With 'We Are Lady Parts,' Nida Manzoor rocks on

To Manzoor's surprise, Yousufzai, who loves comedy, responded. And this is why, in the second episode of the new season of 'We Are Lady Parts', which premieres Thursday on Peacock, Yousufzai appears on a horse, resplendent in a white cowboy hat, while the band irreverently sings her praises.
Last Updated : 27 May 2024, 02:45 IST
Last Updated : 27 May 2024, 02:45 IST

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When writer-director Nida Manzoor began dreaming up Season 2 of We Are Lady Parts, the comedy about an all-female Muslim punk band, one of her earliest ideas was a song: Malala Made Me Do It, a neo-Western hype track celebrating activist Malala Yousufzai. And then she had another idea: Maybe she could get Malala, whom she had met briefly at a talk, to star in the video.

She wrote Yousufzai a love letter. To Manzoor's surprise, Yousufzai, who loves comedy, responded. And this is why, in the second episode of the new season of We Are Lady Parts, which premieres Thursday on Peacock, Yousufzai appears on a horse, resplendent in a white cowboy hat, while the band irreverently sings her praises: "Nobel Prize at 17/the baddest bitch you've ever seen."

Directing her idol brought on some fan-girl panic. "I was, like, totally not cool," Manzoor said. "But it was joyful to work with her."

Joy has been an animating force for Manzoor, 34, the assured and wildly original creator of We Are Lady Parts and Polite Society, a martial arts film about a teenage girl rebelling against her sister's arranged marriage. In a moment where nearly everything on-screen feels like a reboot, a reprise, a retread, a spinoff, Manzoor's works (an urban Muslim musical comedy, a surreal teenage eugenics-addled action caper) reliably feel like nothing else, each a microgenre unto itself.

"I like to just make the genre smaller and smaller and be the only one in there," Manzoor said one morning in early May, speaking on a video call from her home in Bristol, England. She wore a blazing orange sweater over a bright green shirt and her affect was by turns giddy, introspective, confiding, resolute. Her work resists generalization -- Manzoor resists it, too.

She grew up as the middle child in a Pakistani Muslim household, first in Singapore, and then in London. Her parents were liberal with screen time, and she absorbed it all -- Singaporean comedies, Bollywood movies, Hong Kong action flicks, British and American films and television. She saw plenty of people who looked like her on-screen, but never in the Western shows she loved. Planning on a career in law, she studied politics at University College London, but the pull of film was undeniable. After defending her career change to her parents, she found a job as a runner at a postproduction house in Soho.

Soon she began making short films, including 7.2 and Arcade, both high-stakes stories about teenagers that mingle action and comedy. Rachael Prior, head of film at the British production company Big Talk Pictures, saw 7.2 (imagine Kill Bill set in a snobbish high school) a decade ago.

"It was like a complete shot of adrenaline," Prior said. Most short films show potential, but here, Prior thought, was a fully formed artist. "She felt like a unicorn, to be honest," Prior said. She pushed her company to work with Manzoor and has since remained in her professional life.

If Manzoor's aesthetic was fully formed, her politics were still nebulous. The heroes of 7.2 and Arcade are young white women. "I thought I still had to center whiteness because that was what I was seeing," Manzoor said. But some of her early meetings and offers were radicalizing. She felt as if she was being asked to either efface her identity or allow it to be exploited, rubber-stamping other writers' works that depicted Muslim women, typically Muslim women experiencing trauma.

"That galvanized me, like, Oh no, wait -- I do want to talk about my personal identity as a woman of color," she said. "I don't want it to be just trauma victim stories."

In 2018, after directing other people's shows (Enterprice, Doctor Who) and seeing some projects stall in development, she was invited to make a "blap," a comedy featurette for England's Channel 4. Having been inspired by several punk musicians of color whom she had met in London's art scene, she created a short version of We Are Lady Parts.

Anjana Vasan, an actress also raised in Singapore, starred in the short and later in the series. Though she was not raised in a Muslim household, she felt immediately drawn to Manzoor's characters. "I really do think that she loves women," she said. "And she writes them in the way we see ourselves, in our vulnerability, messiness, idiosyncrasies and silliness."

Following the blap, We Are Lady Parts was commissioned for six episodes. Manzoor began writing them, which also meant writing the band's music, which she composed with her sister, brother and brother-in-law. Those giddy, impudent numbers include Bashir With the Good Beard, Voldemort Under My Headscarf and Ain't No One Gonna Honour Kill My Sister But Me.

A punk aesthetic meant that the music did not have to be particularly sophisticated. But Manzoor wanted it witty, angry and unapologetic. Punk is a visceral form, and she was excited for numbers that would require the actors to use their whole bodies -- even in headscarves, even in a niqab. To put Muslim women in a punk band would challenge the stereotype that Muslim women are submissive, quiet, humorless. And in the four-member ensemble, plus the band's manager, Momtaz, Manzoor could show that Muslim women weren't a monolith, that they could be as varied in their affects and strengths and dress and desires as anyone.

That's a serious political point, which Manzoor tends to make in unserious ways. "Silliness is hugely important to me," she said. "And sometimes it is the most important thing because there's something really dehumanizing about showing Muslim women as not funny." But the push-pull between seriousness and silliness is something that she often struggles with ("I torture myself in some way," she said), as do the other writers on the show. They're aware that there are so few representations of Muslim women, which makes any representation unusually sensitive.

Some of those writers felt pressure to be more political, which led to charged conversations and a major Season 2 plot point that finds the band rebelling against the strictures of a record deal. Lead singer, Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey), pushes for a more explicitly political sound, but Bisma (Faith Omole), the bassist, insists that their "jokey, winky" style is political, too.

"We are political just by existing, just by taking up this space, we are political," Bisma says. And by existing, they can provide an example to others.

Juliette Motamed, the actress who plays Ayesha, the band's drummer, wishes that shows like this had been available when she was growing up. "It's something that I could have really used as a kid," she said, "and something that might have made a lot of things make sense to me much earlier on."

The first season of We Are Lady Parts won a Peabody Award and a BAFTA for best comedy writing. Manzoor has since been flooded with other offers, not all of which she finds interesting. "I just am led by feelings, which sounds horribly cringe, just led by what excites me," she said.

She has a few projects in development: a dark sci-fi TV comedy, a spy action movie with a few weirdo twists. But she joked that maybe she could take it easy. "Maybe now I can retire," she joked. "I have Malala in my show. I can stop."

Published 27 May 2024, 02:45 IST

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