TIFF 2021 Interview: Kausar Mohammed and Fawzia Mirza on a Trial By Chai in “Syed Family Xmas Eve Game Night”

As much anxiety there might be inside the house where “The Syed Family Xmas Eve Game Night” is set, with the titular Pakistani clan playing a fierce game of charades, Noor (Kausar Mohammed) can be seen going over some ground rules with her partner Luz (Vico Ortiz) to prepare her for what could happen upon walking in, with the bottle of coquito that they’ve brought with them less a thoughtful gift than a potential molotov cocktail when the family of tradition hasn’t yet met Noor’s nonbinary Puerto Rican partner. This might be less of a concern if it was just Noor’s sister Kiran (Pia Shah) the couple had to impress, but with the surprise arrival of their older sister Soraya (Meera Rohit Kumbhani), who takes particular pride in appearances, the holiday gathering quickly shifts from playful activities such as indoor basketball and Uno to mind games aimed at testing whether or not Luz will fit in.

Sparks fly in this culture clash comedy that comes naturally to director Fawzia Mirza, who previously found herself wrestling with love before as a writer and star in the Luchadora romance “Signature Move,” and works from a script penned by Mohammad that considers all the angles, both aesthetically and substantively, of adjusting family traditions to be more inclusive as the world becomes increasingly diverse. Pivoting on whether or not Luz can pull off a proper cup of chai for the family to enjoy, the delightful 11-minute short trenchantly observes the number of ways in which they could be a little more welcoming to their potential new in-law, although the opportunity to learn from one another could end up being the very best gift under the tree anyone could’ve asked for. Christmas really has come early this year when the film recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival as part of the YYZ Shorts Program and Mirza and Mohammad spoke about how they wanted to tell a story that resembled the lives they lead, full of joy even when coming up against some who are set in their ways, and putting together a festive production in the midst of a pandemic.

How did this come about?

Kausar Mohammed: Essentially, one fateful Christmas, I was visiting my two older sisters and introducing my partner to my middle sister for the first time. And as lovely and accepting as my sisters are, it had me thinking about what is this larger extension of bringing a partner home and all the things that could go wrong. So I started the script and we got Fawzia on board, which was so incredibly exciting because as I started working in TV and film, she had always been such a mentor and role model for me…

Fawzia Mirza: Yeah, I was shifting from being a writer/actor and moving into a space of directing, and it’s as a queer Muslim person of color, you tend to be an island that people don’t really understand who you are and what your stories are about, so to have another queer Muslim person of color ask you to direct to their film, it’s not only moving and exciting, it’s a dream come true. The collaboration started from there, and it definitely was a little bit of a process both making a film during COVID all the other things that were happening in our personal lives, but the sensibility of the film is also about telling stories of the spectrum of folks that are having experiences during the holidays, especially queer Muslim people of color. Kausar’s partnership was definitely an inspiration for this, and one of my ex-partners is Mexican, so we talked a little bit about how little we get to see two brown people in a relationship of different backgrounds on screen and they’re queer, so really wanted to dig into that and show the expansiveness of the community.

Fawzia, you’ve really come into your own as a director and there’s some great scenes in this visually of how the family relates to one another, with plenty going on in the background. Was this fun for you to shoot?

Fawzia Mirza: I had just come off a short film that I directed in Toronto “Noor & Layla,” produced in association with the CBC and Fae Pictures and with my wife and our production company, Baby Daal, and I learned a lot on that set and coming into this with Kausar and her partner Amalia [Mesa-Gustin], who’s also a producer on the film, I really wanted to try something that I hadn’t done before as well, which was really look at comedy, which Kausar and I both love, to tell a cinematic story. I love collaboration, and Kausar was a huge part of it and then also our [director of photography] Patrick Ouziel was really fantastic because he’s been really working with some really lovely comedians and was inspired by films like “Scott Pilgrim” and playing with the deep background, so it was definitely exciting to play in that world.

Kausar, the traditional set-up for this kind of story is that it’s the conservative parents that frown upon the person their kid is bringing home for whatever reason, but it’s a nice subversion that it’s an older sister and she is not necessarily who you’d think. Was that a foundational idea?

Kausar Mohammed: Yeah, I think the urgency that Fawzia and I came at this with was, we have to seen ourselves in joyful situations [on screen] and if I’m not able to properly imagine and play a character who has something work out with her family and with her sisters, then in doing that, I’m allowing that to exist in my real life, so it comes down to this idea of the stories we tell and the media is telling, being these reflections of who we are and just so desperately wanting a piece of something that allows us to exist and to go beyond the general of what I see often and stereotypical queer or queer POC or Muslim roles. This idea of the parents just not getting it hasn’t been my experience — I’ve found that people were accepting, but they were accepting because they love me and not because it was easy. So those very specific weird things that can happen from hearing someone yell a word like “butch” at a party, where it makes things awkward or just even the use of pronouns and how that all fits in, [I wanted to show] what acceptance in a family looks like in its actualization.

What is it like getting people together for a production during COVID?

Fawzia Mirza: Well, we definitely had some complications and as I said, a little bit about life, the journey to getting to production was exacerbated by the fact that I was sitting in Toronto and Kausar was sitting in LA. So, so as we were workshopping the script and casting, we were sitting in two different countries, which you’d think [virtually] would be a border that was easy to cross, but in the pandemic it definitely wasn’t. Then when we were planning on shooting in January 2021 when COVID in LA was at a peak and on top of that, my wife got sick during the pandemic. Thank God she’s okay and we’re so lucky, but one of the things that I find to be a great blessing of this film was that when she got sick and I said, “Look, I don’t think I can shoot in January. If you have to find another director, please do.” Kausar and Amalia were just like, “No, there’s no one else to direct this. We’ll wait.” And that’s a great reflection of the joy you see on screen is the love that went into making this — not just the script, but just the process of our community and what’s become a family for us.

Kausar Mohammed: It definitely became a family affair on the way and shout out to Andria [Wilson, a co-producer], who’s been a guiding light and producing help with the Baby Doll Productions along the way — [this was] me and my partner as well as Fawzia and her partner, and the steps we’ve taken to make sure it’s been collaborative is something that we take great pride in because as much as whatever the final product is, it’s also important that the process is just as powerful.

It’s got incredible production design and now that I’m hearing about the timeline, were people keeping around their Christmas decorations?

Kausar Mohammed: We shot in February, so we had just missed the tree that was up at the location we were shooting at! [laughs] But our set designer, Gerin [Del Carmen] just really went above and beyond to create this world…

Fawzia Mirza: Yeah, really whether you celebrate Christmas or not, having a bunch of lights and colorful prints and papers and twinkly lights in your home in the middle of a pandemic was really beautiful and it brought a lot of warmth to all of us. I don’t even know how [Gerin] pulled it off. She just did an incredible job, and that tree was brought in [as well as] every one of those decorations. There was a few that Natasha, the producer whose home we were shooting in had, and [Gerin] had so many decorations and so many pieces of production design on the fly ready to go, that I was just like, “Should we shoot more? Just to make use of this?” [laughs] I love production design. You can take a film that’s made with sometimes a really small budget and if you have a really excellent production designer, you suddenly have a film that seems much more expensive and I think we really lucked out.

Did anything unanticipated happen that made it into the film that you really like about it? It looked like you were having some serious fun playing the games.

Kausar Mohammed: The cast members were all hilarious, and yes, the lines are written, but a lot of it was just their genius…

Fawzia Mirza: Yeah, kudos to the cast and kudos to Kausar as well for bringing in some really great folks and I have to say someone like Pia Shah [who plays Kiran] was a joy to work with because she’s just such an improviser and so detail-oriented to her business that even with fewer lines, her work in the background just added so much texture to the world and to the story. When she was looking for the remote, I was like, “Should we just film that more? Let’s have a short film just about her looking for the remote.” But in terms of the unexpected, there’s always unexpected things, you’re always racing for time. That Chai Montage was something that the DP and I, without speaking about it, just shot really quickly at 2:30 am, [saying] “Let’s hope for the best, and our amazing editor Shelley Therrien really did an exceptional job to bring it all up.

What’s it like getting to the finish line with this?

Kausar Mohammed: It’s been amazing seeing the support around the film and just hearing other queer Muslims say things like, “This is what I’ve been waiting for” or “Yes! My family also celebrates Christmas [together]” and at the same time, seeing folks within the community who are maybe more alarmed by [the idea of] the movie, but all that I think just comes to show the importance of telling our very own experiences. The hope is that another queer Muslim out there sees this, and also feels validated in their experiences and sees themselves in it.

Fawzia Mirza: I’m super excited, and to echo something Kausar said earlier, you can’t really be it unless you see it and I think so many of us have struggled with that our whole lives. This film is this fun, feel-good romantic comedy with Christmas as a backdrop, but really it’s a way of also saying as intersectional people, we’re not complicated to show on screen, and to have us be the center of the story. We did it in a really fun, comedic way, so we’re really excited to share that and just show what a really strong collaboration can bring to the screen.

“Syed Family Xmas Eve Game Night” screens at the Toronto Film Festival as part of the Short Cuts: YYZ Edition program.