In meetings, I frequently get the question: TV or film? When I first decided to be a screenwriter, I would have said film, hands down. Now, I’m not sure I would stay in screenwriting if I couldn’t do television.
Growing up, I never felt different from the other children in my class. I was born in Boston. I spoke English better than most of my peers. I watched Spongebob Squarepants. I was American. That changed after 9/11.
In the weeks after, I was bullied for the first time by two boys I considered close friends. I became keenly aware of the coloring of my brown skin, the strange sound of the Urdu that my family spoke in public, and the pungent smell of the kebabs my mother packed in my lunch. My grandmother now donned Western clothing when she visited us, and a Sikh family friend traded in his turban for an innocuous baseball cap. For a while, my mother never let the gas in the Odyssey get below a half tank just in case we had “leave suddenly.”
Since then, global events and fear-mongering public figures have cemented my position in a second tier of citizenship, one subjected to “random questioning” at airports and contemptuous looks on the subway. I was once told, “No offense, but the spread of Islam in Western countries is a plague.” I’m not a practicing Muslim, but even I found that offensive. Legally, I have the same rights as all US citizens, but in practice, there are limits to what I can say and do because many see me as a less legitimate American.
Something shifted after 9/11. I am no longer American. I am Pakistani-American, and the hyphen makes all the difference.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized television’s ability to change perception. STAR TREK featured the first interracial kiss in television history. WILL AND GRACE let viewers empathize with gay characters. THE WIRE let audiences understand life as both a drug pusher and a Baltimore cop. More recently, companies like Netflix and Amazon have been sourcing shows from all over the world. Last year, I saw episodic content from Iceland, Germany, Brazil, and even Pakistan.
Television, more than feature films or any other media, has the ability to expose Americans to stories from around the world. It allows us to form attachments to characters with whom we ostensibly have nothing in common. We can peer at the other side of the fence on a consistent basis and realize that a common humanity exists in even the most dissimilar communities. By exposing us to diverse worldviews, TV makes it okay to be different.
In all my writing, I aim to expose an audience to people of different cultures and backgrounds, and TV is the most effective method for that. Specifically, I hope to include my experiences and the experiences of my specific community in the canon of the American experience, so that I, and others like me, will no longer be thought of as Pakistani-American.