Memoirs of a Superfan Volume 16.2: AMERICANISH, a Rom-Com Window into Identity Formation for Asian American Women
by Ravi Chandra
May 18, 2021
AMERICANISH is the must-see, groundbreaking debut feature from award-winning director/producer/writer and University of Florida Professor Iman Zawahry, one of the first hijabi (hijab-wearing) Muslim American women filmmakers. It premieres as a gala virtual presentation during CAAMFest39’s closing weekend on May 23rd, and has its live world premiere at the Fort Mason Flix drive-in the same day, as a fundraiser for the Islamic Scholarship Fund. I wholeheartedly encourage you to see this film soon!
“AMERICANISH comes as a welcome mirror in a society that has been largely mirrorless and largely distorting for our complicated and still nascent Asian American identity.”
– Ravi Chandra, M.D.
AMERICANISH is a delicious treat, gently and skillfully using the rom-com genre to shine a light on the identity formation and life, career, and love choices of two Pakistani American sisters and their immigrant cousin. Between the harsh rigidities of dogmatic certainties and judgmentalism embodied by the sisters’ traditional mother, a couple of Pakistani American beaus and an extremely racist, White Nationalist political candidate (played by George Wendt of CHEERS fame), Sam, Maryam and Ameera are tasked to break the mold and create a new paradigm of Pakistani American female identity. The heavily South Asian, diverse setting of Jackson Heights, New York becomes the crucible for a refreshingly different, yet comfortingly familiar and timely story of growth, change, and hope. And yes, hilarity ensues! The ensemble cast has great chemistry, bringing to life a strong script by Zawahry and lead actor and co-producer Aizzhah Fatima.
The Khan sisters and their mother are abandoned in the opening sequence by their father who says “I don’t want a Pakistani woman I have to take care of – I want an American woman who can take care of herself!” Twenty years later, Sam, the older sister (Aizzah Fatima) has become the go-getting, hard-driving breadwinner for the family, working for a public relations firm. She is devalued, overlooked for a promotion in favor of a self-promoting White man, and pegged to promote a ripped-from-the-headlines, Muslim-hating, Trumpian candidate’s campaign. Maryam, the younger sister (Salena Qureshi), is a socially awkward yet earnest hijab-wearing pre-med college student. Their cousin Ameera (Shenaz Treasury) is innocent, naïve, doe-eyed and fawning, declaring after her arrival from Pakistan, “everyone is going to get what they want! America is the land of dreams!” Their journeys are clarifying, as they move from various (and hilarious) states of confusion and conflict towards finding their true selves. AMERICANISH comes as a welcome mirror in a society that has been largely mirrorless and largely distorting for our complicated and still nascent Asian American identity.
Khala (Lillete Dubey) is very recognizable as the mother constantly starring on “Mothers Say the Darndest Things!” South Asians in particular will laugh and groan as they hear her all-too common words of “wisdom,” idealizing fair skin, skinny waistlines and traditional women’s roles, despite being a single mother herself. She is the kinder, gentler and more humorous mirror to George Wendt’s monstrously racist character – in a sequel, they could perhaps meet and get married themselves. Surely they could recognize themselves in each other? To her credit, she’s a survivor, she’s somehow been able to keep her family together all this time. Yet her survival gives her far too much confidence that “mother knows best.” But the next generation has embraced a bigger world, with all its pitfalls and possibilities.
The two Black characters appear as the film’s least confused players. A Black woman appears early on as the straight-talking TSA agent who checks Ameera’s passport upon arrival, rolling her eyes when Ameera declares her reason for coming to America: “I’m here to find a nice Pakistani American doctor to marry.” “Girl I don’t know any nice men. How you gonna find a nice Pakistanian doctor?” “This is New York, where dreams come true!” replies Ameera, citing as evidence Eddie Murphy’s COMING TO AMERICA. Later, Ameera meets Gabriel (played by Godfrey), a Black man who owns the corner store and who happens to be Muslim. He is patient and gracious as Ameera sorts out the difference between the façade of her original dream and the New York miracle of meeting a Prince Charming who wasn’t on the menu. I’m not one for the Oppression Olympics, but I think there is something to say about Challenging Identity Experiences, and surely Black people and Muslim Americans vie for the leaderboard in this country. I was heartened to see positive portrayals of these two CIE categories.
We also watch Sam and Maryam sort out their boy and career problems. Can you have both? What qualities are you choosing for in each? What qualities in yourself would they enhance or negate? It was nice to see all these women portrayed as strong characters in their own right, making conscious choices as opposed to being conscripted to the plans of others, while also amplifying their own solidarity with each other. AMERICANISH is particularly necessary at this time, centering women’s journeys. And speaking as a Brown man, it was refreshing that a White guy wasn’t offered up as a competing alternative to magically “complete” and thus offer wholeness to any of the women. They approach wholeness and relationship on their own terms, not through the White gaze.
Identity demands can be distressingly hard-core for people of all genders, though men often get more license and support to find themselves. Still, for many people, the pressure is to conform or be an outcaste. To be controlled by narrow expectations, and suppress yourself in an attempt to give your family less anxiety and avoid the stings of criticism and shame. I was glad to have AMERICANISH represent the possibility of, over time, being true to oneself while also being accepted by family and romantic partners.
I’ve heard many Asian Americans decry rom-coms as being fluffy, lightweight, and unreal. I’ve called them “practically science fiction.” I’ve wondered, at times, if Asian American identity even knows yet what to do with romance, despite the plethora of YA novels and handful of mainstream movies that deal with the world’s most popular topic. All too often, we get negative messages about dating and sexuality from our parents. We seem to carry around an unhealthy supply of stranger danger that makes it hard for the “magic” to happen. I hope this is changing. But it can feel almost impossible to live as the child of hidebound expectations and culture, ideally wanting to please one’s parents yet also please oneself, while also constructing a career and life bricolage, out of available parts. There are dangerous splits between the genders and within families, because of misogyny and intergenerational trauma, but also because racism distorts even our own sense of safety with one another. Who can you bring home to your parents? Who fits you? Who can protect and provide? Who can grow with you? Whom are you willing to help grow? Whom do we choose, and whom do we estrange? Will we remain estranged from each other as community, or can we create belonging, embracing all of our Asian American identities?
We’re coming out of a year of isolation, loss, distress, and outrageous violence against Asian Americans, especially women, elders and youth. We’ve been challenged to care for community. We’ve had to affirm our identities and relationships on a deeper level.
We are still not done, and we are not ok.
Society hasn’t mirrored us, so we have to mirror each other. Society hasn’t loved us, so we have to find ways to love each other. We make each other special with our time and attention. As we come out of COVID, we are making choices. I hope more of us make the choice to make each other, and make Asian America, special and true to the broader goals of compassion and uplift.
A guy can dream, right?
Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! And enjoy all the films embracing the Asian and Asian American experience at CAAMFest and Visual Communications Asian Pacific American Virtual Showcase. Here are some other films of interest that also deal with Asian and Black relations.
HINDSIGHT SHORTS – includes ADAAN, a short documentary about a young woman’s migration from Pakistan to Arkansas during COVID, and Kiyoko McRae’s work-in-progress documentary featuring Southern Black and Asian experiences of motherhood during COVID.
BUT YOU’RE NOT BLACK (2020) – a short documentary showcasing Chinese Trinidadian identity through the eyes of director and Toronto native Danielle Ayow (part of the CROSSCURRENTS SHORTS program, streaming until 5/23/21)
CIVIL (2018) – A black door-to-door salesman struggles to make his first sale when he spots a Confederate flag hanging on the wall of his potential client. (17 minutes, streaming free through 5/31/21)
TEACH OUR CHILDREN (1972) – Oscar nominated legend Christine Choy’s documentary focuses on the historic 1971 Attica prison rebellion in upstate New York and the conditions that caused prisoners to take drastic steps toward securing basic rights. Through on-site footage and follow-up interviews with inmates, this film relates a powerful message concerning prisoner’s rights, providing an important historical document. (35 minutes, streaming free through 5/31/21)
FAR EAST DEEP SOUTH (2020) – Charles Chiu and his family’s search for their roots takes them on an emotional and eye-opening journey through the Mississippi Delta, uncovering the racially complex history of Chinese immigrants in the segregated South. This family’s unforgettable story offers a poignant and important perspective on race relations, immigration, and American identity. (77 minutes, streaming free through 6/3/21)