I remember walking down London’s buzzing Carnaby Street and coming face-to-face with the opening lyrics from “Bohemian Rhapsody” — a commercial success delivered by the British rock band Queen, written by their extraordinarily talented, deceased frontrunner Freddie Mercury. The singer’s biopic, with the same title, was nominated for 65 awards all over the world and won 25, including four Academy Awards at the Oscars ceremony held in Los Angeles last month, and starred actor and filmmaker Meneka Das.
Even though the enormous neon lyrics were genius marketing for 20th Century Fox’s foot-stomping celebration of the band, “Bohemian Rhapsody” the movie, managed to capture all the right reactions. Awestruck gazes from pedestrians swarming around Central London, hearts of millions around the world, and, every major acknowledgment this award season.
To chat more about the film, we caught up actor Das, also known for Emmy award-winning “A Girl in the Café,” Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” to discuss her role as Jer Bulsara (Freddie Mercury’s mother) in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
What was the process of being approached for this film like?
I had taken a bit of break from acting in order to take care of my mum back in India. When I wished to return to films, I was introduced to talent agent Charlie Metcalf and I knew I was in great hands. One day, I was meditating in my room, when I received a call from him asking whether I’d be interested in playing the part of Freddie Mercury’s mum. ‘They are making a film on Queen, the band,’ he said. ‘Are you kidding me?!’ I remember shrieking into the phone. I said yes, of course! He sent my showreel to the producers, who said they were really interested and wanted to meet me. I was later introduced to director Dexter Fletcher who is such a wonderful person to work with. He created a relaxed atmosphere for everyone. Anthony Greene (my acting coach), the makeup artists who spent four hours on transforming me into Jer Bulsara every day (nobody recognised me at the premiere, by the way!); everyone was truly amazing to work with.
Were you a fan of Queen, or familiar with their music before being approached for this film?
I knew Freddie Mercury’s work and was definitely familiar with Queen, but didn’t know all their songs or albums. However, their track ‘I Want to Break Free’ was the one I really knew of. One of my cousins in India used to dance to it – she was in her teens – and it was a song she could, and later on all of us could, resonate with, on some level. So, when I got the part, I called her and she was ecstatic! It was a really beautiful moment.
How much research went into playing the character of Jer Bulsara, and how did you make her part as authentic as possible?
The first thing I did was to make sure she wears a saree! It was really surprising to me that not many people knew about Freddie Mercury’s background. I told my friends and peers about this part, and they were slightly taken aback asking why I am playing Freddie Mercury’s mum. I told them he was an Indian man born to Parsi parents in Zanzibar, and his real name was Farrokh Bulsara. His parents were Indian – I went through their interviews and pictures online, so that we do justice to these roles. I even had the opportunity to fly out to Mumbai, and met the Parsi community there. I observed their culture, how they live and went to Parsi restaurants. I even asked them what the secret to their long life was! They said they are happy, stress-free people – always youthful and energetic. I came back and I knew the food, the clothes, the culture – as much as I possibly could have learned. Later on, I met my on-screen husband Ace Bhatti, who plays Bomi Bulsara, slightly scared how the filming process might go, haha! However, we bonded quite quickly, poured over our scripts and eased into our roles.
I remember meeting so many talented, inspirational and seriously cool people before asking the crew that I want to meet the man who plays my son. I want to meet Rami! I’ve trained in many different methods of acting, and every interaction and relationship played on-screen is unique. I wanted to be acquainted with him properly so we know the right mother-son elements that should be captured on film. And they said to me, ‘sure, he’s on stage, rehearsing.’ I went out, met him and what a lovely guy. A thorough gentleman, such a professional – always composed, collected, focused. If he’d shoot a scene that wasn’t satisfactory, he’d just calmly say, “’et’s do it again.’ A fantastic actor and always nice to everyone around him.
How was your experience at the BAFTAS?
It was great. The BAFTAS are the Oscars for the UK! Most of the time, I’m a very one-to-one person. Red carpets bring about a lot of pressure – understandably, of course – but it’s also such a fun, glamorous experience. As a little girl from a small North-Indian village who entertained the elderly with her acting, I think it was a surreal and beautiful moment for me to be able to represent my community at such a prestigious event. When people from my village tell me how proud they are of my work and what it means to them, that is what really makes my heart sing.
How much progress do you think Hollywood has made in terms of on-screen diversity over the last few years?
There is progress, and things are definitely going in the right direction but there is still a long way to go. Younger, progressive voices need to be heard and need to be given chances. There are stories in every culture, in every part of the world and the good thing about the digital age is that nothing gets past the Internet. As actors and filmmakers, we need to fully support each other and really make sure that characters and roles are being presented as authentically as possible. It’s individual responsibility as well – we need to tell our stories and reach out to people who are willing to listen to them.
Based on your experiences, what would you tell aspiring actors and directors who are struggling to make their mark in films and filmmaking?
As cliché as it might sound because so many people tell you the same thing, but I have never given up. It’s been 20 years since my journey began, and I just never gave up. And I do feel that needs to be shared because young people who are now in their 20s and 30s face so much more pressure. The creative market is saturated and you just need to find your niche and see what makes you stand out. Sometimes, nobody is willing to give you a break. And that’s where you need to work hard, sometimes work multiple jobs, invest money out of your own pocket and give yourself a break. Just believe in yourself and truly never give up.
Can you tell us something about your upcoming projects?
Currently, I am developing a feature script ‘Summer Hill,’ with the British Film Institute. It’s basically a story of two offbeat Indian sisters who journey to London to make their mark on the capital’s music scene. I think this is the right and most important time to tell diverse stories, and I really want to share my own. My sister and I came to London to pursue our creative dreams from a really humble background. I am also doing the first pilot directing course with Peter Sollett at Sundance Collab.
What is it like to be part of a multi-award winning and in particular, an Oscar-winning film?
When we were shooting ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ we were doing our jobs and taking one day at a time. Once the project was done, we had really high hopes but reactions from audiences all over the world just blew us away. Overall, I am super proud, humbled and left in a surreal state. It’s really fun to just be sitting in a café and listening to people’s opinions regarding the film, haha!
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!
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.
“After so Long” is a poetry film created for Simha’s EP, which is streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. The poem was collaboratively written by Simha, a U.S. native, and Jae, who is based in India, during the 2020 lockdown. “After so Long” was recited by Simha and their parents. In 2022, I directed and produced the film through my studio, Star Hopper. “After so Long” premiered on Nowness Asia in March 2022.
This film is a worldwide collaboration among trans and queer south-Asian artists from the United States, India and Canada. It was recorded, shot and filmed during the lockdown of 2020 and 2021.
Awake at 10 am but out of bed at noon,
I want to be here where I lose myself in these sheets
Glancing through half-shut eyes
At the gold pressing past my window
The glimmer remarks on the ledge of my bed
But the voices are so loud
Like dust collecting in the corner of my room
I am unaware to why I’m still here
With the chilling doubt of the breeze…
I’m swept into lucidity After so long
Mil rahi hoon mein aaj iske saang barso baad,
(Today, I’ll be meeting them after so long)
Koi paata nahi diya tune
(But with no destination sight,)
(What should I do?)
(Where should I go?)
Shayad agar mein chalne lagoon,
(Perhaps, if I keep walking)
Inn yaadon ki safar mein
(Down this road of memories)
Mujhe samajh mein ayega,
(I will find out)
Yeh rasta kahaan jayega,
(Where this road leads)
Inn aari tedhi pakadandiyon pe baarte hi jaana hai,
(Through the twists and turns of this winding roads, I must keep going on)
Mujhe mil na hain aaj uske saath,
(I wish to meet them today)
(After so long)
I feel like I’m retracing my footsteps
From these concrete stretches
To broken cement walls
Chips and cracks forge their way for new designs
I see the old abandoned buildings
That once held the warmth of bodies
Now just hold memories
Supporting the nature’s resilience
In vines and moss
After so long
Dhoondli shishe mein jaaga leli hai
(These isty mirrors have offered refuge)
Bikhri hui laatao ne,
(To these scattered vines)
Zameen pe uchi ghaas pe
(Amidst the tall grass stretching from the ground)
Lehrati kamsan kaliyaa
(The swaying little buds)
Bheeni bheeni khushboo bikhereti
(Spreading honeysuckle scent through the air)
Phir wahi mausam,
(I lose myself in reminiscing, the same season)
(The same heart)
(After so long)
Phir bhi mein chal rahi hoon aaj
(Still, I keep carrying on today)
Khudko khudse milane ke liye
(In the pursuit of my higher self)
Inn galiyo se guzarna hain aaj
(I must pass through these streets today)
Chaalte chaale jaana hai aaj
(I must keep going on today)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor paar
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
(After so long)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor pe
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
(After so long)
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