Updated 11 Dec 2017


A scene from Signature Move displaying lucha libre, a Mexican form of wrestling
A scene from Signature Move displaying lucha libre, a Mexican form of wrestling

There’s a particularly lovely line in the indie film, Signature Move, where Zainab (Fawzia Mirza) is explaining to her girlfriend Alma (Sari Sanchez) why she chooses not to disclose her sexual identity to her mother.

Alma, the daughter of Mexican immigrants is empathetic because they share similar experiences as children of immigrants — Zainab’s family moved from Pakistan but since her father’s death, she has lived with and taken care of her house-bound mother, played by Shabana Azmi. However, Alma doesn’t understand why Zainab, an immigration lawyer in Chicago, can’t be honest — not just about her sexuality but also her training in lucha libre, a Mexican form of wrestling which she practices in secret. In a somewhat heated exchange, Zainab says “I’m her person” referring to her mother’s dependency and her loneliness.

It’s a relatable sentiment for any child who’s struggled to reveal their truth to their family. “I’m their person” can mean I don’t want to disappoint them, hurt them, shock them, make them think differently of me because I’m dating someone of a different faith or I’m not going to become a doctor and so forth.

Fawzia Mirza’s film Signature Move has great performances, comedic moments and is a reminder of how complicated familial relationships can be

This, however, doesn’t mean the movie will only resonate with children of immigrants who moved to the US or LGBTQ audiences. It is a film that has a wide appeal due to great performances, comedic moments and a reminder about how complicated familial relationships can be.

Shot in Chicago, Signature Move tells the story of Zainab, a young immigration lawyer navigating life on her scooter while tending to her recently widowed mother who spends her time watching Pakistani soaps and praying her daughter finds a suitable husband. Zainab plays along whenever her mother suggests she marry, not ready to disclose her sexual identity.

Things change when she meets Alma and they quickly fall in love. A twist in the plot comes in the form of lucha libre, a Mexican form of wrestling where fighters complete in a mask (symbolism!), a sport Zainab stumbles into when she accepts lessons in it as a form of payment from a client who has no other means to pay. The pint-sized Zainab training to be a lucha libre fighter provides for some hilarious scenes.

Zainab’s life is not incomplete; she is a lawyer, wrestler-to-be, friend, dutiful daughter and caretaker to a housebound mother. Azmi’s role as the mother who can’t bring herself to see Zainab’s identity or chooses not to is handled with great care and the dexterity one expects from the Bollywood legend. There is nothing evil or remotely bad about Azmi’s character, in case you’re tempted to blame Zainab’s issues (for lack of better word) on an evil desi mother. There is no thunderous “you will burn in hell” or any gross misrepresentation of Muslims either — not that I would expect any ridiculousness from the actor/writer.

What makes this film especially delightful is the authenticity and simplicity in its storytelling. No one’s role is exaggerated or parodied for cheap thrills. This is as real as it gets — people fall in love, people run into roadblocks, people figure their stuff out. And they have plenty of laughs along the way. This is not a desi film or a Mexican film or a same sex love story; it is all of this and more.

Mirza, who co-wrote this movie with Lisa Donato, has a knack for creating work which resonates with a wide audience. And this is a welcome foray into film-making for her. It’s also an opportunity to see her put in an excellent performance as a woman coming to terms with her identity and forging a relationship with her mother on her terms. It reminded me a little of Nia Vardalos’ My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a woman navigating her Greek identity in early 2000s America. Perhaps I’m partial to it because both films are set in Chicago, my former home, though Mirza’s was filmed entirely in the windy city and its several unique neighbourhoods, characters in themselves, serve as a great backdrop to this charming movie. — MK

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 10th, 2017