At the start of “Istikhara, New York,” there would only seem to be one kind of role for Reza (Nabeel Masood), a food delivery courier who practices monologues from “Death of a Salesman” as he speeds around the city on his bike, hoping to land a big part soon that could finally put him on the path of the acting career he’s dreamed of yet unable to put much of his attention on anything but the next order when he needs the money to stay afloat. When writer/director Yasir Masood first conceived of his debut feature, Reza’s pursuit of treading the boards on Broadway while stuck dodging oncoming traffic in Queens had a multitude of meaning already when thoughts of being someone else and the compromises that come with attempting to make headway in a competitive creative profession were at the forefront of his mind, but as he got deeper into the process, it began to reflect something else.
“We haven’t seen ourselves trying to be artists as much. It’s not a white person trying to be an actor. It’s somebody that really does not come from a background or a culture in America that allows us to go after these positions and these desires and these ambitions to express themselves,” said Masood. “You haven’t seen us as Asian Americans or Muslim Americans want to become actors, so that’s what I hope is fresh.”
Masood, despite appearing in his previous shorts, had less ambition to be in front of the camera than behind it, yet as Reza describes his background to a co-worker having been born in Pakistan and moved to Texas before getting into the New York hustle to be an artist, it becomes clear that there are certainly parallels between the filmmaker and the aspiring actor he follows along his route where the tetchy interactions with customers who didn’t get the right sauce with their order and unwanted detours become physical manifestations of a difficult road towards self-expression. While fellow riders urge Reza to take a leadership position in their burgeoning union when the perils of the grueling work is made clear and they’ll find no sympathy from the algorithm that runs their business with an incentive towards efficiency rather than mental or physical welfare, Reza has to find it within himself to chart the right way forward when there are no other samples of what he wants and he has to be the one to break that ground.
Inspired at a time when so many were forced to reevaluate where their lives were headed in the face of a pandemic, Masood found opportunity when New York may have been gradually emerging from lockdown but he could take advantage of its less busy streets to convey the beauty that awaits on the other side if only Reza can start to see distractions for what they are and trust his instincts. That confidence on the part of its writer/director is what makes “Istikhara, New York” a ride worth going on and as the film premiered this weekend at the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival, Masood spoke about how he turned a desperate time personally and professionally into art, how his brother made the scrappy production possible by stepping into the lead role and forging a partnership with South Asian and Indo-Caribbean organization Desis Rising Up & Moving to support the real immigrant workers that have no other safety net as Reza does in the film.
How did this come about?
It came out from a yearning to be able to do something and an exploration of how me and other artists in our mid-twenties in Brooklyn felt during that time [of the pandemic] and going through that uncertainty of not knowing if the path you want to go on exists anymore. There is a big liberation in that because there’s no ladder anymore. There’s only the destination, which for me was to be able to write and direct a feature, so through the great tragedy of the pandemic, there was only that yearning to express ourselves — not [just] myself as a writer/director, but also our cinematographer, our producer or our editor, and as a team, we really wanted to do the thing we moved to New York to set out to do.
Were locations tied to emotional beats?
I only used locations where I had significant memories of being in New York, and I also think there’s a level where I’m writing and producing at the same time I’m going to direct and there’s a level of ease in knowing that’s one less decision I have to make when I think I have a lot of tender memories here. I’ll just shoot it there. I don’t have to think about it again to try to find a location. It’s just easier for me to tap into myself emotionally because I know how that looks and what the spirit of that location is.
Did the pandemic clear the city out so you had the run of the place?
Our sound person was literally the first person I ever heard of who had the vaccine, so it wasn’t necessarily all the way in the pandemic. It was easing out and when I wrote it in November of 2020, I was [thinking], “Spring will be good. Spring will be the time when the city opens up a little bit, and it’ll be okay to do this and do it safely.” But it still had the hangover from the pandemic, so [New York] was a lot less populated, and I wouldn’t say we totally had the run of the place, but I don’t think this movie would be done in the way it would be done again because those locations would be so much tougher to shoot in. You’d have to close those off, so it was luck and also predicting when is this going to ease up a little bit.
How’d you end up casting Nabeel as your lead?
He’s my brother, so he acted in the first short film I ever made and it’s one of those things where I knew where his strengths are as an actor. I don’t think he’s an actor by trade. He’s very much a nonactor – I think that could change depending on this film. [laughs] What I saw Nabeel does really well is he has a tenderness and you can see in his eyes when he’s picking up information and internalizing it, so that’s essentially became the film I ended up writing and I found even more in the edit room. One thing I was really thinking about this film is what is my voice? It takes a couple shorts to realize what a voice is or what is that thing that I could do that it’s a film that [only] I made and I don’t think you choose that sometimes. I really figured out that this is my style, like a half-documentary, half-narrative and where you have someone who’s a vehicle for other people [to share their own experience] and hopefully the audience can learn through the vessel of the main character.
So I just wrote to [Nabeel’s] tenderness and personality. It’s a specific type of Muslim person or South Asian kid and that is tougher to find sometimes in people that are trying to be actors. The other thing is that we filmed all this out of a 2007 Corolla with a five-person crew and the equipment that you need to shoot a film. And for 25 days, Nabeel rode that bike to set. You can’t ask somebody that’s not your brother to do that. [laughs] So it made it economically feasible because he was invested. He’s also an executive producer and he was also another hand to push sandbags or grab a C-stand three flights of stairs. Or “Hey, we don’t have room for you in the car today, but we have to get this bike to location and you might as well just ride it.” Nobody else would’ve done that.
Was there a particularly crazy day of filming?
There’s a lot. Every step of this, there was a new hurdle where I just didn’t understand how we would do that. It could be a location, it could be how do we get all these people there, it could be a matter of needing extras and [wondering] will they show up? That was really stressful and at the same time, it’s like I tried to adopt this mentality of whatever happens happens. You can’t really predict anything in terms of indie filmmaking, especially in a city like New York and just have the intention of doing the best with what we have. The first day on the promenade where you see that conversation with three people and you have all of New York in front of you, that was really relieving because that’s a really popular spot.
And for the bike [shoot], we upgraded to a Subaru for pickups because the Corolla broke down and what we did to shoot this bike footage was we got to Queens and Nabeel rides the bike behind us and we pop the trunk and put six in the back of the car and film Nabeel through an open trunk. We’re all laying down in the trunk — I’m on the monitor and the DP’s on the monitor and once we figured out how to do that and wrap those days, it was really relieving because I love my brother and I don’t want him to be in a dangerous position with traffic. That was the most relieving because it’s like we did this safely and Nabeel’s not missing a limb. I don’t have to talk to my parents and get yelled at. [laughs]
You’ve actually partnered with DRUM – Desis Rising Up & Moving, a collective of South Asian and Indo-Caribbean delivery workers that helps one another with health care costs and living expenses, and set up a GoFundMe in conjunction with the film. Were they actually foundational to telling this story?
It was personally foundational. While I was writing it, I did the initial reach outs of “Hey, I’m making this film, how could I help?” and [I would ask] about the world so I could learn about it and do it justice. There is obviously so much going on from their organization, I knew I wanted to work with them and I wanted to whatever comes out of this to financially aid or create awareness for their organization, so once we got off the ground and went into post and had more to show for it, that’s when we both gradually gravitated towards each other. It’s a really big organization that’s doing amazing, amazing work, so we had to prove ourselves to get their attention and once they watched it, they’re like, “Oh, this is great,” [which was] really relieving for me [because I wanted to make sure] it’s giving [their] cause justice and I want to be able to help where I can because I think a lot of us want to help, but art can be so indirect, I wanted to try to do something that raises awareness or money that directly helps them.
What’s it like to get to your premiere at the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Fest?
I am just so honored to be able to premiere this movie at this festival specifically because this festival and festivals like it are so important in breaking in new artists and new voices. I’m just really honored to be a part of that — I had a short programmed here in 2020 and I had multiple people here remember that short — and have the trust, support and belief of this organization. I love this organization and everybody involved and it’s so humbling. I’m not dogging the system, but when you’re a person of color and you didn’t go to film school and you have a working class background, you can’t go to Sundance because half those movies are picked by an agency or picked out of USC or NYU, this festival is democratic in a way and it is so important in finding us and it’s only appropriate that it’s from our community that our voices are broken open.
“Istikhara, New York” does not yet have U.S. distribution.