Exclusive Interview: Fawzia Mirza on her feature debut The Queen of My Dreams “through creating art I’ve found healing”

One of the LGBTQ+ highlights at last month’s 48th Toronto International Film Festival was the feature debut of writer-director Fawzia Mirza, The Queen of My Dreams, based on the filmmaker’s 2012 debut short of the same name. It’s a vibrant, blissful, and emotionally cathartic comedy drama that spans thirty years in the life of a Pakistani-Canadian family with fantasy, Bollywood-inspired flourishes.

As the film opens in 1999 we meet 22-year-old Azra (a wonderful Amrit Kaur, The Sex Lives of College Girls) who lives in Toronto with her girlfriend and has a strained relationship with her conservative mother, Mariam (Nimra Bucha). When tragedy strikes, Azra finds herself flying to Karachi where she’s taken by the sounds and smells of a city and country that are so distant and yet so familiar. This leads her to imagine her mother in her youth (also played by Amrit Kaur) in 1969, where Mariam is in conflict with her own mother, Amira (Gul-e-Rana), who insists that Mariam must marry a man who will stay in Pakistan.

Fawzia Mirza at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival, September 2023. Photo credit: James Kleinmann/The Queer Review.

Following the short film, Fawzia Mirza expanded the work for the stage with the play Me, My Mom & Sharmila in 2014, and began preproduction on the feature last summer, going on to shoot in Canada and Pakistan. On the morning after its world premiere at Toronto, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with the filmmaker about what she wanted to explore with The Queen of My Dreams, how it came together, and the queer culture and people who have had an impact on her.

What does having the film world premiere here at TIFF mean to you?

“Being at TIFF is a dream come true in itself, but it’s also super special because I was in the TIFF Writers’ Studio with this screenplay in 2020 and it was there that I decided to direct the film. I got a lot of encouragement from the other writer-directors in the program about that and so to come back here with it feels very much full circle.”

Fawzia Mirza at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival, September 2023. Photo credit: James Kleinmann/The Queer Review.

We often reduce our parents to their roles as mother or father and lose sight of the fact that they are multifaceted humans just like we are, who had full lives of their own long before we came along. What interested you about exploring that with this film?

“The first spark of all of this comes from ideas around understanding oneself. In order to understand oneself, we really have to look not just at who we are, but at who our mothers are and who our ancestors are and who our elders are. This film has its roots in my first short film, which came out over 12 years ago, and was also titled The Queen of My Dreams. That film was a very public conversation about a very private struggle of mine, which was me questioning ‘could I be queer and Muslim and love Bollywood romance and fantasy all at the same time?’ The answer that I came to was of course ‘yes’, and I embraced all those identities. Then I went on to make a one-person show about that and now there’s this feature film. Through creating art I’ve found healing and I believe that art does save lives. I’ve also found a great deal of compassion for my mother and for my motherland. The process of making this film taught me to look back and imagine what my mother’s life was like. I think fantasy is such a key element to this because I was raised with all these beautiful, fantastical stories.”

Fawzia Mirza at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival, September 2023. Photo credit: James Kleinmann/The Queer Review.

How did you go about incorporating those Bollywood elements into your film, including the beautiful song, “Mere Sapnon Ki Rani“, which I now—happily—have stuck in my head.

“I love that it’s an earworm! I’ve watched the film and heard that song so many times in the last year so it’s always in my head too. The film is inspired by some personal stories in my life and my family’s life, but it’s all a fantasy too. It’s inspired by collective history and collective memory and imagining what Pakistan was like in the 1960s. So there’s the fantasy of the story itself and then there’s the fantasy that comes from the touchstone of that Bollywood world. The idea is that we’re always dreaming and reimagining.”

Fawzia Mirza’s The Queen of My Dreams. Courtesy of TIFF.

How significant is it that Azra is settled in her own home life with her girlfriend and comfortable in her queerness, because I think it would have been quite a different film if she was on her own journey of self-acceptance?

“The character of Azra in the film is definitely a reflection of me being a queer, confident, very out, very public person. Having watched a lot of queer films, I’m a huge supporter of the coming out story. I think that they’re important and that we haven’t seen them enough from all walks of life and all communities around the world. But with the character of Azra, I wanted her to be on a different journey, the journey of trying to find that connection with and compassion for her mother, which I think is actually a place of self-love, that’s what I really wanted to explore. This is much less about Azra and her queerness and much more about Azra and her mother. That’s the main romance of the movie. It’s not her with her girlfriend.”

“Sometimes the origin story is so fascinating. What was the moment that you first knew you might be attracted to somebody of the same gender or that you might be queer? I think that’s interesting, but that’s not the whole story. Then what was the moment when somebody who used to be a bit more liberal started on a more conservative path? Trying to hone in on those moments in our lives was also part of this story.”

Fawzia Mirza’s The Queen of My Dreams. Courtesy of TIFF.

Amrit Kaur plays both Azra and the younger version of her mother Mariam, but her characterization was so distinctive that at times I was questioning whether it was the same actress.

“I love that!”

At the beginning of the film you hint that there might be some doubling in the film.

“Doubling is such a common device in South Asian films—and of course we see it in Western cinema as well—but I always found it to be odd and was also fascinated by how we as an audience will just go with it. We will embrace the fantasy because we want to, it’s in our nature. So I thought, ‘why can’t we still do that?’ I really leaned into that and the idea that the audience will go with us. There’s definitely a bit of calling it out and tongue-in-cheek with that line where Azra is watching the movie with her girlfriend and she’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re not subtle, we like to smack you over the head with symbolism!’ That’s a little bit of my voice talking about what we’re doing here in this film.”

What was it like working with her in those two roles?

“Amrit is such an incredible actor. She was so excited and had such a spark to her. She is so deeply committed to her craft that I knew she could do these dual roles. There’s so much about embracing the parts of yourself that are these characters, that is the mother and is the daughter all at the same time. I love the literalization of the mother is the daughter is the mother, because that lineage, that intergenerational connectedness, it’s real.”

Fawzia Mirza’s The Queen of My Dreams. Courtesy of TIFF.

The film is visually stunning, with such striking cinematography, production design, and costumes; can you give me an insight into your guiding principals for the look of the film?

“I worked with such a great team. None of this happened with me alone. My producers were guideposts along the way and great supporters and collaborators. My DP Matt Irwin and I developed a look for the film together. I knew that I wanted it to be vibrant and rich and a reflection of a beautiful bright world. By developing that look we were always seeing the same thing when we were shooting each shot. Everybody on set could look at the monitor so that meant that the colors were popping and that every piece of the production design mattered.”

“We had many conversations with our incredible production designer Michael Pierson, who did both the Canadian side and the Pakistani side, and led the whole team. He’s a genius when it comes to design and color. We worked closely together to ensure that we were bringing that vibrance into the design of the sets, which then also translated to our costume design. It was all deeply intentional. In postproduction we tweaked things in the color process too. There are about five distinctive looks in the film, including excerpts of the original 1969 movie that are used, but everything is treated so that it’s all in relation to each other and references each other.”

Canada’s Drag Race winner Priyanka; Chutney Popcorn (1999) directed by Nisha Ganatra; filmmaker Alice Wu; My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) directed by Stephen Frears.

Lastly, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture, or a person who identifies LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?

“There are so many incredible people. I immediately think about the work of filmmaker Alice Wu. I think about the South Asian drag queen Priyanka, who happens to be in the room with us right now as we speak! I didn’t know that I was queer until a little later in life. Well, let’s just say that I didn’t know that I was queer when I was 10 or 15 years old, but there were two films that I loved watching when I was younger that come to mind. They’re queer films, but when I first saw them I thought that I connected to them because I was South Asian. Then I realized later upon reflection that there were so many more layers of my identity that I connected to in those films. They were My Beautiful Launderette and Chutney Popcorn; both South Asian and queer and so singular.”

By James Kleinmann

The Queen of My Dreams received its world premiere at the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival and plays in the First Feature Competition at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival on Saturday October 7th at 8:30pm at BFI Southbank and Sunday October 8th at 12:15pm at Curzon Soho.

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