Pakistani women are breaking stereotypes and traditional boundaries around the world. “The Pakistan Four” conveys the stories of four women in particular, who set out to achieve their dreams across America from New York City to Portland.
Hareem Ahmad is Pakistan’s first saber fencer. The documentary follows her journey as she competes in the Fencing World Cup in Chicago. Nadia Manzoor is the first British Pakistani standup comic, who prepares for and performs her one-woman show called “Burq Off.” Fatima Ali is an aspiring chef who comes to New York City in hopes of becoming one of the best in the industry. The documentary takes us on her journey to compete on Food Network’s “Chopped” series. Kulsoom Abdullah is the first Pakistani female weightlifter. Facing legal clash with the International Weightlifting Association in regards to her hijab, she fights back and tries to win her case so she can compete again.
The documentary tells these four stories in parallel to each other. It is simple, yet powerful and inspiring. Running just a little bit over 30 minutes, the documentary effectively tells the complete journey of these four women without boring or confusing the audience. It leaves behind a great message for all young women who may feel bounded by their cultural traditions and expectations from their communities.
The director and producer of the film, Shehzad Hameed Ahmad, said the inspiration for the topic of this documentary actually came from Malala Yousafzai.
“I felt it was quintessential that we as Pakistanis needed more brave examples for women who faced many barriers in different shapes and forms. Today, as we stand, I feel there is a dearth of heroes, especially for women. An ordinary girl in Pakistan has no clue who to look up to and say, ‘I can do it too,’ Ahmad said. “There are many women working for change in Pakistan but the media at large ignores them.”
Ahmad said that he hopes that this documentary inspires both women and men to do whatever they dream with confidence. The documentary was premiered at the NYU Film Festival in February, and since then, it has been shown at various screenings at Harvard and Georgia Tech. Ahmad is organizing screenings across the globe, so make sure to like “The Pakistan Four” Facebook page to stay updated on any screenings near you!
If you’d like to hear more from Ahmad, read excerpts from his interview below:
What inspired you to make a documentary? Was it always a goal of yours?
I was always a mischievous, rebellious kid, looking for trouble as far as I can remember. I knew I had to do things, which I was stopped from. Being the youngest in the family, following my elders like a good, Pakistani-Muslim boy were paramount. Choosing to do my undergraduate in business administration didn’t work well either. I knew sitting in an office, wearing a suit and tie, and taking orders on things that didn’t have any meaning was not the life I was ready to accept. Hence, I decided to venture into TV journalism which gave wings to my rebellious instincts.
Back in 2005, private television was booming and I decided early on that telling stories was going to be my thing, in any way, shape, or form. I never freely expressed myself when I finally succeeded in getting my first job at 19 years old. The content usually revolved around political correctness and reporters were repeatedly informed of scratching the surface. This meant nothing to me, with no real change or impact for the world out there. Documentary film-making was my escape route to find and report about real issues, real people, and go in-depth and investigate people, issues and places on my own terms and be the boss of myself in order to create social impact.
From 2005 to 2014, I now feel I was destined to be a documentary film-maker with everyone conspiring to make me who I am today. There is no one in my family who has worked in the media before me, so in that sense, I’m kind of like the odd one out and that is what I always wanted – to stick out like a sore thumb rather than be part of the crowd.
How did you relate with the subjects and their struggles?
This documentary was in the end a very personal journey as well because gender barriers are not only restricted to Pakistani Muslim females but males as well. My family tried their best to force me into an engineering school and I just could not do it. I just wasn’t made to build bridges. In Pakistan, a successful Pakistani man can either be a doctor, engineer or very recently, a banker. Anything else is going to destroy the world :). So I could easily see myself in all four of them, which is why I kept going single-handedly, despite the plethora of problems I went through in its making. I think these four women are not only breaking gender barriers for women, but for men as well.
What impact do you hope for this documentary to make?
I think I’ve made a point as a Pakistani man that we need to support women rather than limit their roles in the four walls of their home. I hope men in Pakistan change their thinking towards women as well. Also, many gender stereotypes in Muslim countries are based on a very narrow interpretation of Islamic teaching. I feel that when we have examples like Hazrat Khadija, who was a fine businesswoman 1400 years ago, why are women barred from even driving in Saudi Arabia? So it’s definitely not Islam. I think it’s more cultural than anything else and Muslims as a whole need to evolve their culture with the times we live in. In Pakistan, 51% percent of the population is women and they are the majority. The country needs its women to go outside, take more responsibility and improve this country, side-by-side with the men. I hope this message is delivered to the audience.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I want to win an Oscar one day and represent Pakistan in whatever way I can on the international stage through my stories. In the end, I hope to write a book on my experiences through the years and be able to live in every country in the world. You can learn so much from traveling.
Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh is known for creating a mix of stylish (read: Channing Tatum-starring “Magic Mike”) and influential films (like “Traffic”).
It’s no surprise to see his name attached to stars like Claire Danes, Dennis Quaid, Timothy Olyphant, Jim Gaffigan and writer Ed Solomon (of “Men in Black” and “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” fame). But a story about the Guyanese community in Queens, New York was quite unexpected.
“Full Circle” is a whirlwind thriller that released in July on the streaming platform Max.
The six-part mini-series centers around the foiled kidnapping of Jared Browne (played by Ethan Stoddard), the son of Samantha and Derek Browne (Danes and Olyphant) and grandson of celebrity “Chef Jeff” McCusker (Quaid).
The scheme is devised by Savitri Mahabir (played by CCH Pounder of “Avatar” and “NCIS: New Orleans”), a wealthy Guyanese businesswoman with a host of nefarious ventures, and her right-hand man, Garmen Harry (Phaldut “Paul” Sharma). Mahabir is seeking revenge for the recent murder of her brother-in-law by rival Edward Chung, but what does this have to do with the Brownes?
The answer to this question and the unraveling of other dark secrets is what “Full Circle” is all about.
Now, if this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. The show is fast-paced and makes good use of cliffhangers to keep you watching, but, frankly, the episodes are shaky — quite literally in terms of camera work and figuratively.
Early on, Soderbergh darts between stylish, abstract shots of objects in the shadows and minute details that may create an air of mystery, but ultimately just confuses viewers, raising questions that never get answered.
Most of the acting also leans toward melodrama, but many of the supporting cast members — particularly Sharma and Zazie Beetz (as Detective Mel Harmony) — are commendable, delivering natural performances with the right doses of intimidation and snark.
On paper, the plot of “Full Circle” has all the pieces for suspense, but writer Ed Solomon seems to lack confidence in the viewer to figure it all out, opting against compelling revelations in favor of long-winded monologues summarizing everything for the viewer. This is needed, unfortunately, as most other dialogues are unproductive; consisting solely of characters responding to questions with more questions.
Another major point of contention is the portrayal of Guyana and the Guyanese community.
While The Hollywood Reporter suggests the team had several creative consultants, those with knowledge of the country could say the series actually offers a convoluted image.
The attention of Guyanese viewers like myself may pique hearing familiar words like pickney (children) and bad eye (evil eye) and catching glimpses of Georgetown. Those in Queens may smirk at the mention of real-life venue, Gemini’s Lounge, but other elements arguably come off as reductive and a bit unflattering.
The Guyanese characters are the antagonists. Mahabir is shown lying, cheating, stealing and plotting murders with a smile on her face. She doesn’t use facts or strategy to guide her actions, but Obeah practices and fear of curses.
The casting of these roles is also up for debate considering several staging choices were made by the creators.
For example, an early scene shows a Hindu funeral with a pandit reciting prayers and a chowtal (North Indian classical music) group sitting by in white kurtas and shalwars. This is a familiar sight for many Indo Caribbeans but, as the camera pans, audiences are introduced to several Afro-identifying actors playing the mourning family including Pounder and Jharrel Jerome (as Mahabir’s nephew, Aked).
Guyana is a diverse nation where cultures and racial identities often intermingle and, of course, there very well can be Afro-Guyanese Hindus with Indian names, but one could argue the series missed a huge opportunity to offer rare Indo Guyanese representation in these roles.
While Pounder (born in Guyana) and Jerome are talents with impressive resumes, it begs the question if they were the right talents for the roles. To some viewers, the answer is no.
“Guyana is trending right now. There’s the oil, the booming tourism, chefs on TV and Instagram,” shared Sonia, a young Indo Guyanese woman from Queens, reflecting on the show with me. “In that way, I’m happy [the country is] on people’s radar, but [it seems like] nobody looked into the characteristics of the people before casting. Some things are just not culturally correct. The Obeah is dubious and the Guyanese accents will leave you scratching your head.”
This reaction is not surprising. Aside from Pounder and Sharma, none of the cast is Guyanese, let alone Caribbean. In fact, Pounder shared in an interview that pages of the script were rewritten several times to play with Guyanese elements.
To be fair, I wouldn’t be surprised if the creators had difficulty finding actors for the characters, especially Indo Caribbean actors. But for those familiar with the country, “Full Circle” could appear to have haphazardly mixed the actors as well as bits and pieces from a variety of Guyanese cultures in an attempt to create a catch-all portrayal, rather than a necessarily accurate one.
Today, there are talks of not one, but two Jim Jones biopics starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon Levitt, respectively, but Guyana is more than the dark history of Jonestown or shady acts like those orchestrated by Mahabir.
Guyana is a country with a rich history, diverse culture and proud people. As one of the first high-profile Hollywood productions to highlight Guyana, it’s disappointing to see “Full Circle” fall into Jonestownian tropes of using it simply as a poverty-stricken place to be exploited, where people will do anything for money and personal gain.
While it’s exciting to see Guyana and the Queens community in a mainstream series and to hear Hollywood bigwigs utter names like Essequibo, “Full Circle” also exemplifies just how much room for growth there is in Indo Guyanese representation.
Hopefully “Full Circle” is just the first of many productions to explore Guyanese culture and, in the near future, we can escape the negative stereotypes that remain so prevalent. For the time being, the series is one that leaves a lot to be desired on many fronts.
Indian-American commercial real estate and land consultant Anita Verma-Lallian launched Camelback Productions at an event held in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Jan. 7. Billed as the state’s first women-and South Asian-owned film production and entertainment company, it will focus on South Asian representation and storytelling, according to a press statement issued by Verma-Lallian. The announcement follows “Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s $125 million film tax credit for film and TV production that was introduced in July 2022, “ the statement added.
The Jan. 7 private launch party and meet and greet introduced investors and supporters to what’s ahead for Camelback Productions.
Noting the “major push to see minority groups represented in the media over the past few years,” Verma-Lallian said she wants to see more South Asians represented. “I want my children to see themselves when they watch TV. I want my daughter’s dream to become an actress to become a reality. Skin color shouldn’t be a barrier to that.”
The event opened with remarks from Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, who has served as the city’s 62nd mayor since 2019. She welcomes the company to “the greater Phoenix community.” She expressed confidence that “the team will attract some of the country’s top talent to the Valley.”
Guests at the event included actor and comedian Lilly Singh, actor Nik Dodani, Aparna of Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking,” Bali Chainani and Anisha Ramakrishna of Bravo’s “Family Karma” fame, and Paramount+ executive P. Sean Gupta, to name a few.
The company is Verma-Lallian’s first venture into the film industry. She is known for providing full concierge services for land seekers and developers of all types of sites and assists investors in discovering viable properties in the Phoenix area through her company, Arizona Land Consulting, the statement added.
Named in honor of the iconic Camelback Mountain in the Valley, Verma-Lallian says she wants her production company to have the same indestructible foundation. Camelback Productions plans to begin its first project later this summer.
Over the past few weeks we’ve all seen Mindy Kaling shoulder the blame for misrepresenting the South Asian diaspora in her work. I want to expose us to the flip side. She’s not “Indian enough” for some in our communities and “not American enough” for mainstream television and media. But I don’t know a single South Asian living abroad who doesn’t feel this dissonance. We’re a generation born to parents who strived to stay connected to their homeland but knew they had to assimilate to survive. Many of us got lost in the mix. I definitely did. And from the looks of it, Kaling did too.
I feel like I’ve oscillated between these two extremes all my life. I’ve had moments of code-switching — performing as a white version of myself, melting into the groups around me. And moments of being a “coconut” (or an “oreo” depending on where you come from) — suddenly donning an accent as if Hindi was my first language. It wasn’t conscious. It also wasn’t fully unconscious.
It wasn’t until I watched Netflix’s“Never Have I Ever” as a 35-year-old mother of two that I realized what teenage Ambika was up against. Still wearing tank tops in secret, while girls my age had moved on to the midriff-baring trend of the early 2000s. Not thinking it was okay to explore my sexuality. Not seeing that sometimes I knew what was better for me than my parents did. Not understanding that it was okay to expand my romantic interests beyond the few Indian boys I knew. And then I rewatched “The Mindy Project” while on maternity leave with my second kid. And I ate it up.
I rewound dialogue as Dr. Lahiri got engaged, left a man who lost his drive, fell in love with the unexpectedly handsome curmudgeon, got pregnant, learned to mother, and found a new version of herself. She addressed her pregnant body insecurities on-screen (in “What to Expect When You’re Expanding — brilliant!). She grappled with her ambitions in the face of motherhood. She owned who she was when most of us were taught not to. She dated outside of her race. Her audacity and levity gave me so much oomph at a time when I needed it the most.
Art comes from lived experience. And when individuals reflect their life back to the masses through art, it’s a tenuous balance. Comedians in particular have to toe a fine line between hyperbole and reality, having the paradoxical job of speaking the truth (the dark truth, often), and simultaneously making people laugh.
Even though I didn’t speak Spanish — my parents don’t speak Spanish — early in my career when I would portray my parents in a bit, they would have an accent. They would speak in broken English. Any time I would talk about my mom, it was like, ‘ay, mija.’ My mom doesn’t call me ‘mija.’ My mom will leave me a voice message and be like, ‘hey, girl!’ She talks like me. You know what I mean?
This is the inherent paradox that exists in Velma as well. Kaling, as she often does, takes her own experiences as a young Indian girl growing up against the backdrop of white America, and amplifies them. And now, Kaling is a grown, Indian woman whose career is evolving against the backdrop of an America, too.
Critics across different racial groups frequently talk about “the representation trap.” Even if a minority group is represented in a piece of art, literature, film, or television, the manifestation of that group is still filtered through the white gaze. In Ismail Muhammed’s New York Times piece “Can Black Literature Escape the Representation Trap,” he says:
Our current problem isn’t an insufficient amount of Black representation in literature but a surfeit of it. And in many cases that means simply another marketing opportunity, a way to sell familiar images of Blackness to as broad an audience as possible.
The debate about whether minority artists properly represent their cohort is marred with capitalism and white supremacy. When so many industries are gate-kept by the typical, euro-centric, generationally rich man, is there really any way to be wholly true to our experience?
Let’s not forget that many of us (or maybe all of us?) came up in a society that devalues women, and horrifically devalues people of color. Let’s not forget that the majority of executives across every field still don’t look like us (if by chance you’ve forgotten, read this piece byRuchika Tulshyan). Let’s not forget that when people are introduced to something foreign and unknown to them, their default is to reject it (again, if you’ve forgotten, read about “the mere exposure effect” and racism).
I’m unsure how Kaling has inherited the immense responsibility of representing all of the South Asian American diaspora? And is then being criticized for her representation of it. Third-generation South Asians are very different from second-generation, who are very different from first-generation. Our identities and how we fit into American culture, mainstream media, and business, are still forming as we speak. We are not a monolith.
And plenty of men have done exactly what Kaling is being criticized for, without anywhere near the same level of criticism. All men I (hopefully, we) love.
Riz Ahmed has taken on roles in which his race isn’t the central focus. Hasan Minaj doesn’t get criticized when he uses stereotypical accents to represent South Asians or for using politics as a launch pad for his content. We don’t hate on Kumail Nanjiani when he suddenly gets a six-pack, even though he also once played a nerd. I loved when Aziz Ansari went to Italy to make pasta and didn’t make it Indian.
Why are we tearing down one of the only women in America who is working to showcase South Asian culture and people? Because she uses humor and caricature? Because she’s not putting herself in the mindset of the type of Indian person who has learned to thrive at the intersection of their upbringing and their environment? Newsflash: that person doesn’t exist!
It’s not on Kaling to represent every dimension of this diaspora. She’s done her job.
I’m a proud, second-generation, Indian American woman, married to an Indian American man, with two Indian American children. I was nerdy just like Kaling. I had arm hair just like Devi. I pined after white boys in my teen years just like Bela from the HBO Max’s “Sex Lives of College Girls,” too. And Kaling is an absolute inspiration to me.
I see a South Asian woman who chose to have children on her own. Whose career, post-children, skyrocketed. Who committed herself and her craft to tackle the most deep-rooted stigmas of South Asian culture — mental health, sex, and interracial relationships — while still honoring the way it manifested in her life.
It’s now our job to get out into the world and dimensionalize our cohort. Show the world what us supposed “ABCDs” have grown up and done; who we’ve become and what we’ve accomplished.
It’s what I’m trying to do. It’s what I’m trying to fight for when I’m told things like “maybe tone down the diversity angle in your writing, we don’t want publishers to think they’re just buying a diversity book.”
We still exist in a house of cards. Why are we kicking the building blocks of our own home?
I’ll leave you with this quote from Kaling herself:
People get scared when you try to do something, especially when it looks like you’re succeeding. People do not get scared when you’re failing. It calms them. But when you’re winning, it makes them feel like they’re losing or, worse yet, that maybe they should’ve tried to do something too, but now it’s too late. And since they didn’t, they want to stop you. You can’t let them.
I hope this woman never gets discouraged. We need her in more ways than one.