July 21, 2019 | 83° F

Arshad Khan explores queer, Pakistani identity in "Abu"

Photo by Facebook |

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s GAYpril here at Rutgers, as April is LGBT Cultural History and Pride Month. GAYpril events have been taking place all over Rutgers, including a visit from Lena Waithe. The month of celebration continued last night as the 2017 documentary “Abu” was screened in the College Avenue Student Center to an attentive crowd. 

The film explores the experience of the gay Pakistani filmmaker Arshad Khan, and his relationship with his family. Khan, who was in attendance, wrote, produced and directed the feature-length film. The tagline of the documentary is “When all humans are guided by a set of rules ... it’s time for new rules,” and the movie emphasized that message. 

Abu means father in Arabic, and the film told the story of Khan’s life through his relationship with the patriarch of his family. The original partition of India and Pakistan was the starting point, and then the focus shifted to Khan’s father, or Abu. The focus shifted from Khan’s parents to his childhood in Pakistan. In Pakistan, he had some of his happiest days even though he experienced trauma in many ways. The innocence of childhood seemed to make earlier issues easy to gloss over. 

When the family immigrated to Canada in Khan’s teen years, and his father became more religiously conservative, more problems started to arise. Khan’s many painful years in the closet were augmented by the struggle to assimilate into Western culture. His high school years are one of the real low points in the film, and the rocky transition to college shows how deep seeded problems don’t just disappear with time.

The film goes on to document the clash between Khan’s openness about his sexuality and the turn that his parents make toward fundamental Islam. Although, the film makes sure to display the nuance between the two viewpoints, and there are no “heroes or villains.” The tale is told from his father’s perspective just as much as his, and the love that the family has for each other is evident even when the members are in stark disagreement. “Abu” explores a wide variety of issues, including narratives about homophobia, Islamophobia, sexual abuse, xenophobia and more. 

Visually, the film uses tons of home videos from Khan’s life, as well as animation and portions of Bollywood films. The use of archival family footage was incredibly effective, as hindsight is truly 20/20. While the archival footage portrayed the prettiest, most positive aspects of the family’s life, the voiceover work — done by Khan himself — incisively pointed out the pain that was lurking under the happy exterior. It’s clear that the filmmaker had to face plenty of personal demons to create the film, but the documentary is all the more effective for it. 

“Abu” is a soul-baring personal piece of work that takes real honest to produce, but that was Khan’s intention the entire time. He stated why such a personal story was important in the Q&A session after the screening. 

“Sometimes when you tell such a deeply personal story it becomes a universal story,” Khan said. 

The discussion portion proved his point. The film elicited questions from atheists and religious people, queer and straight folk and professors and students alike. Everyone could explain how they personally related to “Abu.”

Khan didn’t shy away from controversial topics when answering questions, and an engaging educational session was the result of his candid honesty. Racism in the gay community, ongoing American imperialism and sexual violence in South Asia were all discussed at length. Khan’s mission for the film was clear, he said, “I wanted to make an uncompromised and sincere story.”

“Abu” fully realizes that vision, and everyone who sees the film will undoubtedly learn something. That’s the mark of a great film, but more importantly, a piece of art that feels essential. “Abu” is a story that needed to be told, and Khan’s efforts are sure to be appreciated by anyone who gives the film a chance. 

Jordan Levy

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