After premiering at SXSW 2017 and winning the Grand Jury Prize for Best U.S. Narrative Feature at Outfest Los Angeles, the independent film Signature Move is screening now in Chicago — the city where the film is set and where co-writer and star Fawzia Mirza is based. Mirza is a queer, Muslim, Pakistani-Canadian-American actor, writer and producer whose previous work runs the gamut from comedic to dramatic roles in short films and on web series — and now includes a feature film.
Signature Move tells the story of Zaynib (Mirza), an immigration lawyer working in Chicago’s multi-ethnic enclave on Devon Avenue, and Alma (Sari Sanchez), a Mexican-American bookstore owner and the daughter of a retired Luchadora. After a chance meeting and one-night stand, Alma and Zaynib hesitantly begin to bond as Zaynib takes up wrestling lessons as a form of payment from a client. All the while, Zaynib struggles to care for her recently widowed mother — played by Bollywood legend Shabana Azmi — who spends her days watching Pakistani dramas on TV, rearranging decorations, and spying through the living room window with binoculars in hopes of finding a suitable husband for her daughter.
“Signature Move is a two-fold Chicago love story; both a love story set in Chicago and a love letter to the city.”
At its core, Signature Move is at once an earnest and hilarious romantic comedy. But the film is about more than just two people navigating their own quirks and hang ups to be together. As the film’s creators discussed at a post-screening Q&A last month at the Music Box Theater, Signature Move is a two-fold Chicago love story; both a love story set in Chicago and a love letter to the city. Filming locations included the Little Village neighborhood, bar and performance venue The Hideout, and the booming multi-ethnic enclave on and around Devon Avenue.
But as Mirza pointed out in that same conversation, an interracial queer rom-com set in the world of competitive female wrestling is not often the type of story that gets celebrated in Chicago. The filmmakers agreed that one of the narrative goals in Signature Move was to depict a group of Chicagoans living their everyday lives, in places in the city that rarely get screen time and aren’t highlighted in tourism brochures. Additionally, Mirza’s close connection to Chicago’s queer South Asian community shows up in the form of cameos from friends like Kareem Khubchandani, a queer desi scholar and activist who also performs drag under the name Lawhore Vagistan.
And it’s a subtle yet profound statement to have Shabana Azmi portraying Zaynib’s mother. A progressive feminist activist in her own right, Azmi’s role in Deepa Mehta’s controversial 1996 film Fire sparked riots in New Delhi two decades ago. The film was banned from theaters in India for its depiction of a lesbian romance.
Azmi brings poignancy to her performance as the caring but conflicted parent of a queer desi daughter. Her character’s emotional journey is buoyed at the end of the film when she finally leaves the confines of home to cheer for Zaynib in a wrestling match.
The overlap, intersection and sometimes breakage of cultural conventions across identities and communities, packaged into a quirky funny love story, is one of Signature Moves greatest strengths. Co-writers Mirza and Lisa Donato, and director Jennifer Reeder have made a film that truly does speak to real people’s experiences.
It may not depict the meet cute city romances most audiences are so fond of, like Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail, but that abrupt departure from cliché is precisely what makes Signature Move such an enjoyable film to watch. Signature Move is now playing in Chicago at the Music Box Theater with upcoming dates in NYC and Mumbai. For more information visit signaturemovemovie.com.
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Anjali Misra is a Chicago-based nonprofit professional and freelance writer of media reviews, cultural criticism and short fiction work. She earned her MA in gender and women’s studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she spent nine years as a student and community organizer, focusing on inter-ethnic solidarity, interracial coalition building, and gender justice. She is an avid sci-fi media fan, and Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan is her patronus.