Through The Eyes of Om (And I) As Fellow Dreamers

This piece is featured in the collaborative project between WhyNot and Project See and B for Propel Youth Arts WA 2024 KickstART Festival in Western Australia.

Words by Syarisa (she/her) 22 WA

The year was 2007. I was living in the Eastern Province in Saudi Arabia, in a small international community-compound. I was just 6 years old, sitting in the living room of my Pakistani auntie’s house, when she accidentally changed the whole course of my life with a single action. She put on a new Bollywood film titled “Om Shanti Om” starring the legendary Shahrukh Khan, and as we gathered around and watched the film play out, I saw a whole new world of colours, music, melodrama, and emotions flood over me.

The protagonist, Om, wasn’t just a stock character – he was a groovy 1970s-era film extra dreaming of stardom, and even more so, he was my idol! When he fell in love with a famed actress named Shanti, it almost felt like I fell harder. Most of all, upon Shanti’s tragic murder by her two-timing husband, I felt my own soul die with Om’s as he tried to save her but perished…until his soul was reincarnated thirty years later, back to avenge Shanti’s death and to set her wandering soul free!

Above all the weird and wonderful things that happened in this film, one line that Om delivered with such sincerity upon achieving his dream of being an acclaimed actor, really stuck with me:

“In life, just like in our films, happy endings are possible. And if life isn’t okay yet, then it’s not the end…the film isn’t over yet!”

Deep in my heart, I wanted to write these kinds of dynamic and interesting characters, and to share my cultural heritage and style of storytelling. While growing up in a cramped international community compound in Saudi Arabia, this goal seemed easy. People were so exposed to different cultures and perspectives that no one ever believed any stereotypes or preconceived notions on what brown girls could and couldn’t do. I was accepted as a mixed half-Pakistani-half-Indonesian-kid who loved to salsa dance and sing Lady Gaga songs, just like all the other kids did.

Little did I know, I wouldn’t face the reality of being a person of colour in a Western world until my own adolescent “reincarnation” … as an Aussie.

At 16, I was plucked away from an American-style international school and dropped into an Anglican all-girls boarding school in Perth. Being a loud and severely puberty-stricken Muslim in a predominantly white Anglican school is not a fate I would wish on anyone. People couldn’t believe that a creative Muslim could exist, and that I “spoke such good English”.

Things got slightly better in university as I pursued a degree in Creative Writing and Screen Arts, but Desi and Muslim representation was still scarce. High school taught me that to survive in this world, I needed to cater to the (majority) white audiences. How else could I be accepted?

So, when it came time for me to pitch a script for our university degree’s final year film project, I got to thinking; maybe I could fuse a desi coming of age story with a creative, perhaps truly Western twist…?”

Picture this: a Pakistani-Australian runaway bride, Amina, who steals a car and drives into the sandy distance because she loves her fiancé, Farhan, less like a lover and more like a childhood best friend, who can’t tell her concerned Papa the truth.

She straps in for the ride of her life when suddenly, a ghost pops up demanding answers – the ghost of her fabulous cowgirl mother! Amina’s at a loss when her mother refuses to respond to “Ammi” or “Mum” like she usually does, because this time she’s going by “Sheriff” to reign in her rebel daughter, trying to connect to the cowgirl loving child she never wanted to leave.

And that’s how my film, “The Eyes of Gosh”, was born!

The final script bears a lot of similarities to Om Shanti Om – it was silly in a good way but also profound, and both films also featured ghosts as a key element.

But me and my crew faced a lot of challenges for this story. Our white teachers couldn’t seem to grasp that brown characters, brown people could be so audacious. I mean, had they never seen a Sharukh Khan film? Desi characters are chock full of audaciousness!

All they wanted out of the characters were stereotypes: a strict dad, a bad-tempered mom, an oppressed daughter. I almost just wanted to tell them that we, people of colour, are just like you. We have cultural norms, sure, and perhaps flaws – but we can also be individuals who care about each other, and who want to lead our own paths in life.

After a year of slogging through endless film shoots, this sentiment still couldn’t get through. My film didn’t receive any of the enthusiasm, laughter, and love I wanted it to get when it screened for a test audience at the university’s final year film awards night. The claps at the end were quiet pity claps; and I sunk. I had failed to connect with Australia.

Perhaps I would have gone my whole life believing this, until one of the actors from my film, Ashish, walked right up to me and said something I could never forget:

“Thank you for giving me the chance to try out my dream of acting. And please keep making more. I want to keep seeing our community thrive.”

And I realised; this sense of solidarity, community building, and acceptance is my “happy ending”. Not some flimsy award or clap on the back from old white audiences. I realised that I want to make art — whether it be poetry, prose, film, or experimental installation – that makes people like me, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, feel seen and less alone in this Western world.

And if one person says that I did that, then that’s enough; that makes me an artist.

 

Illustration by Jodie. You can find more of her work on Instagram @jodie_ellin

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