Thursday, July 14, 2011

Desiwood: Hollywood Pakistanis

By Laaleen Khan

There was a time when Hollywood industry types could barely point out Pakistan on a map. Recalls screenwriter, Kamran Pasha, “most of the Muslim roles went to the Greek guys.”  The need for authenticity became apparent after 9/11, leading to the creation of a Hollywood Bureau for the MPAC (Muslim Public Affairs Council) in 2007.

“There’s a curiosity about Islam and a curiosity about who Muslims are—and a lot of the fear that we’re seeing comes from only hearing one story or these constant negative stories,” said Deana Nassar, Hollywood liaison. Most of the time it’s innocent oversight, and they’re very happy to get our take on what they’re doing, to get our feedback.”  Aspiring writers were recently invited to attend a Screenwriting Workshop for Film and Television “to really give Muslims an avenue to tell our stories.”

The good news for Muslims, for Pakistanis, and even for people who happen to be both, is that Hollywood now seems to be an attainable goal, as demonstrated by the following success stories (none of whom are Greek!):

1. The Dramatic Actor: Faran Haroon Tahir, 48.
Tahir was born in LA to Pakistani UCLA alumni and brought up in Lahore. He studied theater at UC Berkeley and Harvard, leading to an impressive career on Star Trek, Iron Man, Charlie Wilson’s War, Grey’s Anatomy, and Blue Bloods. He can next be seen in Jinn (written/directed by Pakistani Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad), Two Mothers (with Mahnoor Baloch as the parents of a boy blown up in a US shopping mall), Ashes (set in inner-city NY), and the sci-fi TV series, Warehouse 13. There are scripts that are written with a certain stereotypical angle, but I think it's not for nefarious reasons, and maybe I can go in, create a dialogue and change a few things on it,” he said in 2009. Tahir lives in San Diego with his wife and two children.

2. The Rom-Com Starlet: Dilshad Vadsaria, 33.
Karachi-born Vadsaria is ethnically Pakistani, Indian and Portuguese. She plays Rebecca Logan, daughter of a US senator, on the hit TV series Greek. Vadsaria grew up in Chicago, Virginia, and Philadelphia and attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Even though I moved around a lot in the States, every state is very different, people are different, the cultures different. So I became very sensitive to all of that,” she said in 2009. Vadsaria currently appears in the comedy caper, 30 Minutes or Less, with Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari.

3. The Screenwriter: Kamran Pasha, 39.
Pasha was born in Karachi and grew up in New York.  He has JD, MBA and MFA degrees from Cornell, Dartmouth and UCLA respectively and worked for The Wall Street Journal and a law firm before his Hollywood career. A writer and co-producer of Sleeper Cell and other TV dramas, Pasha’s interest in retelling history from the Muslim perspective led to the novels, Mother of the Believers (the rise of Islam from Hazrat Aisha’s viewpoint) and Shadow of the Swords (a Crusades-era saga about Saladin the Great and Richard the Lionheart tussle over Jerusalem as well as Miriam, a beautiful Jewess). Pasha’s next project is an epic film, The Voyage of Ibn Battuta.

4. The Sitcom Star: Iqbal Theba, 47.
This Karachi native has had memorable roles on Married With Children, Friends, Nip/Tuck and ER, but it’s his iconic characterization of Principal Figgins on the hit musical Glee that’s made him a household name. Theba studied engineering and acting at Oklahoma U and struggled as a waiter while auditioning for acting gigs. He can currently be seen playing a UN Secretary General on Transformers 2—Dark of the Moon, a far cry from his first on-screen stint as a cab driver on Seinfeld. “As ‘brown people,’…we also have a responsibility to get up and be counted,” he said in an interview. “You cannot underestimate the positive impact a friendly brown face can have by appearing in people’s living rooms all across the country.”

5. The News Anchor: Syma Chowdhry, 30.
This well-groomed New Jersey native and Telly award winner has a Pakistani father and an Indian mother. Chowdhry studied broadcasting at Temple and won top three positions on Miss Pennsylvania, Miss New Jersey and Miss Central Coast pageants. After appearing on MTV, The Rachael Ray Show and Law & Order, she scored local news anchoring positions and got her big break from CBS (a major TV network) as their Detroit anchor, where she currently hosts First Forecast Mornings.

6. The Comedian: Kumail Nanjiani, 33.
A KGS alum, Nanjiani grew up in Karachi and developed a taste for stand-up comedy while an undergrad at Grinnell. His success in the indie comedy scene led to a multi-city ‘Unpronouncable’ tour (sample joke: "Shave the mustache. There's a fine line between Tom Selleck and Saddam Hussein”). Coveted appearances on shows hosted by David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon, and parts on The Colbert Report, Michael & Michael Have Issues and Life As We Know It contributed to his fan base. He once said, “There are a lot of roles out there that are stereotypical…I made the decision that I wouldn’t do a part where I had to put on a thicker accent. It just gets hard for me to distinguish whether something is funny because it’s funny or because it’s a stereotype.” Ironically, his big break came in the form of Pindar Singh, a computer geek with a strong Indian accent, starring on the new legal drama, Franklin & Bash. Nanjiani lives in LA with his wife.

7. The Playwright: Ayad Akhtar, 40.
The son of Pakistani parents, Akhtar grew up in Wisconsin and studied film at Brown and Columbia. His writing/acting credits include The War Within (nominated for an Independent Spirit Award) and Too Big To Fall (about a crisis at the US Treasury Department). Akhtar addresses Pakistani-American identities in his stage plays, The Invisible Hand and Disgraced, and his soon-to-be-released debut novel, American Dervish.

8. The Character Actor: Geoffrey Arend, 33
The product of a Pakistani mother and Caucasian (possibly Jewish) father, Arend attended performing arts schools—high school at LaGuardia, Tisch at NYU, and London’s Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art. After small parts on Super Troopers, Bubble Boy and 500 Days of Summer, the New Yorker got his big break starring as Dr. Elliot Gross in the new medical drama series, Body of Proof. "He's amazing," said his wife, Christina Hendricks of Mad Men, in an interview. "He's half Pakistani, and he has these thick, gorgeous curls that drive me crazy.” 

9. The Soap Star: Christel Adnana Mina Khalil, 23
This LA native is famous for her Daytime Emmy award-nominated career as Lily Winters in the long-running Young and the Restless (Y&R). Khalil has a Pakistani father and is a blend of African American, Native American and Caucasian from her mother’s side. Childhood acting classes led to parts on That’s So Raven, Malcolm In The Middle, W.I.T.C.H., and Y&R. “There are a lot of parts I haven't got because they couldn't define my look. ‘Oh, you're not black enough, you're not Hispanic enough,’” she once said in an interview. “If it's a role within a family, I wouldn't get it because I didn't look enough like the rest of the family. It definitely has affected my career, but not in a good way.” Khalil is married to singer Stephen Hensley and has a son.

The Muslim experience in Hollywood:

“I don’t know if, ironically, it was because I was raised as a Muslim in the (American) South, but I realized the value in being true to who you really are. I’m used to always being different, in any context…Two Muslim girls can write me two extremely different letters—and they do. Some are very supportive, and some question what I do.”
Noureen DeWulf, actor (The Back-up Plan)

“Growing up in the ‘heartland,’ I became acutely aware that my peers didn’t know what to make of Islam. It wasn’t ignorance; they were good, smart people.”
Ayad Akhtar, writer/actor (American Dervish)

"There aren't many Muslims in Hollywood, but there are stories that need to be heard, and Muslims like me should be the ones telling those stories."
Kamran Pasha, screenwriter (Sleeper Cell)

“When [Muslim youth] turn on the television and hear someone else's interpretation of their religion and way of life and hear it associated with violence and hate, that's tough.”
Qasim ‘Q’ Basir, director (Mooz-lum)

1 comment:

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