“Fire” star Shabana Azmi joins the cast of Fawzia Mirza’s “Signature Move”

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It’s been 20 years since Deepa Mehta‘s lesbian-themed film Fire was released, creating controversy for its portrayal of two Indian women in love. Starring award-winning actresses Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, the moving story has become a queer classic celebrated by cinephiles, despite the threats of censorship it faced when it debuted in India in 1996.

fire

Out Pakistani actress and creator Fawzia Mirza was a fan of Fire, specifically Shabana Azmi as Radha and her real life role as a social activist, fighting injustices against women, people with HIV/AIDS and slum dwellers. Now shooting her feature Signature Move in Chicago, Fawzia was thrilled to cast Shabana as one of the leads in the film, which is the story of Zaynab, a Pakistani-American Muslim lesbian (Fawzia), who hides two things from her homebound, conservative mother (Shabana): her budding relationship with a Mexican-American woman (Sari Sanchez) and her growing fascination with Lucha Libre wrestling.

Shabana just wrapped shooting on the film over the weekend and tells AfterEllen why she decided to take on the role.

“I’m still trying to figure it out,” she said with a laugh. “I think it was the fact that Fawzia came to meet me, there was in her a passion that I could sense because it was important for her to make this film and she said something that stayed with me, which is that I think it’s very important to tell our stories, because our stories are invisible on the screen here. And we need to tell our stories; we need to also hear our language. That stayed with me and I felt she was committed to it. I thought the idea was new, that it had possibilities and I just said ‘Yes’ on instinct and I’m glad I did it.”

Shabana as ParveenShabana-Azmi

Shabana noted that when Fire came out two decades ago, “It was a very, very bold thing to do.” 

“And I took my time saying yes to the film because I liked the script, I thought that Deepa would do it with sensitivity,” she said. “I had this conversation with Javed [Akhtar], my husband was also a scriptwriter, and he said ‘Well do you feel convinced that when this subject is attacked, you will be able to defend it?’ And I said ‘Yes, absolutely’ and he said, ‘Then I think you should do it.’ And I did it, and it became really a breakthrough film.”

Signature Move exists in a different time, but one that Fire is partly to credit for having forced the conversation of queerness and women’s rights in Indian culture.

“Today, when I see even Signature Move, there is such a huge acceptance as compared to what we had to face during Fire that I feel very heartened by that,” Shabana said. “And I think that’s a good thing that is happening.”

Fawzia said working with Shabana was “a dream come true.”

Fawzia with co-star Sari SanchezFawziaMirzaSariSanchez

“I barely can believe that this is happening,” she said. “It’s one of those moments where you look around and you have to ask both yourself and everyone around you ‘Is this real?’ And the joy of movie-making, especially this movie making, is that so many people are witnessing the same thing and so we’re all bearing witness to the same feeling of ‘Is this really happening?'”

Fawzia, like Shabana, is an activist and advocate for social change, particularly for marginalized voices. That commonality worked brilliantly for their on-screen mother/daughter relationship.

“She believes in the power of film to have social impact and change the world and both add to and affect the conversation,” Fawzia said. “So all of those things made her the perfect person for the role.”

Fawzia also loved how “proactive” Shabana was on set.

“To be such a powerful, strong actor and also, to be portraying such strong characters and such strong women, you have to be very intentional, not only about the roles you choose, but once you’re on set, you also have a voice as to how the character’s portrayed,” Fawzia said. “So I wasn’t necessarily surprised, and also, her ideas were brilliant. She had wonderful ideas and they say when you’re playing a sport, you want to play someone who’s better than you, and in this case, I feel like all of us making this movie, our game was upped by virtue of her presence and the experience that she brought to the set and the movie.”

Fawzia-Mirza

Signature Film started as a short film idea, but grew into a feature with the help of Executive Producers Brian Hieggelke of New City, Eugene Sun Park 0f FullScreen Pictures, Nabeela Rasheed (Beela Productions) and actor Michael ShannonJennifer Reeder is directing based on a script Fawzia co-wrote with frequent collaborator Lisa Donato. This is Fawzia’s first feature, and she wants it to have a far reach.

“What I want is the film to be seen,” Fawzia said. “And I want the film to be seen by not just women, not just LGBTQ people, not just by South Asians, I want it to be seen by a full spectrum of people and people from different countries and backgrounds and races and sexual orientation and gender identity. My dream would be that they find the characters and the women strong and relatable, flawed and complex, beautiful and relatable.”

 Shabana believes Signature Move will do as Fawzia hopes.

“I think the time is right for different movies and it is different. I mean we’ve seen—because the mother/daughter relationship is a very important part of the film and we’ve seen parent and child having friction in spite of love but not in the way that it is over here. The choice that the daughter makes, the fact that unknown to her mother she’s a lesbian and then her Lucha Libre wrestler—I mean, that is really, really unusual,” Shabana said. “So I think that when the film is made, if it works emotionally, I’m sure it won’t be difficult to recover the money the film has invested and, I think, make a name for itself.”

But have times changed enough that India theaters will accept a film about a lesbian Lucha Libre wrestler?

“I can see it coming to the Mumbai Film Festival,” Shabana said. “Whether it’ll actually be released in the theaters, that I wouldn’t reject the possibility entirely.”

Director Jennifer Reeder and DP Christopher RejanoJennifer-Reeder-and-DP-Christopher-Rejano

What’s most interesting to both women is the story being told honestly and without apology; to create something that has meaning and impact beyond the time spent watching it on the screen.

“You have a voice, and to use that voice, to make a commitment, I think is important,” Shabana said. “Unless you are connected to life, you cannot enrich yourself as an artist. So I think people that exercise that right they have, gain much more than they actually give.”

Signature Move is currently shooting in Chicago. Follow the film on Facebook.

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