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SXSW Interview: Director Imran J. Khan Explains His Award-Winning ‘Mustache’

With his debut feature Mustache, Imran J. Khan puts his own Pakistani-American spin on the tried-and-true coming of age genre. Recently premiering at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival, the film follows a 13-year-old boy (Atharva Verma) navigating the growing pains of a new school, all while sporting a conspicuous mustache. On the eve of the film’s Audience Award win at the festival, Awards Radar chatted with Khan to learn about the film’s influences and its universal relevance.

Shane Slater: How did the idea for this film come about? And specifically, the idea to frame it around a mustache?

Imran Khan: That comes from growing up in my family. But I guess what I’ve learned through making this film is that there are a lot of people who have had similar experiences, especially in the South Asian community, where people or parents don’t want their kids to shave too early. Even if they have a full grown mustache. So I was thinking about that and I thought it was sort of like a funny. It was a funny thing to center a film around. I’ve never seen anything like that, at least in a film like this. And if an idea sticks with me for a long time, I don’t get bored of it. And if I’m still excited to keep writing it and excited to see it come to fruition, then there’s probably something there that’s worth sharing.

So a lot of it was just the fact that I still found it funny and weird. And the right mix of things that I felt could be relatable. Because I could tell this really specific story about this Muslim kid and the specific time period in the 90s. And I could do all of that while having this door for everybody to walk through, which is just puberty, mustaches, dealing with all of that is universal. And I felt like it was this fun way into it all. I could bring people into my upbringing, my world, my community, in a really simple way.

That’s why I felt like I was onto something with it. Because I had people read the script and kind of connect with it, regardless of whatever their ethnic or religious background was, and I thought that was cool. It just kind of always was this interesting hook for the film. The movie was always titled Mustache. There was never an alt title for it. I also just like one word titles. I think they’re catchy and punchy.

SS: As you said, this film shows a very specific perspective. With all the talk about representation, did that give you an added sense of responsibility for you and the cast, or did you feel free from that burden?

IK: I think you’ll always feel that there’s a bit of you wanting people from your community to be able to watch something that you’ve made, when it’s about them, and feel like, “Oh, wow, that’s me. You nailed it.” That’s the ultimate compliment when you’re doing something about underrepresented communities, when they watch it and they’re like, “Oh yeah, you encapsulated our experience.” Or at least, “You put something on screen that makes us feel seen.” And so that’s definitely there.

I mean, I tried to not think about that though, in the process. Because I think it can also be harmful to focus on that, because at the end of the day, I need to be able – as a director, as a writer – to tell a story that I feel like I’m getting to the truth of, in this case, trying to really put the audience in the shoes of a 13 year old Pakistani kid. What are all the challenges? What’s he thinking about? What is he pulled between? You want to really get to the heart of that, into the truth of that. So if you’re just thinking about representation, I think you might veer into some kind of PSA.

Now, I always wanted it to be like a movie that had something to say and people can feel seen with. But then it’s also just a movie. I think that is a fine line between making something that’s a PSA versus versus a film for everybody to watch. So there’s a push and pull there but I’m conscious of it. But I try to just do what I’m excited about. What makes me laugh, what makes me cry, what makes me excited to see a movie. And if I’m following that, I feel like that’s all I can do as a writer-director, is kind of follow my gut. And then everything else, you’re sort of hoping it’ll connect.

SS: There’s a lot of 90s nostalgia baked into the setting and premise, and then having Alicia Silverstone in the film further adds to that. How did she get involved in the project and what was it like to work with her?

IK: She read the script and she loved it. And it just kind of went from there. I think it was just such a cool way to have somebody like her in the film, because she plays a mentor type character. And I think that’s a cool thing to see her do, when you consider the film is set in the 90s, and it’s just this cool, happy accident. Her schedule aligned. And you never know, there’s so many reasons that somebody can’t do a movie and so it just sort of lined up where she could do our film. And then she wanted to do it.

We were really excited to have her in the film. And she just was such a great presence. The first thing we shot with her was, she comes into the doorway and it’s a close up of her. And I remember seeing after the first take and I was like, “Oh, she’s a movie star.” She just has such a great energy and charisma to her that it was really fantastic to see and experience as a director. I am a first time director, and I’m working with a whole slew of actors and all different ranges in levels, especially because we’re dealing with kids who, some of them, had little or no experience. So you’re dealing with this range. And then you see somebody like Alicia comes, walks on the set and is just a super pro, you know?

So it was just cool to see that and for me, to learn how actors work. I think I learned something about how actors work by watching Alicia, somebody who came with a lot of her own ideas, but was also collaborating. And I could throw her a line and be like, “Hey, maybe you could say this during that silence.” And she would take it and run with it and make it better than my pitch basically. I think that is something special about her. And just the fact that she’s been doing this for so long and is kind of an iconic actor. So it was really cool.

SS: As for your child actors, the 90s technology and details must have been foreign to him.

IK: Yeah, they didn’t know what anything was. [Laughs]. They didn’t know what instant messaging online was or anything like that. And so, you’re kind of teaching them even how to hold the game controllers and things like that. It really makes you realize your own age, because for me, it doesn’t feel like it was that long ago. It was just the 90s, but for these actual teenagers now, all this stuff is so foreign. I remember they were calling the instant messaging texting. And I was like, “Oh, that’s weird. I feel so old.”

So it was fun to see my world through their eyes, where they’re learning about it and then being in it. It’s surreal to see them. It’s almost like seeing your younger self from the past and recreating that. It was all very surreal. And it was cool to see how they really jumped into that world and became a part of it. I think they had a lot of fun from what I know. It was just a really special experience.

SS: Coming of age stories you know are a very beloved genre. Were there any specific films or filmmakers who influenced your work?

IK: It’s weird, I didn’t watch just coming of age films to make this film. I watched so many films in the year lead up to directing this film. I was watching all kinds of stuff just to get inspiration. Like obviously, there are moments that to me, are inspired by Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Especially the scheming stuff, like when he’s scheming and some of the montages and stuff like that. They’re kind of in that vein, even the framing of the AIM conversations, how they’re dead center and kind of squared off, that is all really inspired by a weird mixture of Wes Anderson and then an Ozu vibe.

And then there’s stuff like this montage voiceover part, the way the camera’s gonna move and the choreography of the actors and everything, we’re going for like, a Goodfellas vibe, actually. So that’s not a coming of age film, but in a way, maybe it is. But we’re borrowing different elements from different things. I also like teenagers who come up with dumb plans, you know? Like, that’s not going to work! [Laughs]. So that’s teenagers making mistakes, doing dumb things, and then getting caught or having to face consequences and learning through that.

So I think like there’s a lot of films that are like that, for me writing wise. Like Mean Girls, Easy A, Lady Bird. There’s a movie called Charlie Bartlett that I think is really funny. And the writing of it is really clever. I’m kind of a connoisseur of all of those kinds of films. I pretty much watch a lot of the films in that genre, because I just enjoy them as a fan. And when you’re writing something like this, it kind of comes back.

I watched Eighth Grade quite a bit, multiple times. To kind of get to thinking about how to anchor the point of view of a character. I think that movie’s really successful and really effective. And I like Mike Mills. Like 20th Century Women, that film to me is really effective in terms of, I really love the feel of the montages with voiceover. I think that stuck out to me. I watched a lot of that stuff, again, to kind of see what the pace of the camera would be like, and my DP watched that.

And I could name so many. For the Islamic school part, there’s a film called Au revoir les enfants, the Louis Malle movie. I just love the feel of the Catholic school in that. That’s the feel of the Islamic school in my film. So in my mind, when I was shooting that stuff, the way that they’re in uniform and visually, how the frames were composed and the feel of the kids, it was just a vibe that was like my memories. So it was a good thing to watch for that.


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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for, and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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