Out of the Past, Into the Future: Asad Farooqui
Out of the Past, Into the Future is a bi-weekly series that aims to chronicle a limitless scope of work by Columbia filmmakers representative of the past, present, and future. This series investigates how Columbia film projects, and the bespoke stories therein, are enmeshed with tales of history and experience, and harbingers of what’s to come.
This week we sat down with alumnus Asad Farooqui ’19 to discuss how his feature script, The Immigration Game, impacts the future of Pakistani-American media representation.
Before entering the film program at Columbia, Asad Farooqui used a Sony PX100 camera and Canon DSLR to begin structuring his own filmed narratives. He was a dilettante to film, having studied Business Management and Comparative Religion as an undergraduate, where he performed as an actor in just one theatrical production. However, Columbia would change all of that for the burgeoning director and screenwriter.
Farooqui was born in Pakistan and moved to the United States at the age of eight. He grew up in a bicultural, but conservative, Pakistani-American household in Atlanta. “We were relatively conservative, so we would visit the mosque quite a bit for prayers. We'd go to Friday prayer service,” he said in our interview.
Farooqui and his family strived to make a life for themselves in the midst of a post 9/11 America.
Acknowledging the ways in which Pakistan has historically been rendered by the mainstream media, Farooqui said that "Pakistan has been considered a hotbed for terrorism, corruption, and financial bankruptcy for years. When you're a third world country, the disparities are so glaring that it's hard not to be looked down upon. That's why I feel there's a responsibility to show real people and characters from Pakistan in my screenwriting. There’s a kind of brainwashing that goes on in the media that clearly vilifies people who look like me.”
Farooqui said that he experienced several forms of discrimination growing up in the United States. This included being called the names of Middle Eastern country leaders, and being told that he “smelled like curry” in school. “I'd respond to this by stealing and applying my father's cologne,” he said. In 2014, while working in finance, Farooqui experienced what came to be the most alarming moment of his life. Soon after he graduated from college, Farooqui’s cousin, who was staying with him and his family, overstayed his visa. At 9 am on a Friday morning, the doorbell rang. His father answered to authorities from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE detained Farooqui’s cousin for over nine months. He was eventually let go on January first of the following year, with a tracking device tethered to his ankle.
“It was surreal,” Farooqui said. “That's when I decided that I was in the wrong profession. I wasn't doing what I could with my life.”
During his thesis years at Columbia, Farooqui wrote his first feature, The Immigration Game, working with Professors like Andy Bienen, Brendan Ward, and Michelle Palermo. The story centers around Majeed, an ambitious chef and restaurant owner, who struggles to support his family back in Pakistan. When Majeed’s visa is near expiring, he gives in to Imam Amjad’s idea of entering into a paper-marriage with one of the various women who have come to him in search of a pious Muslim husband. In return, Imam Amjad expects Majeed to become a regular donor to the mosque and its new construction project. Majeed must grapple with courting a potential wife, and remaining incognito in the country that has become his home, without a valid visa.
“The script was inspired by going to Friday prayer service. You meet all these different kinds of people there,” Farooqui said. “Characters that I—that you—should see in movies, but you never do. They have these ridiculously loud personalities and the way they dress, the way they talk, the way they kind of show off a new car that they bought—stuff like that stuck with me.”
According to Farooqui, we still have not seen a Pakistani-American film that accurately depicts Pakistani people residing in the American diaspora. “I grew up visiting Indo-Pak grocery stores, watching Pakistani soap operas, eating paan (betel leaf), and attending mosque in my shalwar kameez (traditional Muslim dress) on Fridays. However, these types of scenes and settings are rarely illustrated in film—a Pakistani community in diaspora that has brought their culture and identity to America instead of fully ingratiating to American culture,” he said.
Farooqui wants to tell these stories—about real Pakistanis; how their skin color, visa status, and the system of American laws work against them, make life increasingly difficult in a country that is supposed to provide opportunity. While representation for Pakistani-Americans is not nearly as ubiquitous as Farooqui would like to see in 2021, he said that the series Rami on Hulu has presented a great stride. “I think it's the best Muslim American portrayal I've seen ever,” Farooqui said. “I loved that show. He's a very great character. He's a screw up and he's confused between culture and religion and what's right and what's wrong.” Homeland Elegies, a book by film alumnus Ayad Akhtar ’02 (and this year’s graduation speaker), is another such example. It’s about a son and his immigrant father searching for belonging in a fractured, post 9/11 America.
Still, Farooqui isn’t patiently waiting for more representations of Muslim Americans in the world—he’s creating them. While at Columbia, Farooqui co-founded Chapter One Filmworks, a production company featuring stories about Muslim and Pakistani-Americans. Chapter One Filmworks has produced multiple short films related to economic issues, interracial marriage, dysfunctional relationships, and social justice. He is currently working on several scripts about Pakistani and Muslim characters in an America that refuses to accept them.
Farooqui would also like to see more Pakistani actors playing the roles written for them. “These roles should not be fulfilled by actors of other backgrounds and ethnicities, but sadly, that is what has been happening for years now, because it’s been a very narrow white lens depicting the Pakistani community.”
So far, Chapter One Filmworks has had a lot of success. On the television front, Tib, a TV pilot script written by Farooqui, was a finalist at the Nashville Film Festival. Farooqui's short film Broke was an official selection for the 2018 Atlanta Film Festival and has played at several film festivals around the world. Additionally, Farooqui's feature script, Bin, was a finalist for the Sundance Writer’s Lab and a finalist for the Best Screenplay Competition at the Ivy Film Festival. Bin also won the prestigious ISF National Film Grant. The Immigration Game won first place at the Atlanta Film Festival Screenplay Contest and was a Sundance Writer's Lab finalist. His Columbia thesis film, Mabrook, a short film about gossip and arguments in the Pakistani-American community during Eid brunch, was designated a “Market Pick” at the Clermont Ferrand Short Film Festival. The Immigration Game is being produced by Melodie Sisk, who previously produced Death of Dick Long, an A24 movie that played at Sundance in 2019.
“For me, the future is understanding the idea of what America is and how it's much greater than what it was in the past,” Farooqui said. “I hope that future scripts are written to form a new canon, hopefully where we get to see more protagonists of color.”
Read more from Out of the Past, Into the Future, here.