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Lee Nisar breaks barriers in Dil Ka by pairing biryani with Queer Muslim identities

Dil Ka
Dil Ka will have its world premiere at Presentation House Theatre. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Lee Nisar wants theatre fans to experience the beauty of Queer Muslim joy on-stage. But when the 25-year-old Toronto playwright wrote the first draft of Dil Ka—which will premiere at North Vancouver’s Presentation House Theatre—it didn’t have a racial component.

“The core of the story started in an assignment that I had in my last year of theatre school,” Nisar tells Pancouver over Zoom.

Nisar, who prefers the pronouns they and them, initially intended to focus on being Queer in Dil Ka, which means “of the heart” in Urdu and Hindi. The play was set in a house overnight. And it was inspired by a transformative video game that Nisar enjoyed playing.

According to Nisar, the characters were of ambiguous racial backgrounds. However, when Nisar read it to peers and teachers at the University of Guelph, it wasn’t resonating.

“It was actually my professor at the time who [suggested] ‘Why don’t you bring culture into it and see how that works?’ ” recalls Nisar, who also has an MFA in documentary media from Toronto Metropolitan University.

Initially, Nisar questioned the professor’s advice. But then, the playwright settled on the idea of setting Dil Ka in a kitchen rather than across an entire house. The central character, Zahra (Talia Vandenbrink), is a 26-year-old Queer Pakistani woman. She’s facing the prospect of an arranged marriage as she prepares biryani in the kitchen for the family of a prospective groom.

“I was trying to write a mid-20s character as someone who was barely in my early 20s,” Nisar acknowledges. “Now, I’m in my mid-20s and I know what it’s like to be in your mid-20s. So, I think her character has grown as I’ve grown.”

Dil Ka playwright Lee Nisar
Lee Nisar says some characters evolved significantly since the first draft. Photo by Anita Qian.

Kitchen conversations in Dil Ka

Nisar wanted to explore the idea of the kitchen as a place of refuge for Pakistani women, but also a site where they sometimes feel trapped by gender roles.

“When I was younger, I would see my mom was in the kitchen all the time,” Nisar says. “I would be so angry that they had to spend all this time cooking and doing everything for everybody in the house—and not really getting a lot of help.”

But when Nisar started hanging out with Pakistani women in the kitchen, a new perspective emerged.

“I noticed they would spend a lot of time laughing and joking with each other, singing, and sharing stories,” the playwright points out. “That sort of forced me to re-examine my own biases.”

The book-loving Nisar was born in Karachi and immigrated to Ajax, Ontario, at the age of two with family members. So, writing about a Pakistani family wasn’t a big leap into the unknown. However, Nisar still had to conduct a great deal of research into different biryani recipes.

“In certain types of biryani, you cook everything together,” the playwright explains. “With other types, you have to cook things separately and put it together. Some versions have side onions and plums and things like that. Other versions are vegetarian.”

Pancouver then asks if Nisar ever eats goat biryani, which is very popular in Pakistan.

“That’s such a good question,” Nisar replies. “I really like chicken biryani. That’s the one I grew up eating the most. I’m appreciating goat biryani a lot more as I get older.”

Dil Ka
Nimet Kanji (top left), Parm Soor (top right), Janavi Chawla (bottom left), Tanaz Roudgar (bottom centre), and Rami Kahlon (bottom right). Photo by Emily Cooper.

Butch character evolved during pandemic

Nisar’s mom is Sindhi from Karachi and Nisar’s dad is from the Punjabi city of Faisalabad.

“The attitudes that Punjabi people have towards life are very different,” Nisar remarks. “I see that reflected in my mom and my dad. I think I’m a lot more like my dad in that sense.”

Nisar wrote Dil Ka in the midst of the pandemic, giving the playwright lots of time to think about Queer Muslim identities. Another character, Jaz (Tanaz Roudgar), was initially Zahra’s white best friend. But Jaz underwent some changes in subsequent rewrites.

“Over the past year, I’ve been exploring my own identity as a more masculine-presenting Queer person,” Nisar states. “And I really wanted to use that character as a way to explore the idea of being brown and butch—how those two things can exist together.

“I’ve seen a lot more representation with being brown and Queer, especially this year, which has been amazing,” Nisar continues. “But it’s often still very feminine, so I wanted to explore the other side of that.”

Moreover, Nisar felt emboldened to push the boundaries after reading Toronto playwright and actor Bilal Baig’s Acha Bacha. Nisar then confesses to being a fan of Baig’s CBC show, Sort Of, which is a comedy series revolving around a genderfluid character.

Healing through human connections

For a long time, Nisar felt isolated as a Queer Muslim. Islam was such a big part of the Nisar family’s cultural identity, but older conservative Muslims, like conservative voices in other religions, interpret the faith very narrowly. It was only after growing up that Nisar came to realize that there are many Queer Muslims.

“Something that has been so healing to me has been connecting with other Queer Muslims, especially in my area,” Nisar says. “I’m finally at a place where I have friends who are very strong in their faith as Muslims but they’re also very strong in their identities as Queer individuals.”

Dil Ka is directed by Queer, genderfluid Vancouver theatre artist Tricia Trinh. Trinh’s artistic practice “aims to examine the duality in intersectional lived experiences, specifically investigating intercultural socio-political influence on queer identity and gender identity”. It’s easy to see why Trinh found Nisar’s play so appealing.

“As Queer people, we’re kind of forced to come out all the time, every day,” Nisar says. “So, I wanted to explore how these ideas could be related—coming to a point where you are not necessarily having to make a choice about whether or not to come out.”

Ruby Slippers Theatre will present the world premiere of Dil Ka in association with Blackout Art Society and Presentation House Theatre. The preview is at Presentation House theatre at 7:30 p.m. on March 21, with subsequent performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays and 1 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays from March 22 to 31. For tickets, visit phtheatre.org.box-office/ or phone 604-990-3474.

Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.