The 'Americanish' interview: Aizzah Fatima, Iman K. Zawahry and Roy Wol on reinventing the American dream

A group of filmmakers from culturally diverse backgrounds set out to make a film about the South Asian Muslim community in NYC and in the process, came up with the quintessential contemporary American movie.
The 'Americanish' interview: Aizzah Fatima, Iman K. Zawahry and Roy Wol on reinventing the American dream

In the upcoming feature film Americanish, there are plenty of threads that should resonate deeply with US audiences. In fact, when I first watched the film, I couldn't help but think, like a mantra throughout the whole viewing, how this was the perfect American movie.

But while in the past that may have meant the portrayal of a white family next door, living in a suburban house with a picket fence and a mom baking apple pies, Americanish is a film for the here-and-now United States of America. It's 2021, Baby! The family next door is made up of Pakistani immigrants, mom's making biryani and her offspring Sam isn't a Cleaver boy -- she is a Muslim girl with a job. Oh, and one last thing -- Sam's job is social media director for a politician eerily like former president Donald Trump.

Let's go back a bit, though. Americanish is the dream project of Aizzah Fatima, a wondrous Pakistani American comedian, born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Mississippi. It's a film related to her one-woman play Dirty Paki Lingerie, which she has taken around the world. One day, Florida-born and raised Egyptian-American Iman K. Zawahry walked into the Cherry Lane Theater and caught a performance of Fatima's show -- the rest as they say is history.

Yet the worldliness of Americanish doesn't stop there. Roy Wol joined the group as a co-producer, along with Fatima and Zawahry, and Wol has his own multicultural pedigree, or better, as Fatima points out, "Roy has the entire Middle East covered," -- having been born in Tel Aviv to Latin and Turkish Jewish parents and raised in Turkey, Argentina and Canada.

The star cast includes Hindi cinema favourite Shenaz Treasury as visiting cousin Ameera who comes to NYC because, as she tells the immigration officer at JFK "NY is where dreams come true!" Lillete Dubey, (who can ever forget her as the mom in Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding) plays Khala, mom to Sam (Aizzah Fatima) and the hijab-wearing Maryam (Salena Qureshi). Rounding out the cast are George Wendt from Cheers, who plays the Trump-like Douglas Smarts, TV sitcom star David Rasche as Sam's boss Jim, Godfrey as Gabriel and Ajay Naidu as Jawad.

A film though is only valid if it is good, believable, watchable, entertaining, fun -- particularly as a rom-com. And guess what? Americanish is all that and more. The story of four Muslim Pakistani "American-ish" women, and their loves, work colleagues, admirers and friends, turned into one of the most entertaining times I've spent in front of a screen in the last months.

Americanish premieres this Sunday, the 23rd of May, in San Francisco, at the Fort Mason Flix Theatre -- a drive-in. Yes, it couldn't get any more American-ish than that!

Iman how did you become involved with this project?

Iman: I was in New York City for my birthday and we passed by the Cherry Lane Theatre, which is a prestigious theatre in New York City, and my cousin was like "Hey we should go see this it's perfect for you man," and so we went to watch this play, which was Dirty Paki Lingerie which I think you've seen... And, I mean, as you know it's such an amazing play and Aizzah does such a fantastic job transforming herself into six different characters and, you know my family and I, we laughed, we cried, we were just so excited about it. And afterwards I spoke to Aizzah and we connected. And right away we started emailing back and forth, and that was September of 2012 and then January 2013 we began writing the film. And as we were writing the film for four years, we were also raising funds. And so we were also producing the film. And that's kind of how the journey of us getting together and producing and writing the film started.

How did Roy come on board as a producer?

Iman: We started shooting the film in December 2017 in principle production and that's when we met Roy, who was our saving grace to bring the producing thing all together as we were a bit everywhere. To be honest, I was obviously directing, Aizzah was acting. We had another producer on board and when we brought Roy on everything became so smooth and as a director, that was the one time I was able to exhale, It was such an interesting experience shooting this kind of like "little film that could" because it was a lower budget film but had such a big idea and concept with three different stories.

I always tell my students now never, never make your first feature an ensemble piece because it is a feat for sure.

Aizzah, your cast is impressive, with both newcomers of promising talent and some well known names. Talk about that process a bit?

Aizzah: I think the casting was a little hard but then it was also so easy. It was so hard in the beginning because, you know, we really wanted to stay authentic. At one point, people were suggesting other actors who were not even South Asian -- forget Muslim. So it was just challenging and I just really wanted to stay true to that background because I think that's a big missed opportunity in terms of representation that happens constantly. You know, even when the story is about a Muslim character they would cast like an Indian, non-Muslim, Hindu, Sikh whoever, put a turban or like a hijab or a beard on them. We just wanted to be a little bit more conscious of that, we really wanted to cast Muslims we really did and then when we found Salena [Qureishi], it was amazing because when we met her and had her come in to read for us, she was the only choice. The same with Shenaz [Treasury] when she came on board, she was the only choice you know.

And Lillete Dubey, that was a casting coup!

Iman: She’s such a queen!

Aizzah: You know the credit goes to our casting director who just found her. I remember when I was a teenager, there was a film shot in New York, and she played the mom and I literally remember being a young kid watching that film. "Oh my gosh she plays a mom like maybe I could act and she could play my mom" — I remember thinking these thoughts.

Iman: What was really awesome about Lillete is that when we originally wrote the script we had written a very different type of Khala and Lillete came in with this kind of grace and elegance and she made the character her own -- something that Aizzah and I didn't imagine while writing the piece, which was so great. When we were talking through the character with her, she was like “You know how the Aunties, they have like the cardigan, and they always have their hands here,” -- she was bringing so many things to the character and I was like, “YES!” That's exactly what they do. She really brings it to the character, and also what was so amazing about Lillete is she made sure she introduced herself to everyone on the crew, shook everybody’s hands, she knew everybody's name. She was super graceful and kind. It was just a model of what, you know, a performer should be, which is really great.

Roy, the production quality looks and feels like a Hollywood production but I know this is an independent film. How did you achieve it, and end up making such a polished, beautifully made movie?

Roy: It's not just me, obviously it's the entire team, and I'll also tell you how I got on board, because it plays into the bigger picture. So, these two ladies — very inspiring! They’d been working for several years, and I've produced several features before so they reached out to me during a time that was very special for me. I was just going through a breakup, and I needed more love and humour in my life. And, this was exactly what I needed on a very personal level beyond the film, and being on set. At that time I was more focused on line producing. And then we had several years of redeveloping essentially the script in the edits.

In my opinion, the very mix of the community that we had on set was the thing that really showed itself, I think, on camera. But in terms of production, I will say that Iman has a very expensive taste.

One of my jobs was at the end of every long day of shooting I would go back to the budget and try to figure out okay, this is going to be crazy, this you know we need to spend much more on or less and sometimes we were happy about that and sometimes we were not. One of my favourite set pieces in the entire film is the couch with the cellophane, which is so unique itself, it tells a story in itself. And our DP Chloe Weaver. she is a total pro in achieving this look, she and Iman really fought for expensive toys, and me and Aizzah fought back to get cheaper toys. And so that was the battle. But every film has a different story, different needs. And from the very early onset, Iman and Aizzah had the vision of not trying to fit the film into this pigeon model of independent film. Even the choices of music, if you knew the kind of deals we made for distribution for the music, you would be having a heart attack -- it's really expensive stuff!

What was the inspiration for the story, Aizzah and Iman, since you co-wrote the script?

Aizzah: So the four characters are definitely taken from the play Dirty Paki Lingerie. And they've, of course, changed so much. For me, it was a really special time when I moved to New York, and I had a group of friends that lived in Jackson Heights, and I would spend a lot of time there. I’d never been around “Desis” I grew up in a small town in Mississippi. I was like whoa it's like a whole Desi world, it's like a country it's like a little Desi country! I really got admitted in that area and so I wanted to tell their stories, these stories of this American struggle, you know, for these immigrants. I’m also a child of immigrants, I was born in Saudi Arabia and came here when I was younger. And Iman is born and raised in Florida but our families are all immigrants. And then sisterhood, the matriarchs of the family, we both come from these backgrounds where we have these moms who, for whatever reason, didn't get the right education and they were never able to have careers but it's funny like how both Iman’s and my mom really pushed us to have careers and go to school, and make somethings of ourselves. I remember being 18 or 19 and mom would always say “Have a job and always make your own money, never depend on a guy,” you know. She's in a happy marriage and life is good and all of that, I mean my parents are still married. But it's almost like these women who weren't able to have the things they wanted, then they made sure that their daughters could. I really wanted to like tell that story through Khala as well -- I think it's really important.

Iman, what did you manage to bring to the writing, as the characters already existed in Aizzah’s experience?

Iman: Aizzah was the main writer for sure. The Maryan character was someone I connected to the most. I had written a short film, with a very similar character to this one, just being a hijabi Muslim girl in college who was extremely headstrong and kind of just wanted everything, and also very klutzy and a little bit like me, a little bit goofy -- I felt Salena mimicking me when she was doing the character, she's so amazing.

My biggest thing and you know Aizzah and I talked about this all the time is that, and I feel so honoured that you've said this -- this is an American story, and pushing the American Muslim narrative is incredibly important to me and to Aizzah as well. And that's something that I've been fighting for since I started becoming a filmmaker, and I'm one of the first hijabi American Muslim filmmakers and I felt this huge responsibility to tell the story but it was an incredible fight. So my shorts were all about American Muslim women having their own agency and telling these stories that were hijabi.

It was incredibly important for this, the feature film to be about Muslim women and what I love about it and what I really brought to it is having three different Muslim women, and showing that Muslim women, we're not a monolith.

And a final word from each of you. If somebody could take away only one thing after watching Americanish, what would you want them to walk away with?

Aizzah: Just that we're all connected as human beings, we all have the same struggles and it's not about being Muslim, but sometimes it's about just living in a patriarchal world, which is all over the world and all the same things women deal with everywhere.

Iman: To think that Muslim women are not a monolith, and to have agency and independence in their own lives.

Roy: I guess be yourself, you know just be your best self.

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