‘The Queen of My Dreams’ Review: A Familiar Tale of Diaspora Tensions

A narrative trifurcated across decades and generations, Fawzia Mizra’s “The Queen of My Dreams” follows a young Pakistani Canadian coming to terms with her upbringing. It hits all the familiar beats of a first-generation South Asian story and, despite its novel queer bent and tongue-in-cheek casting (actress Amrit Kaur plays protagonist Azra, as well as the character’s own mother in flashbacks), it does little to separate itself, thematically or stylistically, from a now repetitive form of “third culture” storytelling.

The sound of a slide projector yanks the film’s opening images into place, as though it were a slideshow of family memories. The year is 1999. The place is Toronto. Azra is a wannabe actress — a profession of which her mother disapproves. She lives with her white, female “roommate” (her parents are none the wiser), to whom she excitedly shows the 1969 Hindi classic “Aradhana” starring Sharmila Tagore. “The Queen of My Dreams” is an English translation of the title of that movie’s most famous song, “Meri Sapno Ki Rani,” which plays numerous times in Mirza’s film, alongside re-enactments in which characters imagine themselves in the roles of Tagore and heartthrob Rajesh Khanna.

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Khanna, Azra explains, also plays Tagore’s son in “Aradhana,” which dovetails into Mizra’s decision to have Kaur double up as both Azra in 1999 and her mother Mariam in 1969. However, the film’s various entry points into these flashbacks follow no consistent structure or logic, which dulls their emotional impact. When Azra’s father Hassan (Hamza Haq) dies suddenly on a visit to Karachi, she and her brother Zahid (Ali A. Kazmi) quickly travel home for the funeral, where their mother — played, in her middle age, by a magnificent Nimra Bucha — insists on following strict and gendered Islamic traditions, much to Azra’s chagrin.

That the film suddenly switches to flashbacks of Mariam, in which she’s played by Kaur, offers de facto commentary on their latent similarities, despite the differences now wedged between them. However, these scenes are neither memories being recalled by Mariam in 1999 — brought on by events or conversations in the present — nor are they self-projections of Azra as she attempts to imagine or understand her mother’s upbringing.

Instead of anchoring these memories to the film’s present, “The Queen of My Dreams” skips haphazardly between timelines, offering little commentary on their connection. Mariam, now a conservative immigrant mom resented by her first-gen daughter, was once a free spirit herself, though there’s rarely any sense that Azra is the one learning this information. In comparison, another recent film featuring a queer Muslim woman delving into her mother’s past, “The Persian Version,” frames its mother-centric flashbacks as a daughter’s discovery and realization, imbuing them, in the process, with tremendous emotional heft. “The Queen of My Dreams” lacks this intimate subjectivity.

The past is also pastiche in Mirza’s film, garish colors and all. Its depictions of 1969 are less “Aradhana” and more “Om Shanti Om,” Farah Khan’s 2007 Bollywood tribute that gazes at the industry’s past using heightened un-reality — only “The Queen of My Dreams” doesn’t have its tongue planted quite so firmly in its cheek. Its artifice feels accidental. For instance, while Kaur deftly taps into the fluttering feeling of young, repressed romance, she sounds less like a Pakistani woman while playing Mariam, and more first-gen child putting on a mocking accent.

Haq, on the other hand, manages to deliver a period-appropriate performance reminiscent of classic Bollywood, channeling Khanna’s poise and charisma. While these flashback scenes seldom suggest the memories of any characters in particular, they do, in this specific way, play like charming, diasporic memories of Indian cinema itself, steeped in cultural nostalgia.

“The Queen of My Dreams” also features a second series of flashbacks set in 1989, which follow Mariam and Hassan’s move to Canada, and young Azra’s adjustment at the age of 12. She’s played here by Ayana Manji, who anchors a truncated queer coming-of-age story that briefly grounds the movie’s self-reflexivity in a sense of incandescent mischief. Watching two generations of women try to assimilate at different stages in their lives is exciting and amusing.

Then again, these generational skirmishes — between a free-spirited artist and their strict, conservative South Asian immigrant parent — have recurred in plenty of recent works (“The Big Sick,” “Blinded by the Light,” “Ms. Marvel,” all of Hasan Minhaj’s stand-up), so perhaps it’s for the best that the movie’s quaint, 1989-set flashbacks remain insulated from this familiar checklist. Where “Aradhana” ends with a child recognizing his mother’s sacrifices, “The Queen of My Dreams” merely gestures toward this outcome. In the process, it joins the aforementioned diaspora stories not as a unique expression of first-gen cultural experience, but as a symbol of how easily it can be flattened.

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