How The Queen of My Dreams Brings Canadian Film Forward

An interview with Fawzia Mirza and Hamza Haq

“This is a moment that’s really exciting,” observes The Queen of My Dreams writer/director Fawzia Mirza. The filmmaker, along with co-star Hamza Haq, looks at the release of The Queen of My Dreams as a finger on the pulse of two cinemas. The Canadian-Pakistani co-production, adapted from Mirza’s short film of the same name and her one-woman play, joins the new waves of films coming from both countries and helps expand our idea of what Canadian stories can be.

Mirza seems quite intentional about this facet of The Queen of My Dreams. The story finds its roots in Bollywood cinema and the power of seeing oneself represented (or not) on screen. Twenty-something Azra (Amrit Kaur) filters the journey that brought her parents to Canada from Pakistan as something of a movie musical. Mirza bookends the film with the song “Mere Sapno Ki Rani” as Azra dusts off a well-worn VHS tape and plays the 1969 film Aradhana in the movie’s opening scene, while a contemporary cover of the song closes the film. In between, Azra imagines herself and her mother all dolled up like star Sharmila Tagore, while the music of Kishore Kumar offers the soundtrack for Azra’s journey towards coming to terms with her mother, Mariam (Nimra Bucha), who doesn’t approve of her daughter being an actor and queer.

In a twist, Kaur plays both Azra and the younger version of Mariam when the sudden loss of her father (Hamza Haq) requires her to go to Pakistan. The casting stunt offers a further nod to classic Bollywood cinema, which frequently doubled actors and asked audiences to suspend their disbelief. Mirza invites audiences to do the same as the actors explore the inseparable similarities people share with their parents, no matter how many years or miles divide them.

Driven by a trio of excellent performances, a refreshingly authentic sense of humour, and a fine eye for the magic of cinematic escapism that inspires us become more grounded when the lights come back up, The Queen of My Dreams is unlike anything we’ve seen before. It’s refreshing to see such a joyous film move the needle forward.

That Shelf spoke with writer/director Fawzia Mirza and star Hamza Haq upon the theatrical release of The Queen of My Dreams.

What does the film Aradhana mean to you? What about the song “The Queen of My Dreams”?

Fawzia Mirza: The song is definitely the thing that has stuck with me over the years. I remember hearing it as a kid and not just in my parents’ home, but other people’s homes, at parties, and weddings. It was always being played remixed on dance floors. It’s about a man singing to a woman, searching for the queen of his dreams, the love of his life. That song really stuck with me as this idea of romance: the biggest love of all and this romantic gesture. And when I started coming out as queer, I thought, “I’m never going to get that.” Then I was like, “Maybe it’ll be some woman singing it to me.”

Director Fawzia Mirza and star Hamza Haq at the Toronto theatrical premiere of The Queen of My Dreams | Arthur Mola

Also, I realized that, really, I’m the queen of my own dreams. That self-love realization is what I’ve learned over the last number of years and is the spark of all of this. The film came secondary to the song, but the actress, Sharmila Tagore, who’s in this film [Aradhana], is so iconic. She’s still alive, she’s the matriarch of this Indian film dynasty, and she’s also the same age as my mom. My mom dressed like her at one point with that hair and the eyeliner and the saris. It imagines a world where, if that’s who our moms are, how would they react to who we are? Would they accept queerness differently?

 

Hamza, do you come from a film-loving household?  

Hamza Haq: Film-loving for sure. Kishore Kumar sings “Mere Sapno Ki Rani” and he was a mainstay in our house. These were the songs that we were playing all the time. Even when I go home and visit my mom, we’re still singing songs from the ’60s and ’70s when we’re cooking together, cleaning. We’re still watching these movies. We’re a big movie-watching family, so there was a lot of Bollywood growing up. To be able to even do that flashback in Rajesh Khanna cosplay and have my parents see that at TIFF, my dad was just smugly smiling at it, like, “Yeah, I looked like that too.” My mother was having the time of her life. She’s like, “You did the thing with the tipping of the hat!” It was a lot of fun.

 

How was it doing a period drama from an era in which you lived and going back to the ’90s? Also, Hamza, I didn’t realize you went to Bell High School in Nepean. I grew up in Bell’s Corners in that neighbourhood, so I’d love to hear how suburban Ottawa shaped your life and how that compares to the small town Nova Scotia we see in the film.

HH: I grew up in Bayshore [a neighbourhood in Ottawa], so it was a vast difference from Sydney, Nova Scotia, I’m sure. Bayshore in Ottawa does come as a landing point for a lot of immigrants. My introduction to Canada was very immigrant friendly. We did not feel like the “others.” I already had cousins here. You feel within the community. English was not my first language either, so it was great.

The movie opens with Azra blowing into a VHS, so, inherently, there’s that sort of film on top that everything in the ’90s had. There’s a tangible essence that the ’90s had that was fun to see digitized.

FM: Old media creates nostalgia in a way that is great. We all have our own connection to a VHS, a chorded phone, a voicemail. Some of them are coming back, like the tape and the yellow Walkman. Those have returned in this weird cycle. It was a goal to create nostalgia in every moment possible, especially in a lower budget film. Being so specific to a moment makes your film feel even bigger because people’s memories are so vast.

Cineplex Pictures

The doubling of the characters works really well with this idea of the past repeating itself and things coming back. How was it playing a character across different eras, Hamza?

HH: I intuitively was in cosplay with my own father the whole time. I’ve seen old pictures of him. I’ve had conversations with him about it. He worked for an airline back in the ’70s and you could smoke on planes and you wore a shirt and tie to the airport. They’re at a pilot’s lounge in a movie and said, “This is exactly what it was like.” He could tell me what it was like and we were filming in the city where he grew up, so it was easy to tap into that as a beautiful resource. When Hassan is trying his best to deal with his daughter and his son very differently in Canada, that was my mimicry of what I saw as him trying his best. I feel like I’m made to look like the good guy in the movie, which is great. I’m grateful to get an opportunity to tell a story of really good fathers, but these were the best moments of my own father, leaving out all of his failures, of which there are plenty. But the fact that the best of Hassan’s moments struck a chord with his daughter made the loss land even harder. In order to really tap into that, I pulled from my favorite memories of my father growing up.

 FM: Amrit is a committed actor who will do the work for the roles and then also do the work that you didn’t ask her to do. She is such a great student and truthful in acting. She took Bharatanatyam, Indian classical dance, lessons on her own because there’s that small dance scene. She does a lot of movement work with the coach and they had great chemistry, as you see. She is exactly who both of these women are. You want them to be different, but part of the inherent emotional truth is they are meant to be the same, which is why the doubling let us do some of the work in how we see it as the audience.

 

 Are there elements in the characters that you drew from your parents?

FM: Everything I bring has some influence from my parents. I lived in Sydney, Nova Scotia. We did live in Ottawa for a year or two when I was a kid—I don’t have huge memories of it, but my mom sold Tupperware [like Azra’s mom in the film], but they ended up having to move for a job to this small “village,” as they called it, in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island. But my dad did pass in a very dramatic fashion on a visit to Pakistan, so there are so many truths, but then I’m also inspired by collective history, memory, and fantasy. That’s when the script really unlocked. I needed to tell the story of some version of my mom in the ’60s. I’ve never seen that on screen before.

Cineplex Pictures

Hamza, you had a lot of success with Transplant, so what is the difference between approaching a character in a feature where you have one shot to explore them, versus a series where you get to know them over time?

HH: I didn’t go to theater school. I have a great acting coach and I’ve been studying for almost 12 years now, but my formal education for acting on camera is Transplant. I learned shots. I learned what it means to memorize 10 pages a day, what it means to sell a show to a network when it goes international, and all these things about how to conduct yourself in a professional environment when the stake are relatively high.

After four years, because it’s an episodic and a medical show, it’s very formulaic. You get bored and you want to try something new by exploring elements of the character that we don’t get to see. Even here, we are four years later and the show’s done, and there are elements of Bash that we’ll never get to see. With a feature film, you don’t have to ration emotion. You don’t have to save it for some big payoff in episode eight. The immediacy of it is what I love so much. You can underplay it, you can overplay it—you can do whatever. But it is so definitive where you actually have to live with your choices. There is no safety net and the stakes are higher. If you’re doing a network show, it’ll be only as good or as bad as they let it be. If you’re phoning it in one day, they’ll save you in the edit or they’ll save it three weeks later with a line when you’re filming the next episode.

Cineplex Pictures

When I was watching The Queen of My Dreams, I thinking a lot about the parallels between Pakistani film and Canadian film. Canadian film is always in the shadow of Hollywood and the USA. The characters in this film are Pakistani, but they’re watching Indian films. Although the politics and contexts are obviously quite different, do you see parallels between Canadian and Pakistani cinema?

FM: We are more than one thing, and our films should reflect that. Pakistani cinema is definitely having a moment with films like Joyland and In Flames, and more films are coming because they’re also seeing the potential and they’re seeing a dream. Some of our crew and cast from Pakistan came to TIFF, Reel Asian, and SXSW and got visas because of this movie, so this is a moment that’s really exciting. You have some great filmmakers who are excited to help facilitate us and elevate our work. People like Mo Naqvi, Iram Parveen Bilal, and Mehreen Jabba. With Canadian film, I think this is a moment as well. I’ve been asked this idea of Canadian film, “Is this a Canadian film?” But what is that? The idea sometimes is that a Canadian film has to be gray or bleak, or that for a film to be authentic, it has to center our trauma. That is not the story that I want to tell right now.

It’s expansive to centre our liberation, and that’s what we need. If we’re put in boxes as Canadians or put in boxes as Pakistanis, instead of embracing the boxes they put us in, we need to step out of them and just show the world who we really are. That is something for the future of Canadian film, I hope, and to recognize that comedy has impact, that something commercial can have impact. How are we changing the world if nobody sees it? How are we changing the world if the work we create only exists in the vacuum and only exists in our bubble? What about the people who need to see the work and whose minds we hope to change? That’s why it’s so exciting to be working with Cineplex Pictures, which means that this film is going to be in theatres in over 35 cities and towns around the country. This is the first indie film that they’ve acquired, so it’s an exciting moment.

 

The Queen of My Dreams is now playing in theatres.



Comments

Advertisement



Advertisement


Advertisement