FannBoy Friday with Shahjehan Khan: Actor and Director Shezi Sardar

FannBoy Friday with Shahjehan Khan: Actor and Director Shezi Sardar

Shezi Sardar is a Brooklyn-based actor, producer, writer and corporate lawyer who was selected for the 2013 NBC Scene Showcase and won the Outstanding Actor Award at the 2016 Tamasha South Asian performance festival.

Shezi and I actually met in the very same Zoom audition room where I met Khaula Malik (from FBF #1 a few weeks back). He ended up playing the lead and I got to play his uncle. Shezi is someone I look up to since he’s been active in the scene for quite some time, having had co-stars, guest stars and recurring roles on shows like “Blue Bloods,” “The Equalizer,” “The Punisher,” and “Madam Secretary.”  I was honored to have him as a guest this week. 

A part of my inspiration was seeing how specific [mental health] conditions, even undiagnosed, taboo ones, particularly in the South Asian community, can affect marriages

– Shezi Sardar

(Shezi’s interview has been edited for length and clarity)

Shahjehan: What should people know about your 2022 short film “Stay With Me a Little While”?

Shezi: “Stay with Me a Little While” is about this South Asian couple. They happen to be South Asian, but the story is not South Asian focused at all. [The story] is focused on schizophrenia and the toll it takes on [Aadya] (played by Gayatri Ball) as a caregiver for my character Farhan. What I wanted to depict [is that] oftentimes a relationship may start off on the basis of equity [but] it can slowly or abruptly transform into a caregiver patient dynamic, right? We see that all the time. We see it in our extended families. We may even see it in our immediate families, where one loved one becomes essentially a full-time caretaker in addition to their other responsibilities for another loved one. We see it with elder parents, elder uncles, aunts, and we’ve seen it with the younger generation as well. And what I wanted to kind of depict is what would it take for a couple who are in their prime, they have their future ahead of them, who may want a family, who may want other things … What would it take for someone to leave this relationship? Is love and commitment enough or do you need more? How much can she sacrifice of her own being for her partner — taking care of him — and to what end? 

I wanted to explore the themes of love and commitment, but I also wanted to touch on guilt and resentment. It’s a 14-minute short film, so we can only cover so much, but it’s really a sort of intimate powder keg in an apartment situation. It’s at the tail end of this relationship. And I leave open the question as to what she should do.

Shahjehan: Why did you choose this particular story to write about?

Shezi: A part of my inspiration or motivation was seeing how specific [mental health] conditions, even undiagnosed, taboo ones, particularly in the South Asian community, can affect marriages — how they can affect relationships and how people end up staying with the most utmost patience for their partners and live out their lives, maybe with a sense of resignation or a deeper guilt, even though there’s love. … So there’s that contradiction (or that seeming contradiction) which I wanted to kind of push a little [psychologically]. 

I’ve seen my mom become a full-time caretaker of my Nani (maternal grandmother) who stayed with us for 25 years. The last few years of her life she really needed full-time care. You know in our culture, we don’t just send them off to a facility when they’re old right? We tend to be duty oriented as children of the South Asian diaspora. … So it did take a toll on my mother, emotionally, physically, mentally, and it was very difficult to see.

So I’ve combined bits and pieces of my family’s lives, I’ve combined bits and pieces of my own life, having gone through certain relationships and really just sort of created this tapestry on which I wanted to paint this relationship.

Shahjehan: I know you’ve been to a couple of festivals so far. What has the reception been thus far? 

Shezi: Much to my joy, the feedback we’ve gotten has been very positive — really, really good. I know when it screened in DC I wasn’t able to attend, but [our producer] Pulkit Dutta did — we sort of divided up some of these festivals that overlapped on timing — and he mentioned how there was one gentleman, he’s a psychiatrist or in healthcare, who was crying at the end. He came up and told Pulkit that our film captured mental health so well that he would love to show it to healthcare professionals in different groups. So I think it really made an impact. 

I was in Vancouver and we got incredible feedback, not just on the accuracy of how mental health can affect a relationship and what my character is obviously going through (it was readily apparent it was some form of schizophrenia) but also on our acting. … I was so relieved because … [if] I’m dealing with logistics (what shots are good, should we do this or that, helping direct the other actors), will my performance come through? But it seems to have worked. 

Shahjehan: I’d love to hear about your path from longtime actor to first-time director. How did you manage that transition and what did you need to do to prepare?

Shezi: I’m a trained actor. I went to conservatory in New York. I’ve put essentially all my time for this industry into acting and being an actor for years. And so I was comfortable in that realm. I have countless audition tapes. But I realize that doesn’t necessarily translate to directing skills. I can direct actors because I’m an actor; I know how to be with other actors. Oftentimes, directors [have to] take a class [in] directing actors, so I think that was probably my strong suit. I also had [a strong co-lead actor] in Gayatri: She’s such a strong actor that we didn’t have to intensely direct her. … Her choices were bold and brilliant, and she really just took ownership. 

But in terms of the prep work, honestly a lot of it. I leaned on Pulkit, our DP Caroline Stucky and a couple of other production folks. … I love collaborating. I don’t feel possessive of my work or a film. I mean, I wrote the short film, I wrote the script as well, and we [Gayatri and Pulkit] were cutting out lines together the day of the shoot. So it was a good seamless flow because I was open to suggestions. I want to be surrounded by people who are smarter than me and who are good at what they do, and I want it to be a team effort.

On the day of the shoot it definitely got a little challenging. We had limited time and quite a few shots and scenes to get through, but I mean this production team [are] so experienced, they have worked together before as a unit and it was exceptional the way they just navigated the entire arc of the day. … I was trying to play catch up a lot of times! I had like five directors around me. Pulkit is a director, Caroline is a director/filmmaker, our assistant AD is a filmmaker director, Gayatri has made a short film that’s done the festival rounds. So it was a good, steady ship…

Shahjehan: Who are three Muslim or adjacent creatives that inspire you or that you are really looking forward to seeing more from? 

Shezi: I worked with Saim Sadiq [the director of “Joyland” (2022)] when he was an MFA student at Columbia. Now he’s done so exceptionally well and made this absolute masterpiece of a film coming out of Pakistan. I would be honored to work with [him] again. Let’s see if the opportunity presents itself. I’m inspired by his vision, his confidence, his raw talent. His eye as a director I think is super strong and clear. 

Riz [Ahmed], of course. He has been around for so long. … I would say he’s the flag bearer for many of us. We’re similar in age range. I would love to work with him as an actor in some capacity. And I do feel ready in terms of skill set and capability. So I would be totally excited to meet that opportunity if it came to be.

I would love to be part of a Marvel series. That’d be pretty cool. You know, “Ms. Marvel” was a watershed moment for Muslim Americans and Pakistani Americans. To see … the intersectionality of identity, culture, superhero sort of lore and a major streaming network developing and carrying it is truly something that we should recognize.

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