When Fawzia Mirza's The Queen of My Dreams, starring Amrit Kaur and Hamza Haq, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the excitement in the audience was absolutely electric.
Before the film started playing, people in the crowd were vocal about their excitement to see the film, many of whom anticipated it was going to be a "great" story to watch. That passion completely swelled when the film concluded with exuberant clapping and cheering from the audience.
"It's sort of cliché to say it's a dream come true, but it is," writer-director Mirza told Yahoo Canada in Toronto.
Beginning in 1999, the film largely centres around queer Muslim grad student Azra (Kaur) living in Toronto. She has a relatively tense relationship with her more conservative mother, Mariam (Nimra Bucha). But when Azra's father Hassan (Haq) suddenly dies, Azra goes to Pakistan and begins her journey into her mother's youth 30 years earlier, with a Bollywood-inspired trip through real and imagined memories in Karachi. A significant point of connection between Azra and Mariam is their love of Indian actress Sharmila Tagore.
The Queen of My Dreams is a particularly personal story for the filmmaker. It started with a short film Mirza began developing 12 years ago, inspired by a "public conversation of a very private struggle, about whether I could be queer and Muslim, and love Bollywood romance and fantasy."
"I've been working a long time on trying to understand myself and my mother, and where I come from in my community, and how I fit into it," Mirza said. "How am I outside of it, how I can embrace all of it.
"The film is a reflection of all that journey, and all of that love and compassion. It's deeply personal in the sense that it comes from a place of love for self and love for community, and ancestors and mothers, and the mother-daughter romance."
Specifically, Mirza identified that the story is also inspired by stories about the filmmaker's mother.
"But there's so much that I don't know," Mirza stressed. "It's inspired by, well, what could have happened? How could someone like her have fallen in love in the '60s? And in some ways I was just romanticizing what her romance could have been."
'The script forced me to look at things I hadn't looked at'
In terms of collaborating with actors, and Kaur in particular, Mirza did talk about personal life moments, including when the filmmaker's father did in fact die, buried in Pakistan.
Mirza praised Kaur's focus and commitment to playing Azra.
"[Amrit Kaur] dives deep and is willing to go into a dark place in order to find the light, and isn't afraid of it," Mirza said. "If anything she revels in it.
"It's really exciting to work with her, and I think what she does is so incredible. She really mines her own experiences to connect to any story that's personal that I share, or even if it's something that's specific just to the character."
Kaur told Yahoo Canada that the script for The Queen of my Dreams "forced" her to reflect on her personal emotions and lived experiences.
"The script forced me to look at things I hadn't looked at, or said I had looked at, but to really look at them," Kaur said. "Like my own relationship with my parents. My own relationship with my sexuality. My own love-hate relationship with where I'm from.
"All things that are so pivotal to this character. ... So actually going into it, I was in a major blackout. ... It was difficult. I don't think that I had as much grace as I would like to have if I had done it all over again. But I love that it made me look at things I hadn't, and now I know what I need to look at and I want to keep working at being stronger at sharing my vulnerabilities."
For Haq, the actor highlighted that working on a project that's so personal to the writer-director builds "trust" in Mirza's direction.
"There's such a clear vision," he said. "I have to, as an actor, put aside my ego so often where I think that I'm the be all end all, but really I'm the last piece of the puzzle and this thing has existed for a decade before I came into the picture.
"It's just a wonderful challenge because the sandbox is so specific. ... When she said 'let's move on' or when she said 'next take,' I believed that it was good. I believed that she got what she needed for the story."
Specifically in playing a father, Haq was attracted to the idea of playing a man "doing his best to be the best father and best husband."
"What I liked about this one is that very often in our culture, movies that are in South Asian culture tell the story of an oppressive, abusive father, ... which is absolutely common," Haq said. "I loved Hassan so much and ... I thought it was a very beautiful representation of a man doing his best.
"Of course he made mistakes and he was just so in his sensitivity, he was so in-his-love for his kids, and I think that's an important message to tell as well. ... It was the best versions of who I would love to be as a father. It's the best versions of who my father is, as well."
'I don't have to be the queen of anyone else's dreams but my own'
While Mirza's film provides a captivating look at very serious, personal facets of life, The Queen of My Dreams is also incredibly witty and funny, with such a vibrancy in its execution. It' something the filmmaker honed with a background in comedy.
"[My] tool of survival as a brown, Muslim kid in a small rural, mostly white, town was making people laugh. ... Laughter is vibrance and that's always been threaded through all of my work," Mirza said. "Part of that is also centering hope and centering possibility.
"As a queer Muslim person, the stories that are told about us, sometimes by us but often by others, it's always centering our trauma and the bleakness of our communities. When you think about the Muslim community, there are just under two billion Muslims in the world, their lives are not all bleak. Mostly, there's so much joy."
That joy is very much present right up until the end of the movie, even when you're going home and you have the song "Mere Sapnon Ki Rani" (the translation being "The Queen of My Dreams") stuck in your head for days, in a great way.
"That song is something that's stuck with me over the years," Mirza said. "That was kind of my portal into Sharmila Tagore."
With the song taken from the film Aradhana, it's also a reflection of Mirza's early thoughts about falling in love.
"I thought about like, 'Oh, one day some guy's going to ride in a jeep and sing me this song, that's how I'm going to fall in love,'" Mirza said. "But then when I came out as queer I was like, 'Oh, some woman is going to sing this.'
"Then the more I did this work and started making art, and the more I came out and more comfortable I became, I realized that actually, I don't have to fit into any one of these two roles. I can be both of them or all of them, or something else. I don't have to be the queen of anyone else's dreams but my own."
Luckily for Canadians, following the movie's premiere at TIFF, Cineplex Pictures picked up Canadian distributions rights for The Queen of My Dreams.
"Fawzia Mirza is an incredibly talented and exciting filmmaker and a wonderful representation of the future of Canadian film," a statement from Brad LaDouceur, vice president and general manager of Cineplex Pictures reads. "The Queen of My Dreams is the type of storytelling that Cineplex Pictures is actively looking for and we can't wait to bring it to audiences across the country."