Kausar Mohammed and Fawzia Mirza discuss the mold-breaking short and where it could go from here.
While the traditional romantic comedy genre has slowed down since the heyday of the 90s, the subgenre of holiday rom-coms has continued to expand at a rapid pace. From early aughts classics such as Love Actually and The Holiday to the Hallmark Channel’s annual month-long Christmas Countdown, to the 30+ holiday films Netflix has released since 2017, it remains a very active vein.
However, despite the quickly growing number of holiday films, a vast majority of them center white, heterosexual leads. As Soraya Roberts points out in her 2019 article “The Unwatchable Whiteness of Holiday Movies,” these films “all tend to follow a similar formula, which is generally coded white. Beautiful, wealthy, and powerful men and women overcome minor setbacks to luxuriate in pricey yuletide accouterments surrounded by family.”
2020’s Hulu holiday film Happiest Season, directed by Clea Duvall (But I’m A Cheerleader) and starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as Abby and Harper, a queer couple. When they go home to meet Harper’s family for the holidays, at first, it seems to deviate from the strictly heterosexual framework of the standard holiday film.
Unfortunately, the story is as white as its predecessors. Rather than a lighthearted and romantic holiday romp with a little bit of family drama, the film turns out to be another story focused on the fear of coming out to a family that may not accept you and the collateral damage that can have on the people who do know and love you for who you are. While there is absolutely a time and place for nuanced films about the trauma of coming out, as Nia Tucker points out in their review of the film for The Spool, “there’s still a long way to go in addressing the other shades of the queer experience. The future of joyful, queer holiday cinema should at least make an effort to acknowledge how difficult it is to be in the shoes of the token queer family member.”
Enter The Syed Family Xmas Eve Game Night, a delightful and joyful queer Muslim holiday rom-com short, which had its world premiere at TIFF 2021 on Sept 11th and most recently aired at CIFF 2021. Written/directed by Kausar Mohammed (who is also the series lead in Paul Feig’s dramedy East of La Brea) and co-directed by Fawzia Mirza (Signature Move), the short follows Noor Syed (Kausar Mohammed), a queer Muslim woman who introduces her nonbinary partner Luz (Vico Ortiz) to her family at their annual family holiday game night and the adventures that ensue.
In only ten minutes, The Syed Family Xmas Eve Game Night establishes a warm and vibrant world that is immediately inviting and relationship dynamics that hint at complex backstories for every member of the Syed Family. While their parents are noticeably absent — something acknowledged and called out — Noor’s larger-than-life older sister Soraya (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) and her unintentionally awkward sister Kiran (Pia Shah), who does her best to show her support vocally but accidentally (and hilariously) puts her foot in her mouth several times in the process — quickly pull Luz into the Syed family orbit.
The cozy and comforting rapport between Noor and Luz grounds the family game night chaos, and while the story is short and sweet, it’s clear that there is a lot of potential for a longer narrative in the form of a feature.
The Spool conducted an email interview with Mirza and Mohammed to discuss how the narrative for The Syed Family Xmas Eve Game Night came together and their hopes for the future.
What was the inspiration behind the story, and how did it evolve as the two of you workshopped it together?
KM: The film was inspired loosely by my experience as the baby sister of two older sisters, whom I adore, and literally mean the world to me. The Christmas I first introduced my partner to my middle sister for the first time, I went on this huge downward spiral of anxiety thinking of all the ways it could go wrong. The first scene of the short was one – of the many – of those imagined nightmares.
FM: What I loved about this film was the collaborative process. Kausar asked me to direct but was really open to my input. So we workshopped the script for a few weeks, tightened, tweaked, punched up, filled out the world of these characters. It was such a unique experience to be a queer, Muslim, Pakistani woman director working with another queer, Muslim, Pakistani woman actor/writer.
KM: Yes! Workshopping the script together was such a crucial part of it. And I was so grateful for Fawz’s insight along the way. After seeing Fawz’s other work with SIGNATURE MOVE and then acting in Fawz’s short, I KNOW HER, there was a lot of trust around the writing element! What I am most proud of what we found together was the eldest sister, Soraya’s “why” – which took a lot of work. Why does Soraya act the way she does? Why is she giving Luz a hard time? How do we ground her in love for her sister? And then – after various iterations – that line emerged, “you didn’t want me to be here.”
I love that the short features a love interest who uses they/them pronouns – was Luz’s character nonbinary from the start, or was that a development that came after casting?
FM: We really wanted to reflect the folks in our community. Even in subtle ways, shifting what is considered “normal.” Whether that’s through the language we use or the actors cast in each role. We are surrounded by queer, trans and non-binary fam. The Syed family is reflective of that! I’m also committed to bringing who the actor authentically is to the character. It just makes the story better.
KM: Yes, Vico Ortiz, who oh-so-magically encompasses Luz is non-binary and goes by she/they, though Luz was initially written to go by “she” pronouns.” And there was a moment of convo where – if Vico’s pronouns are “they”, why not represent that on-screen? I talked to Vico to ask their preference/comfort with that – and they were so down for whatever felt right for the character. Maybe Luz/Noor have this pact between each other where they’re like – let’s only use ungendered pronouns for everyone, even the sisters. I hope we achieved that, but the intent was that Luz/Noor always refer to EVERYONE (even the sisters) by only the person’s name or by “they.”
Each of the actors fully embody their characters in such a real and genuine way – what was the process like of casting?
FM: Casting is one of my favorite parts and we have an incredible talent pool in the South Asian community. Kausar was of course, the star; couldn’t ask for anyone better. I had cast Kausar and Vico Ortiz as romantic partners in a virtual table read of a different screenplay in 2020, and so when the time came to cast Luz, Kausar suggested Vico and they also were my number one for the role! Also, Luz was written to be LatinX and then we made Luz specifically Puerto Rican to reflect Vico’s identity. Pia Shah who plays Kiran was just undeniably the perfect middle sister in her audition, she brought so much texture and character to the role, and is great with improvising and being “in” the character. Also, I’d been wanting to work with her for a while! I didn’t personally know Meera Rohit Kumbhani who played big sis, Soraya, but I had seen her work in Netflix’s UNCORKED. Kausar spoke so highly of her and when we met with her, she was so funny and brought a larger than lifeness that was perfection. As far as casting Pia’s husband, David, both Kausar and I suggested our friend and the always hilarious D’Lo. The film would not have been complete without the cast of cousins, our community members, Taz Ahmed, Maynak Bhatter, Neal Kumar, Sid Mehra, Nishima Gupta, and the homeowner, Nitasha Sawhney and her daughter Anjali.
KM: Ditto. Just so so so grateful to everyone who was down to lend their talents to the film. In the cast AND even the crew.
The right music always adds a specific dimension to a film and I’d love to hear what the process was for choosing the music for the short film.
FM: We couldn’t afford a composer, so music decisions were reflective of creativity on a limited budget. Because this film took place in one night at a family gathering in a home, it was likely that, in real life, a speaker would be playing songs all night. So we leaned into making a diegetic use of music. Every scene is a different track. We came together to suggest possible artists and songs, and then Kausar played music supervisor and reached out to each artist to ask for the use of their music.
KM: Yes, Fawz and our editor Shelly Therrien made some really really cool music choices from the outset that shaped the film. I love the fusion mix of music we found and Fawz’s taste in it. It was important to our whole team to uplift South Asian artists and we got to feature artists like Ritviz, Urvah Khan, Tommy Genesis, Natasha Noorani, Natasha Humera Ejaz, and Priya Ragu. Ritviz’s “Jeet” sets the stage of the film in the perfect upbeat way. Urvah Khan’s “Playground” brings the drama to Soraya’s entrance. Every time I hear Priya Raghu’s Chicken Lemon Rice in the credits I want to cheer and dance. I could go on and on about how each song was so crucial but also folks can listen to our playlist and check it for themselves. We’re proud of it.
Is this a contained story, or are you planning to tell more stories about Luz, Noor, and the Syed family?
FM: We’d love to make a feature! And we’ve heard that feedback from audiences. We’re talking to a few folks about developing a feature. Stay tuned.
KM: More to come, folks, there’s more to come!!
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
FM: Comedy is often dismissed because it isn’t hard-hitting or seems like fluff. But to us, this story is aspirational, revolutionary. We wanted to reflect the world we live in, reflect a Muslim and queer community that is not just one thing. We wanted to see stories of queer, POC, Muslim love and romance, about us, told by us.
KM: I hope someone of our shared identities or – of any historically marginalized identity – sees it and is reminded that we also have a right to exist in our joy. To exist in community and family. In our awkwardness and in our love. Traditionally, we don’t get the privilege of seeing someone with our identities just “be” in peace on screen. So I hope Noor’s story becomes a tangible visual – for myself and us and others like us – to simply exist in all our wholeness.