vengeful matriarch, while still very much being in the same category. The particular scene where Rana whispers to her daughter Mariam on her wedding stage, commending her for truly being the great actor she hopes to become by hiding her groom’s plans of migration all the while, almost makes you sympathize with her character. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to do for the talented Haq who plays the father and the husband, but he sure exudes the perfect charm of a romantic Bollywood hero if he ever chooses to pursue that path.
Mirza weaves and explores a multitude of challenging social issues such as immigration, identity, and sexuality around the intricacies of an intense mother-daughter relationship, without leaving any loose threads. What you are left with is the possibility of Mariam and Azra showing each other some grace, having dived into their past that boils down to the fact that even though they stand at odds with each other — estranged and unforgiving — they have more in common than they’d admit. Queer or not, “The Queen of My Dreams” will offer some relatability to every immigrant mother and her multi-hyphenated daughter. It is like gazing at a self-portrait that persuades you to reflect on the past and its impact on your present and to rethink the trajectory of your future. It also reminds you that all battles — be they of epic proportions or marked by petty grievances — should and must come to an end because life is just too short.