Film Review: Learning That “Abu” Means “Father” in Urdu

Queer Pakistani-Canadian Filmmaker Gives Us a Glimpse into His Life

Although ABU has several documentary-like qualities, it transcends the genre altogether. Courtesy Arshad Khan
ABU centres around Khan’s life, but he uses his personal experiences to tell a much larger story. Courtesy Arshad Khan

“Was this the land of the bland we had come to?” asks Arshad Khan in ABU, finding that Canadian food was severely lacking in spices after he immigrated from Pakistan as a teenager.

Although ABU has several documentary-like qualities, it transcends the genre altogether.

In a traditional documentary, facts and data are holy to the filmmaker. Here, Khan has blended fact and fantasy, demonstrating the two in unison.

ABU is Khan’s first full length feature film.

It centres around his life, but he uses his personal experiences to tell a much larger story. One of tradition, modernity, growing up, coming out, rebelling, acquiescing, experiencing racism and trauma, and healing.

Khan said he’s received positive feedback for ABU from many people ranging from an old Desi uncle who came up to him after seeing it to say that his father would have been proud, to a straight man who told Khan that the film inspired him to open up emotionally.

“People come to the film and are bawling after they see it. My gay, Pakistani love story was in the cinema,” Khan laughed, illustrating the rarity of such an occurrence. He worked on the project for five years, reworking and rewriting it.

ABU is also an immigrant’s story. Khan, his siblings, Ammi, and Abu moved to Brampton, Ontario when Khan was a teenager. As he aged, Khan’s relationship with his parents became slightly more strained, as many teenagers experience.

After moving to Montreal in 2006, Khan enrolled in Concordia’s film studies program.

In a voiceover, Khan explains that he always felt different from other men growing up.

With a background as an activist, Khan addresses issues like the Iraq war and the anxieties of South Asians in the West. This documentary is a form of social activism.

Only as I left the theatre did it hit me that the film had so many distinct themes. But it never felt overwhelming or forced.

Not only does ABU manage to highlight so many different issues, but it does so in an entertaining way. I was laughing one moment, then crying the next.

The film addresses Khan’s troubled relationship with his father, who is referred to as Abu in the film (the Urdu word for father). It also addresses his relationship with his mother, referred to as Ammi (the Urdu word for mother) who also has difficulty accepting him being gay, referring to it as his “lifestyle choice.”

Both of Khan’s parents were practicing Muslims, but his mother had stronger fundamentalist views than his father.

In a voiceover, Khan explains that he grew up in Islamabad and that his family was the first one in their circle of friends to own a VHS camera in the early 1980s.

His father was a technophile who kept up with the latest gadgets. His love for modern technology is juxtaposed with his religious conservatism which increased throughout his life. “I got my love of cinema from him,” explains Khan in the film.

Khan employed a combination of old family videos and photos throughout his film, clips of Bollywood movies, Iphone camera footage, animated sequences, and traditional documentary style interviews with family members.

Courtesy Arshad Khan

In an interview, Khan explained that the use of animated scenes was needed to recreate states of unreality, like dreams.

Having carefully composed sound design is also very important to Khan, as a significant part of the film’s visuals are old family archives, which include videos and photos. Having powerful music in the background was needed to tie the film together, he said.

I have a personal stake that influenced my viewing experience of this film that I feel the need to explain to you. But let me first ask, how often does the experience of a queer, Muslim, Pakistani (or even South Asian in general) person make it to any form of mass media? The answer is rarely. Very, very, very rarely.

When I think of the common stereotypes attributed to South Asians, some things that come to mind are cab driver, doctor, lawyer, engineer, best friend to an attractive white person, the nani (grandma) in sneakers and a sari, and overall sexlessness in general.

I am half-Pakistani, queer, and the child of a Muslim immigrant. I think this film is incredibly important and arguably historic in its depiction of a group that does not receive much attention from Western media.

I have never seen a movie that depicted the exact experiences of someone like me, but this film is one of the few that has approached it. I could see bits and pieces of my own life and those of my family.

I found myself crying, overwhelmed by the experience, demonstrating the extent to which people like me have been “othered” in Canadian society.

Khan didn’t understand himself as ‘brown’ until he came to Canada.

“Being from Pakistan was the most undignified thing. It was better to be a dog than a Pakistani, I realized, and that was really hard for my ego.” he said. “Then I came to Canada and all of a sudden you’re a Paki and you’re stupid and you don’t have the right vernacular or the right way of dressing.”

Like Khan, I also understood that it was not “cool” to be (half) Pakistani or Muslim growing up. I felt shame returning to elementary school the day after Eid because I would have henna on my hands, wrists, and feet. White children would laugh at me and ask why I’d drawn on myself (with brown marker. The horror!)

But in the 2010s, henna suddenly became “cool” and “trendy” to white people, but in a context removed from its religious or celebratory intentions the way it is to South Asians.

“We have been dehumanized to an extent that no one cares,” Khan explained. “Where is the Muslim voice? The Pakistani voice? The South Asian voice? In the Western media voice there isn’t any. My film is the only one and it’s doing it in an entertaining way.”

“There are so many things I’m asking the audience for, but what I want for them to take is the message of love because in the end love is the most important thing.”