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Reclaiming Narratives: Telling Our Own Stories, Mim Shaikh

Mim Shaikh is an actor, broadcaster and spoken-word poet based in London. He has starred in various film and television productions including his debut lead role in the (2016) dark-comedy feature film ‘Freehold’, which was shortlisted at the SXSW Film Festival. He is a series regular in the BBC drama 'Informer' where he used his natural multicultural London accent, and is currently filming a supporting role in the Romantic-Comedy ‘What’s Love Got to do With It?’ written by Jemima Khan.

As well as his growing acting career, Shaikh is a Broadcaster who has presented BBC Radio 1 and debuted with his (2018) documentary Mim Shaikh: Finding Dad on the BBC. We talked to Mim about diversity in the creative industries, how his Muslim faith has influenced his creativity and the representation of Muslims on television and film.

You described Finding Dad as being ‘part of a larger story, one that champions the resolve of immigrant communities at a time when the future of the U.K.’s immigrant population hangs in the balance’ can you tell us more about your thoughts behind that?

Of course, through me searching for my Father and making a documentary about the journey I was able to also learn briefly about the immigrant experience for some Pakistani’s in the 1970’s. I learnt that they would come over to England and work in the munition factories in the West Midlands and live in a house share with other men. I never knew that before, I was always curious to understand how they went about making a living for themselves when they have just stepped foot in this country. They left everything behind, and just started fresh. How did they do it? I was able to get some of those answers through the conversation that I had with some of my Father’s old friends. Given what is happening now with the reduction of HGV lorry drivers bringing in petrol to petrol stations in the U.K, there is now more so than ever before a more growing demand for a more inclusive immigrant population to reside in the U.K. I’ve never understood when individuals who have been a product of immigration come here, build themselves up and then stick a middle finger up at other immigrant communities trying to do exactly what their parents done a few decades earlier. It still confuses me because I’m interested in learning what shifted along the way for those people? Did they start identifying more with their English side? Did they lose track of who they are, or more importantly what their parents must have had to sacrifice in order for them to live the life that they are now living? I recently was told about a film which was released in 1995 called ‘Brother’s In Trouble’ which focuses on an illegal Pakistani immigrant who is smuggled into England in the 1960’s to work and send money back to his family in Pakistan. I think some of themes and issues in the film reiterate the point I made in your question, and sometimes the best thing any artist can do is not make it all about them, but instead point the reader/listener in the direction of something that they resonated/connected with hoping that it might do the same for you too.

You are well known through your spoken word poetry and raising issues of diversity and mental health in your work. What led you to this craft and using it as a tool to highlight issues?

Put very simply, bereavement and grief led me to expressing myself through spoken word poetry and I am glad that it did because it ended up becoming a very useful and helpful vehicle for me to express things that I may not have had the confidence to express through conversations. I grew up in an unconventional way, my Mother had severe learning disabilities, I didn’t know who my Father was, my Grandmother raised me. I was confused, I moved around from school to school, I was on free school meals so I think there was a lot of unexpressed opinions residing in me. A lot of us, me included keep things to ourselves; here in the U.K, there is a stiff upper lip syndrome that we actually suffer from. When I was growing up in my twenties I was the opposite of that, wanting to shout about and express every feeling that I had ever experienced. You grow up, you mature, you realise that maybe this isn’t the best way to handle yourself. I never sat down and thought that I am going to try to raise the issue of diversity through my work which I think what a lot of companies do now. They employ teams, individuals thinking that those brainstorm meetings are what is going to help them raise the issue of diversity. But I was just doing, I was in the motion, writing how I felt and putting it out there. I obviously had the idea and plan to help inspire younger generations if I could and the fact that I was a British-Pakistani man doing so I think made people view it as if I was raising the issues of diversity purposely. But let’s just say hypothetically instead of Mim writing and releasing those pieces, say it was Tim - would you say that Tim is raising the issue of diversity?

Did you always know you wanted to work in the creative industries?

Not at all, when I was younger I excelled in creative subjects like English Language, English Literature, History and Media Studies but I never thought that I would have such a prosperous career working in the creative industries in my younger years. I just never thought it was a possibility due to the people around me or the individuals I may have looked up to in my family. I never had the access to even dream about having a career in the creative industries. Honestly, I didn’t even know that these type of jobs that I have got to do even existed. I noticed the change as soon as I left my comfort zone, and headed out to university not knowing anyone in the city of Leeds and trying to make a name for myself. When I look back at all that I have managed to experience and achieve in the past 10 years, I am proud of myself but then there’s more pressure because you want to achieve more. They call it the dreamer’s disease, and it’s a very real thing. As is survivor’s guilt/imposter syndrome where you feel guilty for surviving everything that you have been through.

Does Islam and being a Muslim influence your creativity? If so, how?

I think your upbringing, your environment, the friends you keep, the music you listen to, the articles you read, the TV shows you watch, the films you admire all influence your creativity. For me, growing up with my Mum’s side of the family and being raised by a strict Muslim Grandmother definitely influenced my creativity. Even before I gained any success through my career I remember as part of my third year undergraduate degree we were asked to create a television news report and for me the idea came straight away to me and I wanted to create a report based on the persecution of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community - a sect in Islam which my Grandmother was apart of and encouraged us to the listen to the teachings of it’s spiritual leader. Where did this idea come from? Why was I so quick to think of the idea? How was I so passionate about wanting to make it as part of my final year assessment? I think whether you have a creative practice or not, we are all shaped and influenced by what we consume, who we speak to, what we listen to, and where we spend the majority of our time. Skip forward 7 years, and the documentary in which I was an Associate Producer on ‘Finding Dad’ touched on themes of Islam too. I like knowing that my religion does influence my work, but seeing as we now live in such a fast paced, and rapidly consuming world I’m more interested in knowing where the new influences are actually coming from.

Why did you decide to join the pilgrimage and how did your faith as a Muslim affect your experience?

The year was 2019, my television agent at the time emailed me and asked if I would be interested in going on a Pilgrimage to Serbia, Bulgaria and Istanbul. I said yes straight away, because I felt it would be a good experience where I could learn with and through other people. I am so glad I said yes to that project, because the next year we were all put in a lockdown and wasn’t able to travel as freely as we would have liked to. I remember reading ‘The Alchemist’ a few years ago and being captivated by the writing of the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. Before reading that book, the only pilgrimage which I was aware of was the one Muslims go on to Mecca. I would describe myself as being quite an open-minded individual and I allow myself to learn other people’s point of views, and perspectives. I believe I can actually do the most learning through that way. I would say that me identifying as a Muslim was probably one of the reasons why I was asked to go on the show in the first place. Put simply there aren’t a lot of Muslims who work in the television industry in the U.K. I brought my Janamaz (Islamic Prayer Mat) with me, and there was a scene we shot where I prayed in the mountains of Serbia. It was one of the most peaceful, and tranquil moments I was able to experience, and still remember to this day.

Did you have to prepare in advance for the pilgrimage? What did you do?

I thought I needed to prepare a lot for the Pilgrimage because I was anticipating a lot of walking. But it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. I have never hiked before, never camped, never slept outdoors ever in my entire life. So I had to get the right footwear, the right clothes, and even something which I never knew existed before and they were walking poles.

How did you feel when you reached the end of the pilgrimage and arrived in Istanbul?

I’m not making this up for dramatic affect or to make my answers sound in sync. But, as we walked down a hill in Istanbul with our walking poles scraping the ground, when we finally arrived, the Adhan (Islamic Call to Prayer) started to play upon our arrival. It could have been organised by the producers, but I don't think they were that synchronised. For me, it was a special moment because I just said to myself ‘Ah… that what nice’. I felt as if I was open to hearing other people’s conversations and for them to speak openly about their religion and beliefs. I took in what the Atheists thought, I ate apples with honey and learnt how important they were for Jewish New Year, and I tried my best at explaining what being a Muslim meant to me, and how it helped with a sense of identity and more importantly a spiritual outlet.

12.9% of the UK population tuned in to watch Finding Dad when it was aired on the BBC in 2018. Can you tell us about your experience and how it felt meeting your Dad for the first time after 26 years?

It was quite a journey to say the least. I had no expectations of what to expect, I just told myself to be as present as I can in every situation because there were a lot of thoughts that would arise whilst embarking on a journey like that. I would say with reflection I am still glad I went through the journey because even now if I had not got some of the answers in which I did whilst making ‘Finding Dad’ I would still be left with a heavy sense of curiosity within me. The experience actually inspired me to write a film script which touches on themes of masculinity, fatherlessness, and identity within a social-realism sphere. There was a moment which never got aired in the actual documentary and that was the first meeting between my Father and me. With hindsight I think I now know that moment was meant to be just for me, and I can see it so clearly as a flashback within my mind.

As an actor, what do you think of the representation of Muslims on television and film? How can we reclaim our narrative and tell our own stories?

Recently I been thinking a lot about an acronym that we were taught in Media Studies during my GCSE’s and the acronym was R-A-I-L.

Representation Audience Institution Language

My teacher at the time was talking to the class about the representation of Muslims, and just to give some context this was after the September 11th attack on the World Trade Centre. She said something along these lines: “In the news we see that Muslims are seen as terrorists, but look at Mim and Nabil, they’re Muslim and they wouldn’t hurt a fly”.

I think we’re beginning to see a change but the change hasn’t become as regular as I would like it to be. ‘LADY PARTS’ was such a good show which subverted the stereotype beautifully of Muslims in the scripted space. I think we need more people who work at the studios, and in the commissioning teams who want to fight the good fight and show up to showcase stellar narrative storylines.

I recently filmed some scenes for a romantic comedy film being released next year called “What’s Love Got To Do With It” and loved the fact that there was room for opportunity for British-Pakistani actors to come and showcase their talents. But it’s rare, there still isn’t a lot of roles in the U.K for South-Asian artists to find work, hence why everyone ends up leaving to find work in America as the room for opportunity there is far bigger. It shouldn’t have to be like that, but it’s a sad reality. I’ve taken initiative and started to write my own stories, but even though I have so much experience of being on set, I’m a first time writer and I’m still finding it hard to get one of my scripts optioned by a production company. Everyone is quick to scream we are being more diverse, and inclusive but what work are they really doing to facilitate growth, not jut for them, but for the representation of people who talk and look like me? I think the best way to reclaim our narrative and tell our own stories, is by doing exactly that. The only issue becomes finances, and how to get your story/subject/idea financed.

Which artists have influenced your creativity?

Jermaine Cole

Aubrey Graham

Michaela Coel

Donald Glover

Reggie Yates

Rizwan Ahmed

Jemima Khan

What has been your experience of engaging with Islamic art?

I haven’t engaged with Islamic art as much as I would like. However, I did watch the Sky Arts Show called Landmark the other week and found an artist who's name is Saad Qureshi and he is known for making sculptures and large scale drawings.

How do you think we can work towards raising the profile of Islamic art in the future? What do you think the potential is?

I think there’s great potential with the creation of amazing art. But every time art is defined we usually think of paintings, drawings, sculptures, and illustrations. But I think TV shows are pieces of art, I think film is an art form, novels and books are also art, as is music, and clothing. The more we stretch the labels of how things are generally defined the more opportunity we have to be as creative as we can and not be limited to definitions. I think there is huge potential for Islamic Art to be well received and reach more people across the world.

For more information follow Mim Shaikh on Instagram @mim_shaikh

The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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