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‘I dreamed of being a brown Bob Dylan’: We Are Lady Parts creator Nida Manzoor on fear, fun and Malala
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‘I dreamed of being a brown Bob Dylan’: We Are Lady Parts creator Nida Manzoor on fear, fun and Malala

When it came to penning the second series of We Are Lady Parts, Nida Manzoor started with a song. “All I knew was that it was going to be called Malala Made Me Do It,” she says. Next, she did what she has always done: she took it to her brother and sister, Shez and Sanya – who also co-wrote the songs for the first series of Manzoor’s gloriously idiosyncratic, spoof-laden sitcom about an all-female Muslim punk band – and told them she wanted it to be in the style of … a barn-stomping western. “I listened to Steven Spielberg on Desert Island Discs and he was talking about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” she says, “and I became obsessed with that song. It’s so catchy, so full of storytelling. I thought I’d love to do this amazing hype track that all these western heroes get but do it about Malala Yousafzai. My siblings really ran with it.”

So much so that the finished song – Coen brothers-esque, extremely silly – features a cameo by Yousafzai as you’ve never seen her before. In a jewel-fringed white Stetson. On a horse. With an almost completely straight face. “I hadn’t thought I would actually get Malala,” Manzoor says, “but I saw her talking about her love of Fawlty Towers, which I didn’t expect. I guess I saw her as this very serious figure, but oh my gosh, she’s so funny.” Manzoor wrote Yousafzai a letter asking if she would come on board. “It’s very silly but she was so game and such a joy. She made everyone feel so comfortable on set. We had such a laugh.”

Yousafzai’s appearance (and also that of Meera Syal, who plays a spicy Muslim punk foremother called Sister Squire) is testament to how much Manzoor is trusted as one of the UK’s most exciting and fearless writer-directors. Her ascent has been unusually sharp, especially in an industry in which female Muslim showrunners are grossly underrepresented. We Are Lady Parts – Manzoor’s debut, which began life as a Channel 4 Comedy Blap – only aired three years ago. It was nominated for two Baftas, and Manzoor won the Rose d’Or emerging talent award. The following year she made the Time100 Next list of rising stars, being described not just as an artist who defies expectations, but one “who explodes them”. Last year her first feature film, Polite Society, came out. Success has arrived, but as the second series of We Are Lady Parts demonstrates, grappling with it is complicated.

Four women on stage with guitars in a scene from We Are Lady PartsView image in fullscreen

“I’d been thinking, what is success?” says Manzoor. “Is it these accolades, the Baftas and the validation from the industry, that I’ve been socialised to want? I get so much more validation and joy from the work and the growth. I thought I needed the outside world to tell me I was good. Realising it’s about the work has allowed me to gear shift to what I want to say, rather than thinking: Are people going to like this?”

Her confidence and clarity of vision are all over the new series of We Are Lady Parts, which pulls off that rare feat of being even better than the first one. More funny, more biting, more surreal, more silly, more profound, just more. It’s her best work yet; not so much breaking the mould as making it from scratch in the shape of a Muslim punk in a niqab, surrounded by a halo of vape smoke.

We rejoin Lady Parts – lead guitarist Amina, lead singer Saira, bassist Bisma, drummer Ayesha, and band manager Momtaz – after a summer of gigging (in a VW camper van called Karen, naturally). As they negotiate the joys and pitfalls of success, and the carrot-dangle of a record deal, We Are Lady Parts traffics with the fleetest of feet (and a dizzyingly high gag rate) between such thorny subjects as the burden of representation, intersectional feminism, the specificity of the Black Muslim experience, motherhood, body shame, selling out, the question of whether dating a white boy inevitably means becoming complicit in white supremacy, coming out, and, of course, banging tunes and off-kilter covers. Meanwhile, another Muslim band forms, doing covers of their hits. Ayesha swears when she hears they’re called Second Wife, before adding: “That’s good.”

“I felt a slight nervousness because the first series was so well received and audiences embraced it in a way I was really surprised by,” Manzoor admits. “This time I had so much more to say. I felt more self-assured, less worried, more trusting.” She decided, for the first time, to work with an all-women writers room. “I wanted to go into bodies, shame, mother wounds and motherhood,” she says. “So I wanted to assemble a room of women, writers I really admire whose tones are often different, so we could have frank and open discussions. One of my writers is Hanan Issa, the national poet of Wales. Everyone has different backgrounds, different levels of experience. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life because there was so much love in the room even though there was constant disagreement.”

Many of the arguments made it directly into the show, transformed into uncompromising, always hilarious rows between the band. “We’re always seen as a monolith, but here was a group of Muslim women and every single one was disagreeing. I got so excited. There was so much electricity in the room. I was like, this is the scene happening right now.”

Four women eating chips in a scene from We Are Lady PartsView image in fullscreen

We meet on Zoom. Manzoor is at her parents’ house in London but she now lives in Bristol. “I feel a sense of calm there,” she says. “My partner got a job at Bath university, and it was an impetus for us to be like, shall we get out of here? In Bristol I don’t have that feeling of having to graft every second of every day to be an artist. Culturally I was brought up to think hard work is everything and you need to be constantly fighting. But life can’t be a constant fight.”

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Manzoor was born in London but moved to Singapore as a baby. When she was 10, the family – her father worked in finance, her mother was a doctor – returned to London. By that time she had her first guitar and was harbouring dreams of becoming “a brown Bob Dylan”. Humour was always a big deal, her sister remains her muse, and she cites Fawlty Towers, Blackadder and Spaced as formative influences. Are her parents funny? “So funny. They’re really silly people. My family is very playful. There’s just so much joy and lightness to how they are.” Even so, they were shocked when she told them she wanted to write for TV. “I was like, what did you expect? You made me watch Blackadder. You got me a guitar when I was eight. You handed me Buddha of Suburbia. And now you’re like, ‘those are hobbies, we thought you would be a lawyer’?” These days, she adds, they’re so inspired by her artist’s life that her dad is writing a screenplay.

What’s next? “I’ve got this dark sci-fi comedy set in Bradford that I really want to make,” she says without hesitation. “And another action spy movie about body dysmorphia. I feel like action hasn’t been used enough to explore the visceral experience of what it means to be a woman.” How does she feel about the burden of representation now? “I still feel that weight of responsibility,” she says, “but I’ve found tools to free myself. I’ve realised the best representation I can do is the most honest one. It’s not about writing a ‘good’ Muslim character. It’s about constantly having to free myself of the pressure of that. I can lift that burden a bit quicker now. I’ve become more selective. Even if it’s a great company or streamer, if I don’t feel it’s someone I want to spend time with I don’t do it. I feel more empowered to say no.”

The opening storyline in We Are Lady Parts sees Amina, the character whom Manzoor says is probably closest to her (with some Saira thrown in), entering what she calls her “villain era”. (And yes, there’s a riotous punk girl power anthem to go with it.) It sounds like Manzoor has entered her villain era, too. “I know,” she laughs, then checks herself. “At least I think so.”

Source: theguardian.com