2018 marks a pivotal year for Los Angeles-based rapper Haseeb.
After nearly a year of releasing singles-turned-bangers in anticipation of his now released album, “Growth” finally dropped in late August. Just days later, the rapper embarked on his first-ever solo tour in North America, performing hard-hitting lyrics live to audiences in Chicago, New York and Toronto.
To date, the 10-track record has collectively garnered over one million streams and over 30,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. Not long after concluding his solo album tour, Haseeb was invited to join his first-ever European tour alongside fellow rapper Kota the Friend.
A first-generation American with roots stemming from Burma, India and Pakistan, Haseeb, like many, was tasked with balancing his South Asian, Islamic heritage with an urban, West-coast upbringing–all while living in the shadows of LA. In an interview with Brown Girl Magazine, he opens up about the trajectory of his career and hurdles he’s crossed on an ever-growing journey to follow his creative dreams.
“Growth is about learning yourself and making positive changes in your life. You can’t glow up without the grow up.” – HASEEB
On the Come Up
The rapper is no stranger to rap and performing live. In elementary school, Haseeb made his first venture into the art of making music after listening to 90s rap mixtapes his brother would create in a tape deck.
He leaned more towards listening to “conscious rap,” citing artists like Mos Def, Talib Kwali, The Roots and Erkyah Badu as influences. However, his music career launched in junior high when he began DJing at family parties.
“DJing was the first time I merged my art and commerce together. Rapping was something I was doing in the background, practicing and working…that was my real passion,” he said.
Haseeb began recording music at fifteen and released his first album three years later during his freshman year of college, titled “Futuristic.” He continued to produce a series of projects while in school. In 2015, he noted, blogs began picking up his work to showcase online, at a time where publications like “2Dopeboyz” were popular in the hip hop scene. Despite this, he became aware of his lack of a consistent audience.
“It’s one thing if music is your hobby, but if you’re really trying to make a career in it, at some point, something’s gotta stick,” he said. “I was like man, if these records don’t do anything, then I’ll have to reassess my life.”
The first time his music gained widespread recognition was in 2017 when he had just released his song “Droppin”. However, in the weeks following, he became disheartened at hearing almost nothing but radio silence when it came to new listeners.
Until one night, when he received a call from his brother at three in the morning informing him that the song was picked up on Spotify’s curated playlist, “Fresh Finds.”
Overnight, Haseeb’s Spotify audience skyrocketed from 400 monthly listeners to 30,000, catapulting his lyrics to a brand-new audience and marking a turning point for the artist.
Some of his other milestones include working with Willie B, a platinum record producer who produced singles like J Cole’s “03 Adolescence,” ScHoolboy Q’s “Prescription/Oxymoron” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Rigamortis.” After the two met at SXSW one year, Willie B sent him a beat, which Haseeb cut and created a record for the same day. He received an approval call late that same night.
“It’s different when they tell you your work is dope, versus your brother, or your cousin, or your homie or home or even one of your fans,” he said. “Everyone’s opinion is valid, but not everyone’s opinion is a professional opinion.”
With Willie B’s help, Haseeb’s single “Slow” was produced.
Prior to this year, he had toured seven times and rapped onstage before a number of best-selling artists like J Cole, Lupe Fiasco, Jay Electronica, Ghostface Killah, Rhapsody and Earl Sweatshirt to name a few.
Current affairs and day-to-day life play a recurring theme in Haseeb’s music. Songs like “Droppin” tout lyrics inspired by the antics that occurred under the Trump administration, impacting the lives of millions of Muslim-Americans and immigrants alike.
I know that Twitter got our fingers itchin’/
This game really got my mind switchin’/
Tell me what I do this for, I don’t really know/
Looking deep in my soul bro, I had to explore/
Memes ain’t funny when there’s bodies on the floor/
Silence of the Lambs, paint their blood over doors/
In response to the transparency and lucid lyricism of his songs, he says, “People have different personalities, and I feel like my personality shows through my music.”
“If I were to make party music and club music, that music wouldn’t be authentic to who I am.”
On his website, Haseeb’s music is described as possessing a “distinct golden age meets contemporary sound…providing listeners sounds of rhythmic nostalgia coupled with deep thought.”
Haseeb began working in corporate America after concluding his undergraduate degree, moving onto obtain his MBA soon after. Around the same time things began picking up with music, however, he experienced a breakup with his longtime girlfriend, leading to a break in creating new projects.
He described the relationship as interracial, one that directly clashed with his South Asian culture. The experience led him to dedicate the final song on Growth to his personal growth in that time.
“‘Play Love’ is about my relationship with my ex, the idea of being in an interracial relationship and coming from a brown family,” he said. “Expressing something like that is really tough.”
Like many, Haseeb didn’t find comfort in his cultural roots until early adulthood.
“When I was a kid, we didn’t have Hasan Minhaj on TV, we didn’t have Aziz Ansari. So, when I saw Will Smith on TV, in Fresh Prince of Bel Air, that’s who I related to.”
“People would ask me where I’m from, and I would respond with some totally ambiguous answer, because I wasn’t comfortable with my own identity yet,” he said. “I never wanted to be a “brown” rapper with “brown” fans. Or the Muslim rapper with Muslim fans. I wanted to be a hip-hop artist with fans who love his music.”
“And that’s still true to this day, because I don’t care if you’re Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, Christian, Mexican, Chinese, black, brown…if you go hard, then I mess with you.”
He described his Islamic upbringing as moderate, stating that his family “prayed, we read Quran, we fasted during Ramadan, went to the mosque on Fridays.”
“Some things I say may be offensive to the “religious” people, and some things I say may be like, ‘Ah man I’m here to party and he’s over here rapping about praying towards the Kaabba’ or something like that,” he said.
“I feel like I can talk about both because I am both. For me, I know that at the end of the day, I believe in Allah and that’s what I pray to and that’s what I always go back to at the end of the day. And I consider myself a believer, I veer off the path all the time, but I could always go back and to me that’s truth.”
On the Hip Hop Culture and Collaboration
“I gotta be honest,” he said. “When you see people like Hasan Minhaj and other people doing it at the level that they’re doing it, it gives you the confidence to do that too.”
“We live in an era now where you being you is what makes you unique. You don’t need to conform to some Western norm that you think hip hop music wants you to. I used to be like bro, hip hop is never gonna accept someone like me as authentic. They’ll always look at me as the brown guy. But then I was like, even out of all the brown artists, I came up freestyling and battling, touring all over the place and freestyling on stage, in the most underground venues in the country, like hip hop, graffiti artists and break dancers and all,” he said. “My experience is very close and intimate and its definitely real heavy about the culture.”
Though there are many artists he said he would be interested in working with, Haseeb highlighted 9th Wonder, who he calls his hero.
Along the way, Haseeb described his encounters with several key people who helped put together the pieces of his career.
He attributes early influence towards an experience rap battling a local Pakistan rapper as a young teen, a man who surpassed him in skill and age. The man took him under his wing and invited Haseeb to his personal studio not long after, where he began making music for the first time.
He went on his first of many tours with underground artist One Be Lo, one half of the rap duo Binary Star. Haseeb described his experience alongside One Be Lo as “being lyrically trained by one of the best.”
When it comes to his own sanity and mental health, he said he can call up his older brother any day and have long conversations about life.
And finally, Amir.
“Amir’s the captain,” he said firmly. “Amir is the OG. He’s the guy.”
Amir Abbassy, known by his brand “Blame the Label,” is a mentor whom Haseeb attributes many of highlights of his career growth to.
An Egyptian-American Muslim and formerly affiliate of Roc-A-Fella , he is described as “having made it before any of us. In that sense, he’s our gatekeeper. Not just for me, but for others in the music community, and the brown community, and the Muslim community.”
Amir and Haseeb initially bonded on Twitter over his dog Zeus, which led to a relationship being born when Amir moved to LA for work. Haseeb credits Amir for being a driving force in helping him create new music, push projects and build strategies.
“He’s great at recognizing people’s talents, and he’s a dude that’s always on my head,” he said.
At 28, Haseeb said he looks forward to building a more settled life with a family, making music in a way that helps provide for them.
“I’m not a kid anymore, who’s like 18, 19, doing this rap shit,” he said. “Everything’s got to be very deliberate, it’s gotta be very calculated.”
In this game, he said, “You can’t wait another three years for your next project or take four months off to find yourself. No bro, if you’re gonna find yourself, find yourself in the studio.”
In the coming months, his plans include releasing new tracks and a music video. In addition, he is producing fellow artist Rehma’s new single under his label, “FewFriends.” Though acknowledging that he still has a long way to go, Haseeb is determined to continue putting his heart and soul into refining his music and skill and towards the steadfast growth of his audience reach.
“I feel energized after this tour and putting out this project because it’s like, wow, I actually have people who give a fuck,” he said.
Dolly Singh is a content creator who is from South Delhi. She earned a bachelor’s in political science from Delhi University. Singh then attended The National Institute of Fashion and Technology. She even had her own blog called “Spill the Sass.” Fashion is a true passion for Singh as she made her outfit of the day debut on Netflix’s Bhaag Beanie Bhaagon. She has even appeared on Modern Love Mumbai Edition! Singh was awarded Cosmopolitan Blogger Award in 2021 and IWM Social Media Star in 2022. Continue to learn more about Dolly Singh’s journey!
What parts of your childhood pushed you into the world of content creation?
I have always been an introverted-extrovert kind of person. During my early teens I wouldn’t speak much at home but in school I was quite the talkative showgirl. When I look back it seems so paradoxical, almost as if I suffer from a split personality. Somehow my earliest childhood memories are of my loving to be on stage. I remember when I was in the 12th grade, I cajoled my teacher to include me in a singing competition since I had never ever sung live on stage and I was persistent in my effort for over 4-5 years and eventually she gave up and she said ‘okay its your last year why don’t you go do it ‘and of course in the process I realized what a bad singer I was. But just the sheer joy of being on stage, performing to a live audience and entertaining people is what stirred me at a deeper level. I think on the other hand my reserved side allows me to study people and their nuances and store all those observations in my memory data bank which helps me create great content. I wouldn’t speak much at home, but you know when I did, it was just 2 punch lines and everybody would either laugh or get awkward. I think I always knew that I was born to entertain, and it was my destiny’s calling. I would always get jealous seeing child actors on newspapers and television and I was like ‘oh my God, I am a child, and I could be an actor, living my dream life but I’m still stuck here’.
Do you feel what you do can inspire and impact the world? Please elaborate.
Of course, I think anybody with a decent following on social media has the potential to positively impact the community. Content creators enjoy a certain reach and it’s so important to handle that responsibility meticulously and the kind of message that you’re putting out needs to be respectful of certain socially expected parameters and mindful of the basic laws of the universe. It’s better to say nothing, then to say something stupid something that is going to just bring out the worst in people or send out misleading signals. I feel like the amount of content that audiences are consuming these days can trigger positive change if it’s done in the right manner. I feel strongly about a lot of topics, and I make sure that my platform is a reflection of that in some way. With content creators as opposed to film stars and celebrities, there is a direct engagement with audiences and a more one-on-one connection and hence content creators stand at a more leveraged position to influence audiences positively. I love body positivity as a topic.
Who were your fashion icons growing up?
Any fashion events that you envisage yourself at in the future to represent the brown renaissance? I think a lot of my inspiration came from the indie pop movement of the 1900s and the 2000’s. I started watching Hollywood movies and a lot of my inspiration started coming from the Bollywood Hollywood section in glossies and I made cutouts of the media, the models, the people. Then came Disney Channel and FTV and I used to watch those when my mom was away at work. I would love to represent India at the Paris, New York and London runways and walk for Indian designers who are using sustainable fabrics and indigenous designs and helping skilled artisans make a living in India. I love Madhu Sapre, Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Cindy Crawford.
As you started a style blog in college, what were some of your favorite pieces of clothing in your early years?
Yeah, it was called Spill The Sass. I love blogging on T-shirts because there are so many ways that you could style a basic white T-shirt. Another blog I enjoyed back in the day was 5 ways to style maxi skirts. If I had to choose two pieces of clothing it would be a T-shirt and jeans!
How has your style evolved over the years?
It’s evolved from minimalistic and pocket friendly to being experimental and qualitative. The more I visited fashion weeks and events, the greater I experimented with outfit ideas that I curated personally. Over the years, I’ve started leaning more towards keeping it classy, chic and comfortable.
Tell us about your favorite online character since you make a bunch of them?
My favorite online character of mine would be Raju Ki Mummy because it’s based on my own mother.
If you could collaborate with anyone in the world, who would it be and why?
I would love to collaborate with Jenna Marbles. I love her to death. I discovered her few years ago and I would love to meet her in person. I mean she’s just a person who if I meet, I will just start sobbing like a child.
Have you faced adversity in your field? How have you risen from it?
Adversities are just an everyday fact of life but I like to believe my dreams and goals are bigger than my fears and setbacks. I know at the end of the day I want to be something; I want to give back and quitting isn’t the solution. Every time I face a creative block, I just tell myself this ‘get up and get to work, there are many who look up to you, you can’t disappoint them’. Also, the support from family, friends is nothing less than therapeutic especially when you’re having that typical bad day. I run towards therapy when I hit rock bottom, which happens quite often. We often feel burnt out, exhausted, tired, and just sad. I’ve been taking therapy for the last two years. It’s been beneficial. I’m not saying all my problems have vanished; that’s not how it works. It’s a continuous journey and a continuous process, but I think therapy is my mantra.
You recently turned into an entrepreneur with your own line of candles. Tell us more on what drove this decision and are there any other lifestyle products you will be launching?
As a creator I think it’s just natural to want to extend your brand trajectory to newer realms and not be stagnant in your growth path. It’s hard to gauge the shelf life of any creator considering there is stiff competition and there will be a sense of redundancy that seeps into the algorithm at some point. It’s always beneficial to expand your forte and explore multiple revenue streams is what I’ve gathered from so many interactions I’ve had with my industry peers over the past few years. There were many opportunities where people wanted to create merchandise of mine or partner on a fashion and accessory line but I wasn’t very mentally ready given my hectic schedules. I was a customer of Rad Living and after the pandemic I went into this zone of binge buying so much self-care stuff and you know candles was one of them. So when this came about I think I was ready to experiment and expand and was looking for an avenue to invest my energies on something enjoyable. I had already made a content piece on candles before this offer came my way so I had a list of quirky candle names, taglines for fragrances, matching the fragrance notes with the names. I think with this inning the whole ‘Creator’ part to me really came to use here as well and that’s what was exciting about this and it was funny because it was such ‘a life comes to a full circle’ moment for me. My mom was into candle making because Nainital at that point was known for its candles and she used to make such variety of candles, 100s of types of candles and all my life I mean the first 16-17 years of my life I’ve just seen my mom make candles at home and our house were full of wax and everything was just candles. My father used to sell candles and it was my family business. Let’s just say that I’m taking forward the family legacy and I’m very excited to go home and to my father’s shop in Nainital and put my candles there and sell them!
Will there be any lifestyle products you’ll be launching?
I was so nervous about this candle launch as I never wanted to mislead my audiences and have them indulge in something that’s mediocre. I really invested my heart and soul in this venture, and thankfully the response has been beyond phenomenal. Courtesy all the good word of mouth publicity, I’m thinking of maybe launching my own beauty and fashion line in about 2 years!
What have been your favorite content pieces that have you worked on this far?
I love most of my content pieces as I’m very particular about each one of them so it’s hard to pick a favorite. One of them is a mini film called Aunty Prem Hai and it’s about an orthodox lady finding out that her nephew is queer from his ex-boyfriend, and this is a first time reveal since the nephew has never come out of the closet. There’s also this series called How Aunties Talk About Sex, and I’ve given a twist to how old-timer desi Indians broach the topic of sex based on how I’ve seen my mother interact with her friends, post dinner conversations amongst relatives, and how it’s more like a taboo.
What are your favorite social media trends?
Anything that emits positivity and gratitude. It’s important that social media trends invoke a sense of intellectual enhancement. Anything that kind of teaches you something that enriches your existence or makes you want to live life more wholesomely. I also enjoy throwback trends, something to do with special memories and nostalgia, because I feel old school is always timeless.
Do you feel people are so trapped in social media that they forget about the world around them outside of their laptops, phones, and tablets?
Yes. Personally it’s been a task for me to get detached from technology and balance the real and the reel. In the last couple of years, I have consciously cut down on my screen time, even though it’s all work and no play for me. Social media is so omnipresent and it’s sometimes scary to see this crazy social media obsession where people forget there’s a real world out there with real people and you need to forge real connections that are deeply rooted in authentic exchanges. It’s scarier to see how social media trends have now become rules to live by for a more meaningful existence for many when on the contrary that shouldn’t be the case.
It’s a word that invokes a sense of pride in me because for me it’s all about being innovative, authentic and self-made. Influencer on the other hand is something that doesn’t resonate with me because there’s no real job description. I’ve always maintained my stand of not being an influencer as I create content and make a living out of being creative and curating an audience for myself over the years.
As you’ve worked with Priyanka Chopra, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Aayushmann Khurrana, and others do you hope to be more involved in Bollywood? Tell us about your acting projects.
Of course, I would love to be more involved in the film industry not just in India but globally too. I think there is so much scope for the South Asian community to make a mark in world cinema and it’s time we pick up more Oscars and Grammy’s in the coming times. Anyone who is a creator is also a film star at heart. 90% of creators who make sketches and skits are facing the camera 24×7, making original content, improvising on scripts and all of that stems from that innate ability to be great performers who can keep an audience engaged. I would love to someday have my own podcast where I interview film personalities and get into their skin. I love the dance and song sequences in Bollywood films, and I think I’d be great doing that as well! I’d love to see how I can get out of my comfort zone and do something that doesn’t directly relate to my online alias in the future. I got a lot of offers during the lockdown and shot for a film in 2022 which sees me in a leading role and I’m excited for it to launch later this year. I’m working on some writing projects as I would love to script a documentary or a short film.
Lastly, what do you hope to take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
I think the questions have been great. The questions have been answered in a way that I feel so confident about myself right now, and I feel so proud about myself and that says a lot. I would like to thank Brown Girl Magazine for taking time out to interview me. I hope this inspires the brown community across the world!
From receiving his MBA from Harvard business school to being the CEO of Asia’s largest music festival brand Sunburn, Karan Singh combined his interests to push his passion for music! Singh received his bachelor’s degree in management from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He worked as an investment banker for three years at Ambit Corporate Finance before working at Sunburn which is a part of his family’s business. Sunburn started providing the music festival experience starting in the year 2007. The first festival was in Candolim, Goa. The music festival brand has put on over 5,000 events over the past 15 years. In 2022 The Sunburn Festival will be in it’s 16th year. Continue reading to learn more about Karan Singh’s journey with the Sunburn music festival!
What does the Sunburn brand offer and what made you have the festival in Goa as opposed to other parts of India?
We believe that Sunburn offers a really unique experience and is a melting pot of diverse people & cultures from not only across India but around the world. Goa is the ideal setting for this as there is something magical about Goa in the winter-time and truly enables us to tap into that global audience.
Safety at live events has always been a concern among concert goers. Considering recent, events more individuals have asked brands and artists to do more to ensure audience safety. What are you doing to ensure safety for live concerts?
Safety is a huge priority for us. We work with the best-in-class security agencies as well as closely with the police and requisite authorities. For anyone in the crowd a Sunburn safety officer will always be close by and easily visible. We also run an awareness drive on both social media and on ground.
What was the first Sunburn Festival like and what did you learn from this experience?
The first ever Sunburn Festival was in December 2007, and I had actually attended it as a fan, not part of the crew. However, it was absolutely eye-opening as the first proper music festival on Indian shores and opened up our minds to a world of possibilities.
As Sunburn houses so many electronic dance musicians who have been your favorites throughout the years?
It is difficult to pick from the list however the favorites for Sunburn, in no order and because of the amount of love they have shown Indian audiences, are Martin Garrix, DJ Snake, Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, Hardwell and Armin van Buuren.
Do you plan to expand the festival to add other genres into the mix as well as more activities?
We have already expanded into different formats like Arena, Campus, Club, Reload and things like merchandize & academy. In terms of genres, we have been dabbling with genres like rap, hip-hop and pop, however our focus remains on electronic dance music.
What can someone expect from the festival as first-time goers?
Apart from a state-of-the-art production & line-up, one can expect a special experience, meeting interesting people from all over the world, and embarking on a creative journey of the theme for the year.
How does the festival help local musicians from Goa as well as the surrounding areas in India?
This year we had set up for the first time a special stage and village in the festival only for Goa which gave a platform to local Goan artists. But beyond that a huge focus for us has always been to showcase domestic home-grown talent and indeed 60-70% of the line-up each year is locally sourced.
What was the experience like this year in 2022 and how is it different from previous years?
The biggest difference was that this was the first time the festival was back to its full scale since the pandemic hit after 3 long years. It was a fantastic release for everyone there. Our theme was “the future is now” and this was reflected across the festival experience and particularly in the main stage design – termed “Cyberpunk City” which received rave reviews from all.
What was it like having the legends Black Coffee and Afrojack this year as well as the DJ duo Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike?
Afrojack and DVLM are both Sunburn & India veterans, it was amazing having them back crushing the main stage after very long. Black Coffee for us was something very new and exciting, to have a special artist and a unique sound like that close the main stage on day 2. However it was very well-received and took our experience to the next level.
As you have had the artist Avicii back in December 2011 how do you feel he revolutionized Electronic Dance Music?
Avicii is one of my all-time favorite artists and his show in December 2011 was actually my first one working on Sunburn so will always be extra special. There is no doubt that he revolutionized EDM by taking massive risks and introducing an entirely new sound which a lot of others then followed, but no one as well as he did.
How does it feel to be in charge of one of Asia’s biggest Electronic Dance Music Festivals?
It feels great, we have a very young but ambitious and hard-working team and our primary focus is to continue delivering the best possible experiences for our fans, artists and partners. India is such a vibrant and exciting market that I cannot help but be pumped about what the future holds.
Do you feel Electronic Dance Music is a misunderstood genre?
More so in a country like India possibly yes, where people who are not exposed to these experiences sometimes have preconceived notions about EDM festivals and the like. Oftentimes those people are also in a decision-making capacity and can directly affect the industry. However, things are certainly improving as the industry overall gets bigger and gets more acceptance.
What does music mean to you, Karan Singh?
Music provides a sound-track to life, it is something which is always there!
How do you choose to react when you receive negative comments about the Sunburn Festival?
Well, you have to be able to differentiate between those which are just trolling and those which are constructive or fair criticism. The latter is very important as it helps us to look at ourselves and continually improve, we are still a long way from where we eventually want to be.
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
I hope it allows us at Sunburn to reach a wider audience of the desi community around the world and hopefully get some more people to fly down to Goa for Sunburn Festival 2023 which I can promise you all will be the best one yet!
Dimitri Vegas Like Mike
We have had a long connection with India. The first time we played here was more than a decade ago. Going from clubs to being a regular feature at one of Asia’s biggest electronic music festivals which is now an institution in itself. It’s been an exciting evolution to see how Sunburn has grown over the years. The fans at Sunburn are some of the most insane and every show is a special one. We’ve always had an incredible experience at Sunburn.
Honestly, the energy I feel when I am in India is one of the most amazing things. I would say the culture and energy is what keeps me coming back! India is like a second home to me, just like Sunburn. I feel so comfortable and welcomed here. I’m always excited about coming to India and playing at Sunburn, experiencing new cities, meeting more of the people, hearing more of the music, and seeing more of the country that has influenced me so much.
Sunburn has helped dance music artists world over to tour India and connect with their Indian fans and I’m always excited about performing at the festival.
I’ve a long history with the Sunburn team. They are a great team to work with and they also give the fans amazing experiences. As an artist, I want to be a part of providing fans with lifelong memories and so we all share the same vision.
Sunburn is one of the pioneers of the dance music festival scene in India and has been instrumental in creating a truly world class platform that supports the dance music industry and all of its stakeholders. I’m always excited about touring India with Sunburn.
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.