On a beautiful sunny day in Chicago, a small crew has set up outside a house in Little Village to film a scene for “Signature Move,” an independent film starring Pakistani Canadian actor, Fawzia Mirza. They are a day away from the film’s wrap up and despite the near 14-hour day shifts during the last three weeks, Mirza’s energy is boundless. In fact, it’s almost contagious—the crew cracks jokes with the producers as they prepare for the next scene.
Mirza plays Zainab, a lawyer in Chicago of Pakistani origin who lives with her mother Perveen—played by Shabana Azmi—and falls in love with Alma, a Mexican American played by Sari Sanchez. The film’s title was inspired by a female Mexican wrestler who practiced lucha libre and her “signature move” that Mirza had seen.
This is the first feature film for Mirza whose previous work comprises stand up comedy, writing and performing in short films and, more recently, a role in the six-episode web series “Her Story” which was nominated for an Emmy in outstanding short form comedy or drama series.
It would be grossly unfair to describe this movie as a “lesbian film” as some may likely do. Undoubtedly the film portrays a romance between two women but the relationship between Mirza and her mother is of equal import.
“I feel my best qualities come from my mother and I feel the mother-daughter relationship is one of the most relatable,” said Mirza. “Whatever the relationship she has affected you.” That the Meryl Streep of Asia, as Mirza called Azmi, plays that role of the mother makes for quite a coup.
While writing the script with Lisa Donato, Mirza thought it would be a dream to cast Shabana Azmi as the mother. “[It is about] her acting ability, her social activism, her timing for both comedy and drama is spot on,” said Mirza. “She’s an active participant in the art she creates. And of course her identifying as a queer or lesbian in [Deepa Mehta’s film] “Fire” 20 years ago is part of the lexicon.”
Azmi’s decision to take on a role in a small budget independent film shows her commitment to projects that she has a passion for, and the storytellers who want to tell their stories.
Azmi told Nabeela Rasheed, one of the executive producers of “Signature Move” as much and Mirza was thrilled to hear it. Azmi picked up on this and how diverse the set was, commenting to Rasheed about how many women were on the set in a video posted on the film’s Facebook page. “It’s comforting,” she said.
“It’s always interesting to be on set on the first day because you’re still trying to work your way into the character,” Azmi said. “The character leads you even if you’ve not decided what you’re going to do and that’s the surprise element.”
With the film now in its editing stage, the producers hope to have the film ready for release in time for festivals and their goal is to have its world premiere at one of the big film festivals. Rasheed feels the time is right for this story to be told.
“At a time when Trump is attacking both Mexicans and Muslims, what better time to put out a magnificent piece of art? It showcases both of those communities in a beautiful light,” she said.
The director of “Signature Move” Jennifer Reeder agreed, adding that she hoped people would engage with the story, the romance, comedy and family drama. “I would love for people to connect with the cultural issues even if they’re not Mexican American or not Pakistani American, to understand that a lot of immigrant issues are all very similar,” said the Chicago native who has been making films for 20 years. “I want someone who is furthest from a Pakistani Muslim lesbian to be enchanted with Zainab and root for her, her romance for her relationship with her mother. I want them to come in and at the end be like oh that was about lesbians, Mexicans, Pakistanis, about Chicago.”
Mirza believes the film has universal appeal. “It’s a story about parents, about having secrets from your parents, about being scared to tell them those secrets, it’s a story about being different from others, about trying something new,” she said. “It’s a story of strength, the story of falling in love with someone who is different then you are but then also finding similarities across cultures and families.”