Pride and Prejudice

Whether it's the blush of pride or embarrassment, the Ismaili Muslim community—from North America all the way to India and Pakistan—has been experiencing a pink tinged reaction to the film Touch of Pink. Although currently only released in North America, this small film managed to spur the international community into debating not only issues brought up in the movie, but the very existence of the movie itself. The plethora of emails ranged from thoughtful, analytical and even passionate pleas and responses to disturbingly hateful rants and calls for fatwa.

The Ismaili Muslim community is a very private, community-based sect of the Shia Muslim faith. While they follow the Qu'ran, they also have a living religious leader, the Aga Khan—who is a direct descendant of the prophet, Muhammad. Internationally, the community is known for their enthusiasm for architecture and their devotion to education and health care (e.g. Aga Khan University and Hospital in Karachi, Pakistan). The North American community is relatively new with their public appearances limited mostly to volunteering and charity activities. Being such a close-knit, quiet—some might even say silent or closed—community, one can imagine the global shock and surprise when Ismaili Muslim writer/director, Ian Iqbal Rashid's first full length movie, Touch of Pink was released to mainstream North American audiences earlier this year.

The movie is a coming-of-age story and a comedic social commentary about an Ismaili Muslim family. The main character, Alim, is a gay Canadian Ismaili Muslim who has abandoned his family, culture and even country and moved to England in his effort to find himself. With his new life as a film photographer with a secret live-in British boyfriend, Giles, Alim's sense of failure to live up to his family's expectations seems overwhelming. His new life also has no traces of his South Asian background—he is visibly uncomfortable with any South Asian references and his imaginary mentor/father figure/role model is in the image of the American actor Cary Grant in all of his resplendent roles. On the other hand, his Canadian cousin, Khaled, has chosen a more traditional path; being a dentist who lives with his parents in the house he purchased for them, he epitomizes the family's definition of success. The announcement of Khaled's upcoming wedding forces Alim to reintegrate with his old life when his mother, Nuru, comes to London in the hopes of convincing her son to return home and fulfill his societal and familial duties. Through the course of this film, both Alim and Nuru learn the values of acceptance and understanding while learning to deal with societal pressures.

The reaction to the movie was both swift and sustaining. The global Ismaili Muslim community seemed to feel that they were now in the spotlight whether they liked it or not, with many of their issues open for public view and speculation. The responses ranged from pride (in Mr. Rashid's accomplishments and having a film based on their community) to gratefulness (for addressing homosexuality in the community and the negative effects of hiding one's sexual orientation) and most disturbingly, to utter contempt and condemnation (for portraying the community "in a negative way").

For Mr. Rashid who previously enjoyed success as a writer for the British drama, This Life and created two critically acclaimed short films, Stag and Surviving Sabu, that also dealt with difficult issues like South Asian identity and homosexuality, this reaction was totally unexpected.

In making the movie Mr. Rashid said, he "just wanted to tell—write and direct—an old fashioned Hollywood style movie but with someone like me in the center. Tell kind of my story for a change." He continued, "for a lot of South Asians living in the west who experience a dominant culture and particularly as its kind of filtering through Hollywood and television—I think often, even without being conscious of it we have a sort of inferiority complex. Even a level of self-hating and that's the kind of journey Alim makes in the film. He learns to sort of stop living by Hollywood's values the way that the movies tell you, you should live your life and he kind of reclaims who he is and he's proud of it and he's a more whole person at the end. I suppose the biggest message of all is just sort of be true to yourself and who you are and live your life that way."

So, how can a movie with the underlining message of self acceptance lead to cries from his Ismaili Muslim community for censorship, condemnation, and even fatwa?

A lot of attention, including an article in the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper and an upcoming BBC feature, have credited the start of the global controversy to a mass email from a Canadian woman who, along with a friend with whom she saw the movie, found themselves "thoroughly humiliated, very insulted, ashamed of ourselves as to how our Ismailis are being portrayed in this movie." This seemingly insignificant opinion of two women managed to promote a global outcry from people who had also seen the movie as well as others who were reacting to the community postings.

The comments were numerous—both expected (the open discussion of homosexuality in the community) and possibly unexpected (the supposed outing and/or misrepresentation of the community's culture and customs).

The film was criticized for its "deliberate 'exposing' of aberration" in the community. By having a homosexual main character who is ultimately accepted by his mother, the movie's message was considered as being "tantamount to going against the will of majority, which creates nothing but 'division and dissension.'" This led to debates on whether homosexuality should be denounced, accepted or "tolerated in the name of freedom" using religious quotes and interpretations of faith from leaders such as the Aga Khan. Religion or faith ("is here to stop such people from becoming what they have become") and theories of sexuality ("derived from our base or animal nature, and one must overcome our carnal desires and make our sexual choice on rational bases to procreate and serve the needs of the society") were also used in this great debate.

On the other hand many calls for community acceptance were heard from both gay and straight people alike to "accept the fact that we have members of society that were born gay" and to denounce "bigotry, hate and xenophobia towards anyone who is different from you."

Some of the controversies regarding the portrayal of the community surrounded issues that may not have been noticed by a casual observer. Some felt the accents used in the movie were "not the kind of accent in which we Ismailis converse" while others were upset with the use of the title of a local religious officiator and the display of pictures of the Aga Khan's family in the homes of the Ismaili families. The movie's public display of affection when Alim kisses his boyfriend on the mouth at a wedding was also considered "offensive" to some, since the Ismaili Muslim wedding ceremony has no wedding kiss and sometimes kissing between the couple is frowned upon even at the reception.

Numerous complaints that Ismailis were represented as "very orthodox and old fashioned" and even as "racist" in the movie's storylines were also lodged. For example, the scene when Khaled's mother confirmed to her sister, Nuru, that she knew that her son wasn't straight but had still arranged his marriage was considered a negative stereotype of all Ismaili Muslims despite the fact that Nuru walked out in protest. The glorification of education was also considered offensive as the movie showed clear preferences when mothers were bragging about their children's spousal selections—doctors were considered the best, differentiated by the complexity of their specialties. Lastly, the scene where Nuru chided her son for not finding an Ismaili Muslim boyfriend was also criticized for its supposed racist bias.

Interestingly enough, the very existence of the movie itself was challenged by one individual who felt that this movie did not show "how patient, accepting, and tolerant the true Ismaili community is... how hard the Ismaili community has had to work to allow our children to live in such a diverse society" and stressed educating "our young ones so that they in the future do not become so judgmental, but should also know when to voice their opinion and in the most appropriate manner."

Ironically, these types of specific traits in Ismaili Muslims were part of the reason the community was mentioned. According to Mr. Rashid, "We do work well in the west. We do kind of assimilate better than a lot of other South Asian and Muslim communities who have migrated and yet we are very community minded. Family is so important and the community is so insular as well. Its such a specific experience... before I decided to name it as an Ismaili community I had the script and people would say to me—Would a Muslim really do this? Would a Muslim really do that?—well an Ismaili Muslim would because we are different."

Many fans of the film agree with Mr. Rashid and applauded the movie for portraying "the harsh reality of the hypocrisy that exists in the Asian community," being "a catalyst for a lot of gay Ismaili men who have never had the courage to come out" and giving even straight people the "courage to come out and be myself with my family and friends." One fan even stated that "by censoring this film and attacking the filmmaker in such a way you have become the Ismaili equivalent of a red-neck, fanatic extremist not far removed from the mullahs that issued a 'fatwa' against Salman Rushdie" and clarified that "a community can only grow and have a future if it has the strength to be introspective, the ability to be transparent and expose its shortcomings and yes, even discuss its weaknesses in public."

Strangely, the themes in this movie are not unique. Arranged marriages were recently seen in Monsoon Wedding while issues like marrying against ones sexual orientation have been explored in film and literature since E.M. Forester's book Maurice. Even the public outcry over negative ethnic stereotypes in the media has happened many times before, although possibly in a more organized way, as in the Oct. 12, 1993 Italian-American One Voice committee protest against the TV show The Sopranos, or a more legal way, as in the 2000 court battle between Ontario residents and the CTV network again over The Sopranos.

Perhaps the lack of an official voice from the Ismaili Muslim community is the most revealing—while it could signify many positive traits including acceptance it most definitely shows tolerance, lack of violent retribution and freedom of speech.

Then again, maybe the filmmaker should get some credit too—"I've written back to every email, encouraging the nay-sayers to actually go and see Touch of Pink before condemning it. In many cases, the correspondent has taken up my challenge and gone to see the film. In every case, they've come back really enjoying it... This film is not a documentary about the Ismaili community. In the end, it is a work of fiction culled from just one person's story—who just happens to be Ismaili. Me. And I'm proud to call this film my own. Touch of Pink is also a loving and affectionate tribute to the journey of my brave Ismaili family who have come to accept me as a whole, who have accepted every aspect of my being."

With such passion for his art and community, one wonders what Mr. Rashid has in store for us next?

Comments

http://www.brickclip.com/ With his new activity as a blur columnist with a abstruse chambermaid British boyfriend, Giles, Alim's faculty of abortion to reside up to his family's expectations seems overwhelming. 
Where can this ediscussoin amongst ismailis be found? FIND-WEDDING.com
The Ismaili community is not perfect. I believe that there is plenty of room for improvement. I see it as a 'work in progress', Hazar Imam's emphasis on higher education that holds one of the keys to avoid conflicts. In general, these conflicts in todays world result in ignorance by individuals, societies, and countries. I believe that the Ismaili generations who accept the Imam's philosophy of pursuing higher education to seek out solutions in our ever-complex world will be able to cope better with accepting the sexual orientation of an individual or whatever issues that need to be addressed as a community.
As an Ismaili coming from Africa, I do agree with Meharally regarding racist attitudes, money crazy attitudes in this community. As one of the reasons, I do not rais emy kis as Ismailis
Wondering from the author's last name MEHERALY is any connection to Akberaly Meheraly
Any gay Ismailis in Toronto??
ediscussions were found with yahoo web searches from many different websites - no one particular site was used. Hope that helps.
where can this ediscussoin amongst ismailis be found? on this website?
"Hi - The article is from an in community perspective. All quotes were taken either from Ismaili community e-postings or from an interview I did with Mr. Rashid. The complete interview can be read at ""http://www.geocities.com/ismailisinthemedia/Interview.html"". Quotes were not attributed as I didn't have permission from the individual authors and wanted to respect their privacy."
Hi i was curious if the author of this article was Ismaili? Just wondering if the perspective was coming from inside the community or outside the community.

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