The story of the new film, “Hotel Mumbai,” is not just about the 2008 Mumbai attacks. It’s the story of the thousands of people that have walked through this landmark of Mumbai. It’s the story of the housekeepers, the restaurant staff, the chefs, and the front desk managers to the celebrities, politicians, backpackers, business people and heiresses. Nazanin Boniadi plays the last of these as Zahara, staying at the hotel with her husband, played by Armie Hammer, and their baby on something of a honeymoon. We watch her family deal with devastating and traumatic event alongside those of all races and classes inside the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
Brown Girl Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with Boniadi to discuss the film, her acting career, and her activism work.
What’s the best character you’ve played?
The best? Oddly enough, it’s a tie. And I would say it’s a tie between Claire in ‘Counterpart’ [series on Starz] and Zahara in ‘Hotel Mumbai.’ So one’s TV and one’s film, and I think the reasons are because they’re both really really complex, complicated, and multidimensional women.
What I love about Claire in ‘Counterpart’ is her name’s Claire. They never talk about her ethnicity, they don’t box me into some kind of corner. You know, you could have an Australian actor play Canadian or American or English, you can have an English actor play American or whatever else, but for some reason when it comes to minority actors they like to only specifically point out their ethnicity or their religion. And so as much as I appreciate sometimes doing that, it really does box you in as an actor when you only do that, you know, and you’re only cast that way. So that’s what was refreshing about Claire, there’s no mention of her ethnicity, she’s just a woman. Her name is just a generic, could be whatever ethnicity.
The thing I love about Zahara is even though yes, it’s clear that she’s Iranian, there’s an arc I love about her. She starts the film and she’s been raised with privilege and she’s clearly from a wealthy background. Raised with a golden spoon in her mouth, never had to struggle for anything. And she’s thrown into this situation, and over the course of the three days she has to find her strength and her resilience to fight for her life and fight for the life of her child and her husband. So in that sense, the three-day arc for her is one of her growing immensely just over a short period of time because of this horrific ordeal.
You don’t expect that of her.
No, at the beginning of the film you feel like, ‘Oh no, she might chip a fingernail.’ Then she’s hiking up her skirt, taking off her shoes, sweating, you know.
What’s a type of character or role you haven’t played and you want to?
I would love to do more action. I have a little bit in ‘Counterpart’ but I think there’s more I can explore on that front.
How did you prepare for your part in “Hotel Mumbai?” Did you speak to people who were involved?
Yeah, I spoke to some. We watched a documentary, ‘Surviving Mumbai.’ There was a wealth of clips and research material that Anthony [Maras, the film’s director] sent us. There’s obviously a lot of news footage and interviews with the sole surviving gunman.
And also just speaking to Anthony. Anthony spent so much time typing the stuff up for us, accounts of interviews he had had with survivors and with people who knew about the situation and the ordeal and he gave us a lot of time to rehearse. So he rehearsed with myself and Armie [Hammer]. Armie and I had never met before and we were going to shoot a film being husband and wife. Basically, there was an exercise he gave us where Armie and I had to sit and stare at each other for an hour.
Oh my gosh.
Just stare at each other. And imagine saying, ‘Hi, nice to meet you. Ok, sit here across from me, within six inches apart or something, and let’s stare at each other.’
For an hour?!
An hour! And that’s a long time and we’re not allowed to look away, right? So it’s highly uncomfortable but what that does is that it breeds familiarity and it also, I cried for an hour. That was my, I couldn’t help it because I was thinking about, he told us each to think about our back stories for our characters. How we met and what situation we’re in with the baby and I cried. He just looked really concerned and I remember thinking, “What is he thinking right now?” But by the end of it we kind of felt like we had a history. So it was an interesting exercise. Outside of that we had a lot of blocking rehearsals, you’ve seen the film?
Where, not to give too much away to audiences, but where we are tied up. So we did a lot of blocking rehearsals for that and yeah, that’s how we prepared.
So do you remember where you were when the attacks originally happened?
I was in the U.S. I was at home. I remember seeing it on the news and I do remember being mortified and horrified and just sad. But as is the case, I think, with a lot of the news we get we become so desensitized. Especially, when it’s happening in a place where we have no relatives, no loved ones, that we’ve never been to. I’d never been to India. I feel like I’m a very empathetic, compassionate person because a lot of my life revolves around advocacy work for the disenfranchised but it is a truth, it is an unfortunate truth that we tend to distance ourselves just to survive, right? Otherwise you’re like…
Crying all the time.
Constantly, you’re sad all the time. So you kind of tend to see something, be sad about it for a minute but then force yourself to disconnect from it and compartmentalized it and say, “Ok, well that belongs in this, it’s not a priority right now.” So when I read the script, I was reminded of how I felt the moment that I saw it on the news and I thought, “Wow, we have forgotten.” It was seven or eight years after the attack when the project first came to me. It was 2016, and I remember thinking, “Wow, we can’t forget. We can’t forget about these horrible, horrific ordeals. We have to remind ourselves that they happen. And not only that they happen, but what can we get out of it? How can we find something from this experience to stop it from happening again?” And I think this film does such a beautiful job of inspiring hope and also inspiring us to change as human beings and therefore maybe, hopefully, possibly for these things to never happen again.
One thing that’s important to know is that the FBI has an open investigation on seven individuals that are responsible for orchestrating this attack and the fact that they haven’t been brought to justice and there’s a $5 million reward on getting information on the arrest of these individuals. I feel like if someone who has knowledge about any of it watches this film and it leads to an arrest, that would be a fantastic outcome.
You mentioned this, but a big part of your life is your activism work. What’s in the horizon for you there?
Well, right now I’m committed to seeing Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is a British-Iranian duel national who has been imprisoned for almost three years and unjustly separated from her husband and her baby, come home. Go home to the U.K.
Also Nasrin Sotoudeh, who is one of the most prominent—if not the most prominent—female human rights attorney in Iran, is currently facing a 33-year sentence for doing her job. For defending women who have been fighting against compulsory hijab in Iran. There’s a big anti-compulsory hijab movement in Iran and the women are systematically being persecuted and sent to prison and she was defending them. Because of that she is being seen as a national security threat and has been sentenced for 33 years in jail.
She’s a mother of, I think, 2 teenagers, if I’m not wrong. She is extraordinary. I think the President Macron of France recently gave her an award in absentia for being so brave. People are saying she deserves the Nobel Peace Prize and here is the Iranian government imprisoning her for 33 years. And so I want that case made more public. I want also the protests, the ongoing protests in Iran for human rights, for freedom, the anti-compulsory hijab movement and all of it to gain more global press and coverage, because I think unless we are aware of their struggle then it’s really something we are never going to get behind and support the people of Iran.
My next question is kind of in the vein of that. This is obviously an important time for political and social justice movements, is there something you think we’re not discussing enough?
Yes, one thing I want to add to is the Me Too movement, Time’s Up, the Women’s Marches — we’ve been seeing a lot of women’s issues come to light and the progress has been great and I love it, but what we’re failing to understand is that what’s happening at the same time. December 2017 is when it started, the anti-compulsory hijab movement in Iran with these women, the Rosa Parks of Iran, getting on the streets and peacefully waving their headscarves in peaceful protest against compulsory hijab and their rights. And so the women’s rights movement in Iran is thriving and vibrant and energetic, but we’re not seeing it.
What we need to do is lend our voices equally to the women overseas, wherever that may be. Saudi Arabia, Iran. I don’t think these incidences are coincidental. I think it’s convergence, not a coincidence, and I think it’s a global awakening in women’s rights that we need to be aware of.
Last one for you: How has the film industry changed since you’ve been working in it?
I think there’s a lot more dialogue and conversation about equity. In pay, in how women are being treated, in how minorities are being treated. I love the surge in representation this past year, especially at the Oscars, of indigenous, Latinx, Asian American, even with the Rami Malek win, Egyptian American, you got some North African representation.
You had Rayka Zehtabchi, a 25-year-old Iranian-American win an Oscar. She is the first Iranian woman, and I think that’s a huge to see this diversity. With ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘Black Panther,’ it’s lovely to see representation. I hope to see it more with Middle Eastern people and South Asians.
I think MENA and South Asian actors are still highly underrepresented, and I think that’s our next push, to get films where we see more brown people.
“Hotel Mumbai” premieres in New York and Los Angeles on March 22nd, and expands nationwide on March 29th.
For those readers living in NYC (or the surrounding areas), here’s a special treat: On March 22nd, the incredible Anupam Kher—and Boniadi’s “Hotel Mumbai” co-star—will be doing a Q&A after the 7 p.m. showing at the Angelika theater in Manhattan.
Bonus treat: Nazanin Boniadi will do her own Q&A on Saturday, March 23rd after the 7 p.m. showing, again at the Angelika. Tickets for both showings are limited, but available here.
For any of us who have siblings, the relationship with them can be one of the most fulfilling ones. And also one of the most bloody frustrating. No one can quite stroke the fire like someone who knows you extremely well, or sometimes not, but have a familial bond with that neither one of you chose. In “Polite Society,“directed by Nida Manzoor, sisters Ria Khan and Lena Khan’s loving, sweet, and sometimes tumultuous relationship takes center stage.
Played delightfully by Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya, respectively, the evolution of their relationship is one of the film’s greatest and simultaneously weakest points. It’s also pretty cool to see two South Asian actresses in an action-comedy movie — how refreshing it is to mention the art of choreography and praise it in regards to fight sequences vs. dance sequences for a film centered on two South Asian women — that itself shows progress.
Set in London, Ria is an aspiring stunt woman who already shows massive talent in martial arts. She looks up to her older sister Lena, who is enrolled in art school and, also holds remarkable potential in a somewhat less traditionally acceptable field. Their relationship starts off as supportive and sweet with no inclinations of jealousy or resentment that sometimes plagues sisterly bonds. But this also means that they are quite protective of one another, almost to the detriment of their well wishes for each other.
This all happens when Lena gets engaged after dropping out of art school. Ria feels betrayed. They were supposed to be on this journey together in fighting for their dreams. Ria decides that she knows what’s best for her sister and enlists the help of her friends to rescue the damsel in distress from her own wedding. Her deep animosity towards the prospect of Lena getting married is also fueled by Lena’s fiancé and his mother acting extremely suspiciously. The twist that ultimately brings the two sisters back together is both shocking and weirdly somewhat progressive in the motive behind the villain’s origin story. But the twist, unfortunately, is too ambitious for the movie as it tacks on another genre and theme earnestly, but still clunkily.
“Polite Society” tackles not only what it means to fight for one’s dreams but also what it means to have just one ardent supporter. As Lady Gaga famously said, “There can be 100 people in a room and 99 of them don’t believe in you but all it takes is one and it just changes your whole life.” Well, Ria’s Bradley Cooper was her very own sister who seemed to abandon her, and her faith in her, when she chose a different path. For Lena, the film opened up the question of marriage and the weight it bears in the life of a South Asian woman. Ria’s lack of understanding of the pressure it places on Lena is the start of the change in their relationship — the start of Ria’s coming of age and the start of Lena settling firmly into her adulthood.
Standouts from the cast include Ria’s best friends, played by Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri, who commit to the story and characters with such hilarity and conviction. They add the lightheartedness and playfulness the film needs, and it is refreshing that never once do they use Ria’s cultural background as a way to make fun of her or dismiss her.
It is also heartening to see Lena and Ria’s parents being some of the most supportive South Asian parents seen on screen. At the end of the day, it is not the external family pressure that impacts the decisions made by the sisters but rather their own satisfaction, or lack thereof, with their own lives that become the driving force of their actions.
“Polite Society” is written and directed by a South Asian woman for South Asian women, and is definitely worth a watch when it releases in theaters this April.
Haider wades his way through Karachi’s expansive beach, climbing and tumbling over rocks, in Mumtaz’s memory. The vast landscape is perfectly encapsulated in the 4:3 aspect ratio — an unconventional yet welcoming choice. He vanishes into the sea, leaving his storyline open-ended. The screen fades to black. The film comes to a close. The gentle humming and lapping of the waves disappear. However, I stay put. Stumped, and unable to comprehend the masterpiece that Saim Sadiq, director of “Joyland”, has blessed Pakistanis with.
“It’s so important to narrate these stories in today’s world, where we’re often divided and seldom united,” says producer Apoorva Charan during an exclusive chat with Brown Girl Magazine.
It’s her feature film debut as a producer, and she’s justifiably beaming with pride.
Joyland is such a win for South Asia, but particularly, Pakistani storytelling. Every person I met, I felt like there was some characteristic or quirk about them that mirrored our characters in the film.
Set in the depths of androon Lahore, “Joyland” primarily revolves around Haider (Ali Junejo) — a meek, unemployed house husband in a borderline, passionless marriage. He’s happily helping Saleem bhai (Sohail Sameer) and Nucci bhabi (Sarwat Gilani) raise three kids, while the fourth one breaks Nucci’s water in the opening scene. Another girl is born, despite the ultrasound’s previous declaration of a baby boy.
“If I were to receive an award based on my character in “Joyland”, it’d definitely be for “best at single-handedly increasing the population of Pakistan,” says Gillani, as we howl with laughter during our spoiler-riddled chat with the cast of the film. “I think that, combined with the ‘coolest bhabi’ — those two will have my name on them.”
But Nucci’s wasn’t just a bhabi who pumped out a new baby every year. Sarwat’s character was given some level of agency — a woman who reminisced about a career in interior design before marriage and kids while smoking a cigarette in secrecy.
I think my philanthropic work plays a part in how I started saying no to bechari roles. How can I be a role model to these women I’m trying to help, while playing the same characters? The change came about with “Churails” and I vehemently stuck to it. My characters need to have a voice; a backbone.
On the other hand, Haider’s wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), works as a beautician at the local salon, busy dolling up brides in Lahore’s unpredictable load-shedding.
Both Haider and Mumtaz seem to have a relatively stable marriage based equally on societal expectations and gender-flipped roles. While Haider stays home, helps in the kitchen, and attempts at searching for a traditional job, Mumtaz carves autonomy and independence for herself. This is in spite of an oppressive family life characterised and dictated by Haider’s overly conservative, traditionalist father and patriarch, Rana (Salmaan Peerzada), who wishes for the couple to procreate a cricket team of just boys.
But Rana, known as Abba Jee, is also layered with his own 50 shades of grey, struggling with loneliness and a lack of intimacy, mirrored in his relationship with next-door neighbour Fayyaz (Sania Saeed). His emotional desires are symbolised by his physical impediments — the former handicapped with “what will people say”, and the latter with a wheelchair. The rules that he has for his children are the same that his children have for him, bound by tradition, norms, and society. They are not allowed to stray from what is considered “normal”.
The film’s women are strong which is pretty much a reflection of the women in Sadiq’s life. While Abba Jee shuns the love and companionship that Fayyaz offers, she stands her ground until firmly asked to leave. The complexity of each person’s emotions versus expectations is what makes “Joyland” relatable on a human level.
Alternatively, Mumtaz’s relationship with Haider is based on convenience and habit, where two people share the same bed but sleep facing away (partially because one of Saleem and Nucci’s young daughters crashes with them every night, illustrating the confined space both Haider and Mumtaz are allowed to be themselves in). The dynamics of their marriage drastically evolve once Haider’s eye catches Biba (Alina Khan), covered in blood as she walks numbingly into the hospital where Nucci gave birth. The introductory scene mirrored the brutal reality of violence inflicted upon Pakistan’s trans community; one of “Joyland’s” most haunting moments.
Mumtaz is asked to quit her job once Haider lands a gig as a “theatre manager” — a cover-up for his job as a background dancer at the nightclub Biba coincidentally performs at. The film portrays the traditional Pakistani marital social dynamic; men must work, and women must housekeep. Even when some level of independence is allowed to a married woman, she must forego her right to a career later in life. Understandably, it leaves Mumtaz devastated.
“It’s so strange how that’s just an acceptable act in our society,” Farooq chimes in, voicing Mumtaz’s thoughts. “Even if a woman is good at a 100 things, ultimately, she’s expected to quit her job to be a homemaker because that’s ‘her job’.”
With time, Haider falls into a routine and rhythm of working at the theatre and spending more time with Biba, allowing him an insight into the widespread transphobia she’s regularly faced with. Biba confides her innermost desire to be what she termed as “a complete woman” in order to land the same dancing opportunities as her counterparts.
Haider’s daring closeness to Biba leaves Mumtaz — who at this point is reliant on him as a best friend more than the physical intimacy he fitfully provides her — alone, isolated, and depressed. For Haider, it is liberating to leave problems at home and escape into a secret world centred around his deepest desires. He doesn’t want to be a bad person. He doesn’t wish to hurt or leave his wife. But his happiness now seemingly lies in dancing and exchanging stolen kisses with Biba. Farooq agrees:
I think Mumtaz and Haider were best friends at this point. They had an unspoken love for each other, which stemmed from the sanctity of their relationship. They might not be in love but they did love each other. In the eyes of our society and otherwise, they were married, but they’d drifted so far apart. There was love but it wasn’t possible to return from how distant they were.
This point of no return brings Haider to a crossroads — one where he is torn between his loyalty to Mumtaz and his love for Biba. Ultimately and ironically, in a particularly passionate moment, it is his curiosity pertaining to Biba’s sexuality that drives her to throw him out of her life. Defeated and guilt-ridden, he comes face-to-face with a pregnant and non-confrontational Mumtaz, who, by now, is aware of what Haider has been up to but doesn’t have the mental capacity to verbally digest his infidelity alongside a child she doesn’t want.
Her apprehensions about bearing and raising children are indicated throughout the early days of her pregnancy. The clutching of her stomach, the tightening of the rollercoaster belt during a visit to Joyland park, and her unease during the ultrasound are just a few examples of Mumtaz’s angst.
Abba Jee’s 70th birthday was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Mumtaz, surrounded by family and friends and feeling emptier than ever, takes her own life. A tragic full circle where one life ends as the other begins. Her suicide is harbingered by Rana’s birthday speech as he recalls a palmist once saying his bloodline would end with Haider.
“Joyland” is replete with polarity. There is a seamless hand-in-hand flow of happiness and devastation, longing and antipathy, birth and death. Pakistani society’s struggles with misogynistic gender roles are depicted in the most gentle, sensitive, and nuanced ways. The struggle is also ironic, considering Pakistan has one of the most progressive transgender legislations in the world. Trans people have the right to self-identify their gender in Pakistan – a right still denied to the trans community in many progressive countries, such as the UK.
A deeply reflective film with memorable and emotional characters doing justice to their performances. It’s currently running in cinemas here in the UK, and we highly recommend watching this poignant piece of art.
September 19, 2023September 19, 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.