May 20 2016
The annual South Asian arts extravaganza, now in its 7th year, at the Southbank Centre in London, begins today and one of the undoubted stars will be Mawaan Rizwan who selects an evening introducing new performers. We also take a look at some of the other highlights of this year’s festival, which sees a return of #JLFSouthbank tomorrow…
By Tasha Mathur
IT’S EASY to describe Mawaan Rizwan (pictured below) as a comedian but there’s so much more to him.
Yes, he’s gained a huge following from his successful YouTube channel – where he’s performed a range of super funny sketches – but after presenting a BBC Three documentary exploring the underground gay scene in Pakistan (“How Gay Is Pakistan?“) and acting as the happy-go-lucky Imi in a one off BBC Three drama about an honour killing (“Murdered By My Father“), this is a man of many talents.
Featuring at this year’s Alchemy Festival at Southbank, with a screening of “How Gay Is Pakistan?”, hosting a comedy show, and performing his own stand up show, “Gender Neutral Concubine Pirate” (both tonight) and curating “Cabaret Salon – The Weirdo’s Ball” (tomorrow), we caught up with the man himself to find out more about his background and what he’s planning next…
www.asianculturevulture.com (ACV): Where did your love of comedy come from and why did you decide to start posting videos on YouTube
Mawaan Rizwan (MR): When we were younger, me and my brother used to make stupid videos on our webcam – partly out of boredom and partly because it was a release for us to just be a bit silly.
Then we put them up on YouTube. I knew I wanted to share the ideas with someone and I was too embarrassed to share it with my friends or family so I thought, ‘Great… someone from across the world can watch something and then even if they leave their bad comments, it’s okay because I’ll never meet them.’ But then I realised it doesn’t really work that way!
ACV: Is there an intention behind your comedy?
MR: When you first start out in whatever art form you choose, you just do it because you enjoy it.When I was in school, I was taught to think logically and the education system is based on categorising people to be a certain way even if that’s not relevant to their natural abilities. Having spent some years in comedy and developing my craft, there are things I want to address and it just so happens that I have this medium to do it through now.
ACV: How do you think moving from Pakistan to the UK at such a young age has shaped you?
MR:There’s something to be said about feeling like the outsider whether that’s due to your culture, your sexuality. It’s feeling like you always have one side of your brain that’s thinking about another perspective.
I always remember when my Mum took us to Pakistan when I was 12 years old and thinking, ‘There’s this completely other world and other way of living that I could have been a part of – but I HAPPEN to not be.’
The fact that I was in England was almost like it was by chance so we learned to take nothing for granted and it helped give me a different perspective and take me out of situations, because I always had this other side of looking at things.
ACV: You went from comedic clips on YouTube to presenting quite a serious BBC Three documentary called, ‘How Gay Is Pakistan?’ last year. Where did the idea come from?
MR: This is an idea I had for a while and it’s obviously very personal to me and the key thing for me was visibility. For a marginalised group of people in any country to move forward they need to be known as existing first. In the UK, there are a lot of LGBT members but I didn’t know where they were so I wanted to look at the issue head on in Pakistan and be bold and unapologetic about it.
ACV: How do you usually deal with criticism and people who disagree with what you do?
MR: I don’t want to preach and can only live by example. I remember someone tweeting me saying “My parents came across this on TV and it made them really uncomfortable.” And I tweeted back saying, ‘Good’ because until we’re uncomfortable, we’re not going to be able to address these issues. When I get messages like that, I can’t be angry because I understand. I was homophobic myself at one point. There’s a bit in the film where I go to a community leader and he offers me a pill that will make me straight.
A part of me was thinking, ‘This is bullsh*t, I can’t believe this guy!’ But at the same time, I couldn’t be mad at him. He’s only doing what’s the norm and I think in a patriarchal society where there is a big rich and poor divide, people do behave in this way and it’s not entirely their fault. It’s the fault of the system or even dates back to when the British instilled homophobic colonial laws that still exist in Pakistan.
ACV: Have you kept in touch with the people who featured in the documentary?
MR: I’m still in touch with Kami and Sid who are trying to raise money to go to South Africa to get married. They were one of the gay couples.
Also another contributor, Shahzadi, who was considering having an operation, has gone ahead with it. There were so many heart-breaking moments in the documentary but amongst all that, you see some incredible things where people have taken such brave steps every day and are literally fighting for survival. That really puts things into perspective coming back to the UK and understanding the privilege we have here.
ACV: Then from How Gay Is Pakistan? you starred in your first serious acting role as ‘Imi’ in the BBC Three drama, Murdered By My Father. How did you find this change?
MR: This was my first non-comedy role so it was the first time that I couldn’t rely on pulling a silly face or doing something wacky!
I was nervous about that and thought, ‘What if I can’t pull it off? What if I should just stick to comedy?’ But the director, Bruce Goodison, wanted me to bring my lightness to it and he really gave me room to put myself into the character.
And Vinay Patel, who wrote it, is a really good writer and he likes working with the actors to influence how the script turns out and see what they can bring to it.
ACV: The story is loosely based on a true incident of an honour killing, did you do a lot of research for the role?
MR: There was a really good radio documentary that BBC Asian Network made on honour killings and that was my first point of call.
They interviewed people quite candidly because they weren’t being seen. But my character is on the peripheral of what Salma is actually going through and there’s almost an ignorance to the issues she’s facing.
No-one really knows how serious it is until it happens. So for me, I thought back to when I was in college and a lot of the girls I knew and their family members. You could see there was something going on with them but you didn’t see extent of it. So I tried to relate back to that as well.
ACV: From forging a career as a successful comedian, to coming out as gay to your parents, you have gone against the ‘traditional’ norms of the Asian community in many ways. What advice would you give to other young Asians who would like to do the same but feel held back by their family or their community?
MR: Sometimes the pressure can be really high to succeed. My parents and I came over as immigrants so there was that added pressure of, ‘don’t f**k up’. Because if you do f*ck up then you f**k up for your Mum and Dad and all the years of sacrifices they made. That pressure can force you into doing something that you don’t really want to do.
You need double the courage to take leaps in order to fail and don’t be afraid to fail because when you fail, you find you push yourself even further.
When I do comedy gigs, I don’t aim to sell out at the Apollo. If I’m commercially successful, I probably wouldn’t be pushing boundaries and doing exciting, innovative stuff. But my parents ingrained this immigrant work ethic in me, which is helping me to this day. Don’t crack under the pressure of having to do the ‘right’ thing. You almost have to be say, “Thank you Mum and Dad. I appreciate what you did. Now I’m going to forget everything you taught me and put your pressures aside because I’ve got to do my own thing!” That is really hard and I’m still trying to learn that. That takes years of growing up to understand.
ACV: You will be making a few appearances at Alchemy Festival this year. What can visitors expect from your events?
MR: Gender Neutral Concubine Pirate is quite physical and surreal. It involves bits of dark and confessional stand up juxtaposed with mad-capped physical stupidity. There’s loads of clowning elements and it’s big, unapologetic and as weird as it comes.
ACV: And finally, what’s next for you?
MR: I’ll be taking ‘Gender Neutral Concubine Pirate’ to Edinburgh Fringe Festival for a month in August and I’ve got another documentary coming out in July but I can’t talk about it at the moment!
I’m also writing a kid’s series for CBeebies so it’s quite a bunch of different things going on. It’s a nice place to be in because I set out not having any intentions other than to just do what I enjoy doing and opportunities just come my way. It’s a real privilege to be able to pick and choose opportunities like this.
Selected highlights from the next nine days of Alchemy at the Southbank Centre.
Picture: Mawaan Rizwan, Gender Neutral Concubine Pirate by Dave Bird
Tomorrow (Saturday, May 21)
- Jaipur Literature Festival – The World’s largest literature festival rolls into the Southbank Centre with authors, Patrick French, Indian High Commissioner Navtej Sarna, Ferdinand Mount, K Satchidanandan, Jerry Pinto, and JLF co-directors, Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple appearing. (Starts 10am)
- Indian Film songs by Dr KJ Yesudas, one of the great names of South Indian popular musical vocals makes a rare UK visit, 5pm.
- Tabla takeover, Zakir Hussain is joined by one of the pioneers of bhangra in the UK, Kuljit Bhamra MBE (pictured below) as they put students ( you don’t have to have ANY experience) through a mass tabla jam. Starts 1pm.
- ‘Strictly Ballroom’ by Saikat Ahmed (2pm & 7pm)
- ‘Money talks: Bollygarchs and Billionaire Business’ – Raheel Mohammed, and Professor Jaideep Prabhu, chaired by Farrukh Khan, chief business development officer for Acumen, 3pm.
- ‘Turn poison to medicine’ – Shane Solanki and the Last Mango in Paris production present a story about female empowerment. A work still in progress, it brings together many of the varied talents Solanki has worked with in the past, including champion beatboxer Bellatrix on double bass, 5pm.
- ‘Be Careful (‘Thoda Dhyaan Se’) – Mallika Taneja puts on a ‘performance provocation’ exploring India’s contradictory impulses towards female’s freedom and subjugation. Followed by a discussion and tea. 8pm.
- Eastern Eye Arts, Culture and Theatre Awards – the inaugural event will bring a host of stars from the world of stage and screen and creative production to the Southbank Centre for a unique and special awards ceremony. You can purchase a ticket (£20-30). There will be live action performances too. Leading broadcaster DJ Nihal hosts. The awards show begins at 5pm.
Monday, May 23
- Novelists Tahmima Anam, Mirza Waheed and Deborah Smith discuss their work with editor and translator Deborah Smith moderating, 7.15pm.
- ‘Paul Sinha and guests’ – in association with the BBC Asian Network, comedians Sameena Zehra, Sindhu Vee and Guz Khan join Sinha for a night of comedy and mayhem as part of London Wonderground. (18+) from 8pm.
Tuesday, May 24
- ‘Truth Be Told – Dr Shama Rahman is a multi-disciplinary artist who crosses genres. Her first album, ‘Truth Be Told’, is a dizzying mix of opera, theatre, cabaret with sitar, visual srt, science and Sufi poetry thrown in. Using Mi,Mu Gloves she controls the environment around her. 6pm (Free Event)
- ‘Pink Sari Revolution’, a stage adaptation from a novel about 20,000 female vigilantes taking to the streets and demanding their rights, and based on the book by Amana Fontanella-Khan, about the formation of the Gulabi Gang. 7.30pm
- Kathak masterclass with rising star from India, Sanjukta Singh, previous experience required. 6.30pm
- The Art of Activism with Dr Taimur Rahman, Mahvash Waqar (both from Pakistan-based group Laal) with John Pandit and Steve Chandrasonic (Asian Dub Foundation), and chaired by Anwar Akhtar, from Samosa Media Project, 7.15pm
Thursday, May 26
- ‘The Black Pearl: The City to the River’ – Nikhil Chopra, performance artist, weaves tales which reflect personal history and the concept of the black pearl, as reflected in personalities such as early Jazz sensation, Josephine Baker. 5pm until May 30
- ‘Alchemy Masters’ – Veteran dance supremos Pratap Pawar and Namron peform to Balbir Singh’s vocals and Jesse Bannister composition. 6pm, Free Event.
Friday, May 27
- Kuljit Bhamra as part of Groove Baby, a concert of various styles and sounds, and the man best known for creating British bhangra will play alongside another musician, 11am.
- One of Britain’s best known and most original bands, Asian Dub Foundation (pictured above) join with Pakistani activist group Laal to present what is billed as a ‘poingnant peace concert’. It is the first time they are collaborating. 7.30pm.
- Salt Arts Live, Karachi based Salt Arts come to the Southbank with ‘Rudoh’, a night in which emerging Pakistani talent performs in London, 9pm. Free Event.
More on Alchemy from Saturday, May 28 later on http://www.asianculturevulture.com
Check listings info and for booking