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“I wanted to evoke a memory for the audience” – Fawzia Mirza and Nimra Bucha talk The Queen Of My Dreams

11 min read

Courtesy of BFI

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movies being covered here wouldn't exist.

follows Azra as she unexpectedly finds herself in Karachi, Pakistan, her parent's homeland due to her father's untimely death. In Karachi, she finds connection with her conservative Muslim mother, Mariam. It is a colourful, multigenerational coming-of-age story, balancing grief and love wrapped in a love letter to Bollywood. FILMHOUNDS sat down with director Fawzia Mirza and actor Nimra Bucha who stars as Azra's mother, Mariam.

The Queen of My Dreams started as a short film,  then a play, before becoming a feature film. What did you find most different in this new format? Was there anything you found was easier or harder because you've told this story before?

: When I started the journey of this story over ten years ago, I didn't even know I was a filmmaker yet – I was just making. The short started as an art installation, a very public way of dealing with my personal struggle of whether I could be queer, Muslim and in love with Bollywood romance. Could I have all these identities at the same time? It was through making that initial short film and from the healing I found from it and being on the festival circuit, in finding a sense of community, that I realised that maybe I need to keep making more art and that the art was healing for me and was healing for others.

It was through making that short film that I thought I should make something else. The idea of making a feature film came to me much later. At the time, I was an actor, and my dream was to make and star in a one-person show. From that idea came the play Me, My Mom and Sharmilla. I think every piece of art you make, especially in different mediums, comes with its own complications and challenges. I'm so grateful I had such an incredible team making this movie, and that it's being received so well.

What were the challenges for this feature film?

FM: Anyone who makes a feature film knows that making one is a miracle. Whether you make that film in Canada, the US, London or Pakistan, there are always going to be hurdles that you face every day. It's part of the job of being a director, learning how to face each of those challenges, whether it's losing a location, whether an actor gets sick, or whether you have to rewrite a scene. There's always something.

For this particular film, I think it's a challenge for your to shoot it in two countries on two continents with two different crews. To have a team that I did who believed in me and in the movie, and the screenplay and the overall vision. It was never a question that they believed in me. That got us through that. Everyone needs champions with them.

Watching this movie, you can feel a sense of love and community, especially in the warm and colourful scenes in Pakistan. What was it like to film there? And what was it like to portray Pakistan in a different time? 

FM: Pakistan, specifically Karachi, does not look like it did in the 60s. No city does. As we sit here in London, talking about all the modern blending with the old, Karachi is the same — it's changed. One of the things we focused on was finding a few locations that were from that era and using them multiple times. 

One example is the bridge with the colourful blue wall. That has existed since the 60s and it's quite unchanged in many ways. By using it multiple times, it helped create memories and a sense of nostalgia for the audience. The strategy is to be aware of and mindful that these spaces existed; we weren't trying to create a replica. We were trying to create something that existed in the 60s, universally, in many ways — whether that was the 60s, architecture, something that evokes an era for the audience. 

Pakistan is a beautiful place. It has a great film scene and there's a little bit of a DIY culture there, so I was always learning every day. We had this great team of producers locally, Carol Ann Noronha and Kamil Chima, who were problem-solving any time we needed to, and it was a dream to film there. I've always wanted to make a movie in my country of origin, my mother's land and I wanted to make it my land. Telling a story in a place is a great way to continue to dig in and find your roots.

Speaking of finding roots, I'd love to talk more about the core mother-daughter relationship between Mariam and Azra, which is such a prevailing theme of this film. How did you decide to convey the way Azra learns about her mum? 

FM: You know, we learn these stories about our parents. Maybe some of us know more than others. But we just weren't there. My mother grew up in the 1960s Karachi. I know some stories, but I don't know all of them. So the film is a bit of a fantasy, a romanticization of that era, and her. But really, what could have happened to a woman falling in love in the 60s in Pakistan. 

I often wonder about my mother's life; I think a lot of us wonder about our parents' lives. I wanted to evoke a memory for the audience. We know Azra's not actually travelling back in time, but I think if we're experiencing it through a fantasy, maybe Azra is also experiencing it through a fantasy.

I love the fantastical aspect that you mentioned. One of the ways you created that was by having Amrit Kaur play both a younger Mariam and Azra. From the film and the character, you find that there are a lot of “could have beens” in life, especially when mums and daughters have such different outlooks in different phases of their lives. 

The film is an emotional reflection of my journey of coming to terms with loving myself and having compassion for myself. It's also loving and having compassion for my mother's journey, and the women who came before her and the women who will come after me. It helped me see that maybe we have so much more in common than I originally thought. 

A lot of my work has the central question of how we become who we are. And in asking that question, not just in the film, but of myself, helps me find that compassion and love.

I'd also like to talk about sequences where younger Mariam was preparing food for each of the suitors and juxtaposing that with Mariam preparing food later on to impress the mums in Nova Scotia. What was your thought process for making that?

There are so many parts of our lives that are filled with rituals and routines that we become used to. I leaned into the idea of how the time and place may change, but the ritual and the routine stay the same. 

We take those things with us, wherever we are. The teapot changes, the blender changes, and the way we make the food changes, but over the years, we still have these rituals and routines embedded into us. In 20 or 30 years, what will that ritual look like? I don't know, but the repetition of that is interesting.

I feel like by the end of the movie, Azra comes to a place where she can have an honest conversation with her mom. I'm curious to see if you feel this resolution.

I think the end is the beginning. That's a bit of a fantasy there as well. Who knows what happens next? But it's the beginning. I think this is something a lot of mother and daughters or queer people and their parents can resonate with. It's something that we all hope we can have and want, and it's projecting a beautiful future for all of us.

Courtesy of BFI

Nimra, you mentioned in Toronto that the Tupperware scene drew you into the role. Tell me more.

: When I first had a meeting with Fawzia, one of the scenes I got to read with her was where Mariam is teaching her daughter how to sell Tupperware, in the same way that she was taught to perform as a younger woman. 

There was just something about that scene. Maybe it's because I also grew up around Tupperware; it's such a big part of the domestic landscape in Pakistan. It made me think of my mother: she would go to the shop and buy a bunch of plastic boxes, and then she would start cooking a lot and put all the extra food in those boxes and put them in the freezer. For me, the Tupperware is such a symbol of motherhood. That scene felt very evocative of my childhood and when I read it, I felt I needed to get this role. 

What was it like to develop Mariam and Azra's mother-daughter relationship with Amrit Kaur?

By the time Azra becomes an adult, Azra's and Mariam's scenes are very fraught with tension, which was a shift from playing happy family, which I played with the younger Azra, Ayana Manji, who's also an amazing actor. Amrit was very, very good at bringing the tension. When we got to Karachi, the stage was set for the grief, anger, frustration, and conflict everyone was feeling. She brought a lot of that and all I had to do was play against her. Amrit is good at living the character. Sometimes, you can't tell if you're looking at the character or the actor. She completely inhabits the role.

Alongside sharing scenes with Amrit, who not only plays Azra, but also a younger version of Mariam. What it was like to share the character in such a way?

NB: We both treated Mariam in complete isolation. For Amrit's Mariam, she might have seen a bit of my work. But she had to do it independently because Mariam also had to come from her. In some ways, it's impossible to try to work with another actor to play one character.

We never had rehearsals, so I didn't get to meet Amrit until after we had shot most of the film. We didn't have any scenes together until Karachi after all the Canadian parts were shot. I just knew that I had to play Mariam the way I saw Mariam. 

A lot of it came from Fawzia's writing. She wrote the character in a way that, even when two different actors play the character, you can still feel the overlap of the same person there. I think while actors can bring a lot, we can't bring something into a vacuum. If it's not in the writing, then there's nothing in the performance. The script helped both of us. 

What I also think helped us was having Hamza Haq, who plays Hassan. He played the same character in both generations, and both of us had a chance to perform with Hamza. I think that added something to the way we both played Mariam. At the end of the day, I think it's the audience who suspends their disbelief and believes it.

As you mentioned earlier, you come from Pakistan and have worked in the film industry there. Did it feel different going back to Pakistan? What was the transition like working in Pakistan to working in North America?

In Pakistan, the industry is so small that you always know everybody who is on set. Because this was a small, independent film, I had a very similar experience to how I worked there. such as in Halifax, Canada, where it was also a small place where people knew each other and they worked on lots of different projects together. Comparing that to when you work in a bigger place, like in Atlanta where I did Miss Marvel, that scale is so much bigger. There would be twenty people for every person that you would work with in Pakistan. In that case, you can sometimes feel a little bit lost. But at the end of the day as an actor, I think once you're in the scene, it doesn't matter who's around you. The space is created for the actor, they just have to be in it.

I do really admire the crews in Pakistan because there are no solid systems in place. For example,  even with the health and safety side of things, a lot of risks are taken on set. Every time you see somebody climbing up a tall ladder, or they're holding a wire with their hands, you tend to notice that they're working in very difficult circumstances. In that sense, I feel that here in the West, there are safer systems in place such as unions and health and safety rules that provide a sense of protection. In that way, it feels easier. 

I've been lucky to work on projects that have a lot of people from Pakistan and India, or with people of Pakistan or Indian descent. In that sense, I haven't felt completely removed from my stomping ground or like I was in a completely alien environment. I recently did a project where I was one of very few brown actors coming in from Pakistan. So, in that, maybe there was a newness to that environment, where I didn't feel completely at home. 

But there's something about arriving in a new place and when you see familiar faces, and then it doesn't feel so new anymore. It's just a very initial hurdle, and then you start working and the familiarity comes. Performance is the same everywhere. Of course, there's a comfort zone with working with people that with people you know and whose language you understand. But there's also another kind of pleasure in working with people you don't speak the same language. You'll need to familiarise yourself in a new way. That's how it is for all of us expats in communities living in the West. Every day is a negotiation. Who am I today, when you meet a new group of people, you always kind of judge the situation a little bit before you talk about yourself. 

I like that you used the word negotiation because it now makes me think of the scenes where Mariam interacts with the other mums in Nova Scotia, could you tell me a bit more of what it was like filming those scenes?

I didn't realise how odd it felt until I saw it on screen. When I saw the scene on screen, it made me feel the discomfort that Mariam must have had. There was so much awkwardness there. But again, it shows the brilliance of the script.

But with those actors, they were wonderful and we became friends. We were having tea together and by the end of the day, we were eating all that food, it was so great. That's why I love food scenes because you always get a little bit. 

That's lovely to hear, it all sounds like a very welcoming production to be a part of.

Not to make it like a male versus female thing, but there's just something about working with a woman director like Fawzia, who's bringing so much vulnerability in telling her story. For my part, I just want to get it right so much. There is a different sort of comfort and I always enjoy that so much when I'm working with women.

Lately, I've mostly worked with women directors. It's great to see all these great women directors bringing out work that feels new, and fresh but also cutting-edge and sensitive. I always want to be on that on their side.

The Queen of my Dreams screened as part of 2023