“Signature Move” is about identity, culture, and the clashes between them. Zaynab is a second generation Pakistani American. She is also clearly a lesbian from the moment we meet her: she has a stylish short haircut, dresses slightly boyishly, and tools around on a moped. Her seemingly oblivious mother Parveen, a shut-in who watches Urdu soap operas in her shalwar kameez and understands English but refuses to speak it to her daughter, spends her days staring out the window with binoculars looking for a suitable potential husband for her daughter (but not the gay guys, about whom she gasps, “The gay! The real gay! Not potential.”).
While Zaynab doesn’t exactly reject her mother’s culture—although she’s not too fond of the soap operas—her desire not to upset Parveen, who clings to her native Pakistani culture like a drowning woman clinging to a life raft, comes at the cost of her ability to be authentic (she wants to be an out lesbian who wrestles as a hobby). Alma, meanwhile, is a proud second generation Mexican American whose mother was a luchadora in Mexico. When Zaynab and Alma meet, cultures kind of sort of collide.
The film is technically a love story, but the love story plays second fiddle to the depiction of the experiences of first and second generation South Asians in the West. At heart, the movie is both a defense of and indictment of South Asian culture; a love/frustration relationship, if you will. Zaynab doesn’t feel empowered to confront her mother’s expectations that she marry a nice man, but she also repeatedly justifies her need to remain part of a culture that she knows will not embrace her sexual orientation. It’s part and parcel of her dual identity.
At one point in the movie, Zaynab complains that it’s basically cultural imperialism to assume that one person’s culture is “better” than another, and this movie is in many ways an expansion of that point. And just because Parveen hasn’t necessarily figured out that her daughter is a lesbian because she’s too busy looking for a husband doesn’t make her a bad person, nor does the fact that Zaynab has to hide her sexual orientation means that she’s less datable than someone who’s out.
The protagonist of the movie is Zaynab (played by writer Fawzia Mirza), but it is Parveen, played by Shabana Azmi—who famously starred in the movie “Fire” 20 years ago as a lesbian in India—who really steals the show. Her story is somehow more compelling than Zaynab’s: a recent widow, she hides inside her daughter’s house because she can’t bear the world outside, a world in which she feels she does not belong. She moves pictures on the wall to try to exert control in a situation in which she feels she has none. She talks to a spider because…no, that’s just a humorous episode. She has alternating moments of tragedy and humor that give her an interesting depth and complexity that the other characters lack.
Unfortunately, many of the important storylines in the movie aren’t sufficiently fleshed out (and a few stories are started that never are given resolution). Zaynab is really well acted and we really get a sense of who she is…but why does she want to wrestle? Is this part of her search for an identity for herself? Alma seems to fear commitment, evidently because of years of listening to her mother complain about men, but in her often callous treatment of Zaynab she fails to be a sympathetic character. Why does she brush aside how hard it is to be lesbian in Pakistani culture, and how much does she really love Zaynab? Why does it matter that Alma’s mother was a luchadora?
Overall, the film could have exchanged the wrestling plot for a deeper treatment of two very different cultures. Freewheeling (yet also conservative in its own way) Mexican culture could have come crashing into conservative Pakistani culture, but instead they pass like two ships in the night. How did Alma’s family react to her coming out? How do they feel about her dating a Muslim second generation Pakistani? What if Parveen and Alma’s mother had been in the same room together? How would their two views of their cultures aligned or come into conflict? If Zaynab and Alma moved in, would they have had cultural misunderstandings? In the end, for a film about culture, we actually get much less of an understanding of either Pakistani or Mexican culture than it seems at first blush.
Ultimately, I just wanted a little more from this movie. Still, it’s got some very bright moments, and Azmi and Mirza are fun to watch. For more about “Signature Move,” see our interview with Azmi and Fawzia here. The film is currently being screened at the Inside Out Film Festival in Toronto.