Look, I am a diaspora kid just like many of us, I was born in New York and lived between NYC and Arizona during a post 9-11 America that made turbanssynonymous with terrorism. Actor and filmmaker, Nardeep Khurmi has taken the hate-filled sentiments that perpetuate our countries and translated those emotions into a short film titled “Pagg.” It’s a film that despite its brevity, tugged at my heartstrings with its relatable and very real storyline.
It brings me insurmountable joy to say that in my experience, the general sentiment towards my Sikh community is changing in places like Arizona, where just nine years ago, the “towel head” mentality was very, very painfully real.
While there is an increase in hate crimes and religiously motivated violence in North America, I believe that education and information are part of the solution.
We should all know by now what is under a pagg (HAIR, GUYS, IT’S JUST HAIR!), but I wanted to find out from Nardeep the inspiration behind his “Pagg.”
When did “Pagg” come into conception, and how?
‘Pagg’ came into conception as a result of the 2016 election cycle. There was so much anger, hatred, and fear bubbling up to the surface, and like many, I had hoped it was an anomaly. After the election, the frequency of hate crimes towards South Asians grew to a degree I hadn’t seen since 9/11. This was alarming, especially because the news would mention one event and then quickly move onto the next. Things changed when a shooting in Kansas City hit the cultural zeitgeist and was reported on for the better part of a week. I don’t want to go into the details, but the gist was that the assailant was bold enough to scream ‘get out of my country’ while opening fire on an Indian man in a bar. It was hard for me to shake the growing dread that all this was becoming the norm.
This type of rhetoric had even crawled back into my own life. I’ve dealt with my own racially charged encounters, but I was taken aback when, as I was walking down the street in liberal Los Angeles, the day after the election, a couple of ‘good old boys’ yelled ‘time to go back to your own country, Osama!’ from their truck. That hadn’t happened to me in years.
Suffice it to say, after the election, with the increase and boldness in hate crimes, I felt like it was necessary to make something that explored the fear that was growing within the South Asian community, and that’s how ‘Pagg’ was born. I was dealing with my own insecurities, fears, and anger due to what was happening in America.
“Pagg” touches on fear, racism, and intersectional issues. What was the thought process behind depicting interracial marriage?
Ha! Yeah, the film touches upon a lot, but I feel that’s hard to avoid since these issues intersect in so many ways. It was important for me to depict an interracial marriage for a variety of reasons. I’ve never really been satisfied with depictions of these types of relationships. They’re complicated and beautiful, but also loving and supportive. That being said, both partners in interracial relationships have to deal with micro-aggressions, albeit in different ways. I thought it would be interesting to see how Rachel deals with those types of comments and situations and how she chooses to support Mandeep in that.
Having Rachel not be South Asian was important in many ways because of what it represents. Mandeep is a Sikh American who has kept his traditional uncut hair and beard and wears a turban. Rachel accepts him for who he is and has never asked him to change. His home is a safe haven, and his relationship is a constant he doesn’t have in his everyday life and something he can always come home to.
Lastly, I wanted to show the isolation that can still exist in these relationships. Though Rachel does have to face the daily bigotries alongside her husband, she doesn’t necessarily feel the same isolation as Mandeep, considering she’s not Sikh. So it was important for me to show that even though this relationship was incredibly loving and supportive, there’s still space for Mandeep to be isolated within that because his situation is inherently different than his partner’s. The ‘us against the world’ mentality gets complicated when each individual’s experience is inherently different. And all that compounds when you have a child.
The death of Sikhs in the U.S. is often associated with being considered “terrorist” — do you feel that notion is changing?
I think that perception is slowly changing. The major problem we face in the US concerning Sikhs is a lack of knowledge. Most people don’t know who or what Sikhs are. They just draw the equivalence of the turban to some bad guy in a cave. But I think that idea is slowly eroding due to increased representation. As Sikhs are getting more face time both in the media and politically, I’m seeing the narrative changing for the positive.
Did you fear backlash from the Sikh community for including non-vegetarian and alcohol oriented components? Did you receive any?
I didn’t fear backlash from the Sikh community when I put those elements in. There are people who live their lives in a very strict manner, but there are also those who do not. I never intended on using the film as a way to proclaim ‘this is how everyone who looks like this acts.’ I did receive some backlash from certain people, but it allowed us to have a conversation about the realities of life and how not everyone lives the same way as someone else. They turned out to be very fruitful conversations!
As a woman raised around plenty of Sardars and Sardarnis (Sikh men and women) I have a love and admiration for a great mane and beard, it feels like a beautiful expression of something natural, this moment in the film stuck with me, because lord knows I WISH my hair grew!
An interesting conversation has sparked now that ‘Pagg’ is online. Some have taken issue with the choices of the lead character, feeling a true Sikh would never succumb to a hate crime the way Mandeep does in the film. They feel it misrepresents Sikhs. I think this is an interesting argument to have, particularly surrounding masculinity and the nature of storytelling and representation as a whole. The piece was never intended to represent all Sikhs or Sikhism, just this one particular person who happens to be of the faith.
I think this type of backlash is constructive in that it allows us to have a more complex dialogue about how these characters are presented. In my opinion, characters with three dimensions, with flaws, as opposed to perfect beings are always more interesting. It helps broaden our representation to show that these characters aren’t perfect, they make mistakes, and you don’t have to agree with their choices. (And allows us to have catharsis watching a journey we may not agree with) Certainly, there are people who would never succumb to hateful things, but this narrative was about someone who does, and it’s been really great to have those conversations with people who find it difficult to reconcile the complicated choices the main character makes.
My favorite part of the film is when a woman remarks “it must be so beautiful” when referring to Manu’s hair. Was it important for you to show what’s truly “under the turban?”
I’m so glad you liked that moment! Yes, it was important for me to show what was ‘under the turban’ to normalize rather than exoticize. The first third of ‘Pagg’ depicts Mandeep with his family in his home without his turban. His hair is never treated as an ‘other’ or as something odd, just as a part of him. Since Rachel and Sunny never question it, the audience doesn’t question it. It’s just an extension of Mandeep. It’s only when he’s out in the world that it becomes a ‘thing,’ and by then I hope we have the audience in Mandeep’s corner so they can experience life from his perspective. Hair is an extremely important thing for a practicing Sikh, so it was important to layer in that idea so that the climax would hit in the right way. I also like this particular moment because it also shows that micro-aggressions aren’t always negative. They can come from very positive places even though the end result is awkward.
Where did you draw the experiences of hate crimes and racism from?
I drew from my own personal experiences, those of friends and family, and from the news. I grew up in the white suburbs of Philly, I have been stopped and frisked in NY, I have dealt with Neo-Nazis and KKK members. So there was plenty of experience there. It’s sad to say, but it’s not really hard to find inspiration for these types of things.
Making impactful films, music and shows are perhaps the most tangible, direct way for us to integrate diversity and inclusion on a large scale. Producing and funding these projects, however — not so simple! Let’s get the T behind the $$$.
What was the fundraising process like?
I’ll be honest: The fundraising process was a bit hit and miss. We decided to crowdfund, which turned out to be great due to the generosity of friends and family, but ultimately the fundraising process disappointed me. We reached out to South Asian organizations across America, many of which have allocated funds for the arts. They are really lovely organizations that help our community, and everyone seemed excited to help the film in one way or the other, either monetarily or otherwise, but ultimately they all turned a cold shoulder to us.
I was disappointed by the larger South Asian community’s lack of support during the fundraising process, but this is a problem our community has been facing forever. When it comes to the arts, there’s still a big stigma to helping out. I’m seeing that change with the younger generation, but we need to get everyone on board, especially those organizations which have the ability to help young storytellers and artists.
What’s next for you as an actor and filmmaker?
Next up is a feature film. I’m keen on exploring the immigrant experience through the lens of the South Asian experience. I’m currently writing a feature film focusing on a road trip between a Punjabi truck driver and an undocumented immigrant. I’m hoping to get that off the ground in the next year. It’s been a great year as an actor. I just wrapped a feature film and television pilot, as well as a play, and I’m lucky enough to be a part of ‘Mira, Royal Detective’ on Disney, so I’m enjoying the grind and the hustle. You can probably see me on TV right now in a Choice Hotels commercial, as well as some episodic television in the fall.
Part of representing our communities in entertainment and media is representing the spectrum of us that exist in the same manner as our counterparts. “Pagg” is a film I relate to closely, as I imagine many of my fellow Sikhs or South Asians do. Like Nardeep says, we have to work together and continue supporting one another more. If we do that, we just might be getting somewhere.
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.
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.
As a South Indian American, I am aware of how non-brown Americans view the Indian film industry. One word: Bollywood. Bollywood and the South Indian film industry has always been lumped into the same category as Bollywood, despite the diversity. For Indians, South India is obviously different from North India, but non-brown people assume it would all be the same. This extends beyond Indian cinema; feeding into assumptions regarding other aspects of culture like language, food, and so on. People tend to assume all Indians speak Hindi or eat tikka masala at home rather than trying to understand the diversity of Indian culture. With time, especially with the help of social media, there was more accessibility to understanding the differences among these cultures, yet nothing truly spread across the globe. Then came “RRR.”
“RRR” is a Telugu film from Tollywood. This South Indian film has become a worldwide sensation with its incredible visual effects, captivating plot, and catchy music. I was blown away by the reception this film got in the United States, especially from American film critics who were all praise. What impressed me the most was how more Americans clarified it was not a Bollywood film, and differentiated it as a Tollywood film. The number of people taking the time to learn the difference between Tollywood and Bollywood might seem simple, yet meaningful, nonetheless. South Indian films are incredibly underrated and are finally getting the attention they deserved. It is incredible to see the celebration surrounding the film and what it represents and means to this community and how we get to share it with the world. The hype was real, and then the awards season began.
The Golden Globes top the list of some of the major awards for television and film and it was amazing to hear that “RRR” had been nominated in two categories for this award. Funnily enough in my own world, it aired on my birthday. Then came the moment when Jenna Ortega said “Naatu Naatu, RRR” and the song played as M.M. Keeravani approached the stage to accept his award. This song became the first Asian, not only Indian, song to win the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The 80th Golden Globes saw many wins for the Asian community with films like “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and “RRR.” There is something beautiful about being South Indian in America and watching a South Indian song win an award in America on one’s birthday. There is a joy in getting to tell my friends, both brown and non-brown, about it and share the song, “Naatu Naatu,” with them. Sure it is Indian, but it is just a bit closer to home, and that closeness stands with a beautiful meaning. When it came to the Critics’ Choice Awards, it was touching to hear about how S.S. Rajamouli grew up with the encouragement of creativity and storytelling. It honestly inspired me to continue my own projects; I hope to see them prosper as well.
After the win at the Golden Globes, the Oscars became highly anticipated for the Indian community, especially when the nominations for Best Original Song were announced. Of course, when the familiar title appeared once again, a victory felt within grasp. “Naatu Naatu” had a couple of big moments at the Academy Awards ceremony: the performance and the win itself. The performance was introduced by the absolutely phenomenal actress, Deepika Padukone, who, too, is s South Indian. Her introduction of the song brought forward the context in which the tune takes place, that is during 1920 under the British colonization of India. She reminded all of us of how significant the song was along with its catchy beat. When it came to the announcement of who won Best Original Song, it was a first-of-its-kind victory given that it was the first time an Indian film won in this category. The speech made by M. M. Keeravani was beautiful as he sang to the tune of “Top of the World” with his own lyrics to take in the moment. It was certainly an extremely proud day to be Indian anywhere in the world, and especially to be a South Indian.
Seeing non-brown folks acknowledging the diversity of Indian culture has been beautiful to witness. The cultural pride of saying an Indian film, specifically a South Indian film, won the Oscar, a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and two Critics’ Choice Awards so far is an absolute joy. Seeing South Indian representation, especially during the awards season, is inspiring for brown creatives. This has been a time of great cultural pride in the South Indian community, and as a South Indian creative myself, I am honored to see it.
Photo Courtesy: Netflix