Jaffar Mahmood learnt in graduate school that a good starting point to accomplish your first feature film is to write what you know. In “Shades of Ray, it is evident that Mahmood did just that.
Mahmood – who wrote, directed and produced “Shades – and the film’s lead character Ray Rehman (played by Zachary Levi) seem to lead parallel lives. Like Mahmood, Ray was born to a Pakistani father and Caucasian mother and grew up in a biracial, multi-religious household in the United States.
The film – which was one of this year’s entries to the Cairo International Film Festival’s International Digital Feature Film Competition – opens with a young Ray receiving a word of advice/warning from his father, played by Brian George, against marrying a white woman, essentially implying that he had made a mistake by not choosing his “own kind.
Fast forward a few years later, Ray is both going against his father’s wishes but still following in his footsteps and proposes to his Caucasian girlfriend, who does not give him an answer right away.
Meanwhile, Ray’s father moves in with him after being kicked out by his mother, further triggering his inner cultural war.
He takes advantage of Ray’s desire for reconciliation and convinces him to go on a date with a south Asian girl, also of mixed descent.
To his surprise, Ray establishes a connection with Sana (Sarah Shahi) and now has to figure out where his identity lies and what is best for him between his girlfriend and Sana.
“Shades of Ray is both a romantic comedy and heartfelt drama that boldly dips its storylines in the murky waters of race, religion and identity.
In one of the opening scenes of the movie, young Ray asks his best friend if he sees him as white, or brown. “I don’t know, you’re just Ray, he responds innocently.
Most of us will identify with one of the many shades Mahmood has given Ray; be it the average guy looking for love while trying to make it as an actor, or the desperate son trying to fix his parents’ marriage, or the biracial character layered with confusion about identity.
While the south Asian community embraced it at the South Asian International Film Festival in Manhattan – where it received an Audience Award for the Best Narrative Feature Film – a predominantly Caucasian audience showed the same enthusiasm at the Austin Film Festival in Texas.
“I have never seen a romantic comedy where the lead [character] was biracial, Mahmood said. “I’ve seen movies where maybe one race falls in love with another race, but I’ve never seen the next level, which is the product of those two races coming together.
Undeniably, “Shades of Ray has a message, however Mahmood highlights the fact that it does not preach and does not shove messages down your throat.
There are messages to be taken from it, if you choose to take them, but you can also shut your mind off and enjoy it as a comedy that deals with romance and love and family pressures . I wrapped it in an accessible commercial way that makes people enjoy it even if they don’t want to read deep into it, Mahmood added.
Being in the Hollywood scene since 2000, he says it’s been “disheartening for him to witness the pigeonholing of Muslims, who are often portrayed negatively in films.
“Stripping away the fact that I wanted to make an entertaining movie, I thought it was really important to show that there could be a guy in America who talks like the people on ‘Friends’ talk, and is having problems anyone in America can identify with and he happens to be Muslim and Pakistani, he said.
While some elements of the story as well as the characters are unique to this film, Mahmood insists he is not trying to market it as a film specifically about a Muslim who is half-Pakistani. As a self-proclaimed commercial filmmaker, he set out to reach the broadest audience he can reach.
“I don’t want to lose my identity and lose the voice that is unique, but by the same token I want to tell stories that are entertaining and make people laugh, he said. “The best way to make it in Hollywood is to be commercial and make something anyone can get behind.
Growing up in a predominantly Caucasian town in New Jersey, Mahmood wanted to fit in and admits to only identifying with his Caucasian side. It wasn’t until he went to an “ethnically diverse college that it dawned on him that he has been closing off another side of him that he says makes him interesting.
“[Being half Pakistani] was nothing I wanted to advertise before, but as I grew up I realized that there is this whole other side of me that I have been ignoring and that I didn’t want to ignore anymore, he explains.
His personal experiences were fused into his characterization of Ray, and sprinkled through his relationships with the rest of the film’s characters.
He emphasizes however, that he only speaks for his own problems. “There can be another half-Pakistani guy my age who has never had that confusion, I can’t speak for everyone else.
It only takes a few minutes with Mahmood for one to recognize the similarities between him and his protagonist. He admits to investing a lot of himself into Ray, explaining that while his actions might be fictional in the film, his voice and conflicts are rooted in reality.
“Zach [Levi] spent enough time with me to even know my speech patterns, he said.
Much like Ray, Mahmood was taking the road to becoming an investment banker when he discovered his passion for filmmaking through a film class he took and pursued a master’s degree in producing from the University of Southern California.
It wasn’t until directing a short film entitled “Eastern Son (2003) that Mahmood fell in love with directing.
It took him four years to write, produce and edit “Shades of Ray until it premiered at the Austin Film Festival in Oct. 18 of this year.
“Shades of Ray was screened during the CIFF week to an audience whose reaction piqued Mahmood’s curiosity. He admits he was wary of some of the slang used in the film and whether the comedy would translate.
Yet he was excited to see the film’s jokes hit the right notes with the Cairo audience. “It was refreshing to see the comedy of the film playing across different country lines, he said.
He is currently working on another feature he describes as a “fun, lighthearted comedy, that revolves around a teenaged boy in Pakistan who wants to throw a party to impress a girl. Through this project, Mahmood aims at showing that there are “sweet innocent things happening in parts of the world associated with negative connotations.
But he rejects the idea of pigeonholing himself. “I know what Hollywood is like, it likes to put people in boxes, and with that trend, Mahmood says he expects to be dubbed as “the comedic M. Night Shyamalan … So I’ll play that game to make a name for myself, but eventually I will break free whenever I want.
For more information on “Shades of Ray, please visit www.shadesofray.com