While I Can't Think Straight is actually Sarif's fourth screenplay, it is the first to begin production. Filming starts this month in London, the primary setting. There will be brief shoots in Paris with the lead actors and in Jordan for some exterior shots. Sarif is aiming to screen the film at next year's Sundance and Berlin film festivals before releasing it theatrically mid-year.
Sarif says the collaborative aspect of filmmaking has always intrigued her. "One director will make a vastly different film from another — the tone, the look, the emotion — all will vary considerably,” she says. "Now that I'm able to direct my own script, it's a way of learning more about the characters and their actions than I ever realized when writing it.”
"When you work with talented crew and cast,” Sarif continues, "they teach you something new about your own work, which is an amazing feeling.” She is already experiencing this with her lead actors.
Lisa Ray, who will play Tala, had just arrived in London for rehearsals at the time of our interview. "She is an amazing actress, incredibly diligent and intent on doing the best work possible,” Sarif says. "It's a pleasure to work with her and with Sheetal Sheth, who is playing Leyla. They are immensely intelligent women who are already challenging my own parameters as far as the characters go.”
Sheth is a first-generation Indian American with over a dozen film credits, including Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005). Ray, born in Toronto of Indian and Polish descent, worked as a model before studying acting in London. She has appeared in British, Canadian, American and Bollywood films. She recently starred in Water (2005) — a film made by Toronto-based filmmaker Deepa Mehta, who also wrote and directed the lesbian-themed Fire (1996).
In June, the Indian press was abuzz with rumors that Ray might be playing a lesbian in Sarif's film. "There was a lot of attention from India based on Lisa Ray's apparently shocking decision to play a lesbian!” Sarif muses.
Ray's possible involvement with the film was revisited earlier this month alongside news that Bollywood film star Perizaad Zorabian would be playing the lead role in another upcoming lesbian romantic comedy, When Kiran Met Karen. But Zorabian backed out last week, telling the Times of India that she had turned down the role because of her "personal inhibitions about playing a lesbian.”
Overall, I Can't Think Straight has been getting very positive media attention, according to Sarif, despite the early preoccupation with casting details. She is unsure how the film will be received in India but anticipates that in the U.K. the reactions will be "relaxed in terms of not seeing this as a ‘lesbian film' but as a film whose central love story is between two women.”
Born in the U.K., Sarif is of Indian and South African descent. Even though she refused to visit South Africa throughout the apartheid years, she has since spent a lot of time there. "My parents and three grandparents were born and raised there, so it was always very alive to me in terms of heritage and culture,” she says.
In addition to setting her first novel there, Sarif finished writing her second novel in South Africa. "We went over to stay with my parents a few weeks after our second son was born and my partner locked me in a room to finish up,” Sarif recalls. She had gone into labor before completing the final chapter.
Sarif and her partner have been together ten years and were married in June, after civil partnership was legalized in the U.K. They live in London with their sons, ages three and seven.