LIFF 2022 Special Review: Americanish

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Americanish (dir. Iman Zawahry, 2021)
“Sam is going to be so successful,” Ameera (Shenaz Treasury) gushes as she lies between the beds of her two cousins, Samira (Aizzah Fatima, also a writer and producer on the film) and Maryam (Salena Qureshi). “And you’re going to be a great doctor,” she tells Maryam. “Everybody’s going to get what they want.” Including, hopefully, Ameera, newly arrived in the US on a six-month visa and hoping to get some help from her khala (“aunt”, played by Lillete Dubey) to find the answer to her own dreams, namely, marrying a Pakistani-American doctor.

The film’s title, with that little “ish” added to the end of America, neatly sums up the world of these young women caught between two cultures: one, overwhelmingly American, into which they are born, or into which they arrive; the second, the culture of their homeland, or their parents’ homeland, with ties to culture that sometimes are in direct conflict with the former. Any child of immigrants knows that there are always expectations, norms, and trade-offs in both of the worlds they must navigate.

And Americanish gives us a glimpse of many of those aspects: Maryam, studying to get into med school, more traditional in some ways as she wears a head scarf and hangs on more firmly to her Pakistani Muslim identity; Sam, whose very name, shortened from Samira, is the clue to the identity she’s trying to distance herself from – she even pronounces her last name as “Can” (instead of “Khan”) at one point to flatten her cultural identity in a workspace in which the client she works most successfully for is the one who believes she and her family should not really be in America. And Ameera, fresh off the plane from Pakistan, clings tightly to her twin dreams of marrying a Pakistani-American doctor and settling in the world that she views with such stars in her eyes.

Iman Zawahry’s film doesn’t break any new ground in terms of telling a quintessential American immigrant story, but where it excels is in exploring what it means to be a woman – particularly a Muslim woman – in America. Sam lives for her work, helping to support her mother and sister, but she wants a promotion, a better salary, and a living space of her own apart from her family. Maryam, too, is highly motivated to get into medical school – she wants to be a paediatrician, and she wants to get into Harvard, which has, for her, the best programme. But she’s also more traditional than her sister and willing to marry early when she meets fellow med school hopeful Shahid (Kapil Talwalkar). And Ameera? She just wants to live her best American life and is content to have her khala help her search the matrimonial ads and work the network to find her that doctor she sees as her prize.

But Americanish also gives us a glimpse of what it’s like to be a Pakistani-American (whether immigrant or child of immigrants) and, more importantly, what it’s like to be Muslim in America. Familial expectations butt up against those of society – Sam, for example, works very hard to make the very bigoted, clearly anti-Muslim politician whose account she manages more palatable in social media. “I feel like that’s all just for show,” she tells a white co-worker who is appalled at the politician’s overt racism. But it clearly becomes an issue for Sam as she tries to figure out what is important in her life: family, with all its obligations? Or work, where that sought-for promotion requires her to act in ways that go counter to who she is.

Maryam, on the other hand, looks forward to a future with Shahid, with them both training as paediatric doctors and building a life together, but when she is accepted into Harvard and Shahid is not, even Maryam must decide what she values most – working to her potential and becoming a doctor, or playing support to a husband who will achieve that dream instead? And Ameera? Ameera discovers that being Muslim in America has different nuances as well when she meets neighbourhood store owner Gabriel (Godfrey). She also realizes that her dream might not give her the happily-ever-after ending she so longs for.

Americanish’s storytelling is occasionally a little too earnest, but the film serves up its story in a way that is charming and enjoyable, and its female actors allow us to connect with each of their characters, to understand their motivations, their obligations, and their dreams. It might not be as substantial as a good biryani, but it definitely is smooth and sweet like one of Ameera’s mango lassis.

The European premiere of Americanish is at the London Indian Film Festival on June 26th at Picturehouse Central. It is also screening on the 29th in London, Birmingham on June 28th, and Manchester on July 1st. To get tickets and to find out more, visit https://londonindianfilmfestival.co.uk/

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