Kick, kick, push…. went our Sector 9 skateboards along the coast of the beach of Santa Barbara; my board was painted with surf waves, and hers was appropriately painted with an image of Ganesh. I was skating with Rasika Mathur, comedian, actress, and funny person extraordinaire. When I found out that Rasika was a skater chick, I knew that I just had to conduct our interview while skateboarding on the beach.
You may have seen her on MTV’s sketch comedy show Wild N Out or on the film festival circuit promoting her rap music sari tutorial, Sari (W)rap. Or maybe you’ve seen her in character as Nilam Auntie in a viral video. I caught up with Rasika just after she had just flown back from being on set in Ohio for The Taqwacores motion picture. Directed by Eyad Zahra, the movie was adapted from Michael Muhammad Knight’s fictitious book The Taqwacores and will be premiering on January 24th at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie revolves around the lives of punk rock Muslim characters that live in a punk house in upstate New York and their subsequent exploration of identity and shenanigans. The movie features Maxim sexpot Noureen Dewulf playing the burqa clad riot grrl Rabeya as well as featuring American Dreamz Tony Yalda playing the flamboyant Muzzamil (on the right in above picture), amongst others.
Playing the role of the activist Muslim punk chick character Fatima is Rasika Mathur. I first met up with her before she left for the movie set. She wanted some inspiration for her character, so I hung out with her for a day, taking her to the mosque and teaching her about “DIY”, “NOFX” and “circle pits” . I made her promise when she returned from set, that in exchange, I’d get a Sepia Mutiny exclusive interview. So here it is, my interview with Rasika Mathur.
On working on a “Muslim” focused movie, after being raised in a Hindu home:
It really helped me to expand my mind and break my perceptions. You took me to a mosque so that I could get some real hardcore research and so that I could get what the heck this book was describing this whole time. Maybe the best thing that people can do to become tolerant is to literally put themselves in other people’s shoes by doing a film. Because you have to study what the role is and I shifted my perception by doing this.>On the first day of the shoot, I thought it was so over the top to pray five times a day. It’s just consumed with religion and I thought this is why they are “so fundamental.” But by the end of my time on the set, wow. I can totally see how important it is to get in tune with what your life is about at least five times a day. Something happens, you clear it. Something else happens, you start over. I get the whole start your day with an intention. That is what it means to be quiet or reverent or pray many times a day. That was what shifted it for me right there. I saw the religion in a whole new light. It was so awesome that I allowed my own mind to break some barriers.
About the punk house film set in Cleveland, Ohio (the movie is set in Buffalo, NY):
The movie was filmed in October 2008, the height of presidential campaigning, and we were staying at Zahra’s parents’ home in Cleveland, Ohio. What was so funny was we were staying in total McCain/Palin hood, rich gorgeous homes. There were all these signs in the yards. Then to film the movie, we’d go across town to where the punk house was – in Obama land. Which was really a Chinese restaurant converted into a residence. And it was the shit hole dirtiest place.
This is where you see the downfall of being punk. These kids didn’t give a shit about staying clean. I mean I have a side to myself about not showering too – it doesn’t have anything to do with being Indian. It has to do with being lazy and saving water. So I could kind of fit in with this. But even for me, the place was a shit hole. And it was perfect. It was already a punk house before The Taqwacores came to film there. And there already was a guy living there who served as the liaison producer on set, so it was a very cooperative situation. It was very “DIY” to do that.
On the filming of the culminating scene of the big multi-band Taqwacore concert:
The way they did the bands for that scene was really cool. It’s all about the punk music in this movie. In the book, all these Taqwacore bands come from all across the country to play a concert in Buffalo, NY. So they found real musicians to play the music for the bands and all the lead singers were cast members. They weren’t the real singers. The bands were playing in the back and the actor playing the lead singer was lip singing upfront.
Rasika’s first mosh pit while filming the Taqwacore concert scene:
Oh my God. I have a mosh pit story. Because that was my first mosh pit. They called it “slam dancing” and it was horrifying. Noureen and I were like huddled, and telling the guys around us…. well, Noureen was telling the guys around us, “We are actors, ok!?” I was a little tougher about it than she was. I said, “Dude, we are small. Can you guys fucking watch it?”
It was really shocking at first. That these guys do not mind using their brute strength and there’s a part of me thinking that “they are doing this on purpose! They think I’m stupid. I’m not in it.” I so was not in the right frame of mind for it. You know, there was this guy that was all elbows. It was like I was a pong ball between two guys. That’s how it felt. It didn’t feel like there was coordination….And then there were these guys that were totally diving into the audience and trying to get us to carry them. And I was like, “No…What if you land on someone’s finger?” Crowd surfing must feel really good when you are on ecstasy…
I really loved this band called “Said Fury” and they are from New York. They were fucking awesome. While on stage they would scream, “GROWL” and I don’t know what the fuck they were talking about but at the moment, it was really impressive. What I loved the most about it was how lead singer gets into it. They have their crowd, and they allow themselves to be a part of the crowd. And sing from within the crowd. And they’d give the microphone to someone else to sing. The guy was able to shove people and they loved it! It was fucking cool to watch, the way he’d get all the way down on the floor and roll around and shit. I really enjoyed that. Total diva.
I was stiff as a board. Man, I was so like… “Eeek!” Talk about pretending it was the first time you were with a boy – it felt like it was the first time I was with a boy. You know, I haven’t kissed anybody else in a year. I am loyal to my boyfriend. I was shaking when both my lips touched Dominic’s… and you know what my boyfriend had told me before the scene? He said, “Yeah baby, why don’t you just pretend I’m in the room and I want you to do it.” That’s not the kind of movie this is, ok? This is not that kind of scene!
Dominic, the character that plays Jehangir, is the main character. He basically stayed in his clothes for the entire week he was shooting. That was his way. It was method, and it was punk. Anything that didn’t work, we’d say. “That’s punk.” The fucking toilets don’t work in the house. Punk. There’s shit in my hands. PUNK. Everyone was saying that there.
About being in a movie with Noureen Dewulf:
There was this scene in this movie that makes her pretty incredible and that’s what makes her pretty unstoppable as a Muslim American woman. But I can’t tell you what it is yet. I could go on and on about how I was about her before the movie, and then meeting her, and then after the movie. It’s another one of those transformative stories. In the movie, as Rabeya she’s in full burqa and you never see her face. That’s what I think is so cool, especially since her fan base has a large percentage of men used to seeing her skin. They won’t see her in this movie at all because of the burqa – except for one little thing. Which is why I think this movie is really cool. And dirty!
Concerns about telling her Hindu parents that she was acting in The Taqwacores:
I did not think I could tell my parents I was doing this film. A) because it was a movie about Muslims and B) the raunchy stuff. That’s another breakthrough I had while filming this movie. I’m fed up with lying to them. I’m now being courageous with “here’s my life and here’s what I’m doing.” And boy, do I have to give them credit. They’ve been waiting for this woman to show up. They took it fine.
About her character Fatima:
Fatima is such a sweet girl. While everyone else is sexist, and male, and the band that says fuck off – I kind of just stand there. My character doesn’t want to participate in that kind of stuff, because I don’t want to get my ass kicked.
The day off with the rest of the cast:
Some people wanted to go to the mall on our day off, and chill. But I didn’t want to go with all these people if they were just going to go to Nordstrams. Do you know where everyone really wanted to go? They were just like me. To Barnes and Nobles. And chill with books. Everyone on that set was just like me and reads a lot. We all would just come home and watch CNN we’d always want to know what was happening with the upcoming election. That’s how our life was. We’d go shoot the film and come back and immerse ourselves in the politics of the real world.
On her forthcoming comedy CD, Sari (W)rap, planned for release on the Rukus Avenue label Spring 2010 (You can hear her R Kelley-ish song I Think I’m Going Kama Sutra streamed at her website right now):
I want to start doing my material for mainstream white audiences. I don’t want to do it just for Indian people. Even though a lot of the songs are about India related topics. The Sari Wrap goes over so good whenever I perform it. The song teaches any woman how to tie a sari, but in a rap song. But through a rap, you know what I’m sayin’?
Since that went over so well, there’s a song I’m working on about Ganesh, and it’s to teach people who he is, but it’s like a Kid Rock song. The song can be easily adjusted into a country version too – you know, for when I perform at the gun shows in Kentucky. There’s also a song about going to the bathroom. It’s for people that are really anti-war – “Drop a peace and we’ll have peace.” I’m really influenced by Adam Sandler’s comedy album and I want to put stuff out like that. I’m going to use every possible genre of music on the album to do my own comedy album.
On her comedic character Nilam Auntie (who has her own myspace page!):
I just completed production on short film titled “Nilam Auntie: An International Treasure.” It is a mockumentary about an Auntie who doesn’t need to be on a gameshow to explain how crappy her life was. In the end, the trials and triumphs of her non-traditional journey prove her to be a hilarious heroine for Spinsters everywhere. Like that? I came up with that myself.
Nilam Auntie will also be appearing in a web mini-series called Kiss My Asstrology and will only be viewable at DesiYou. In these episodes, Nilam Auntie is now a fortune teller and through her readings, we can all speculate whether she is legit or not, while being hugely entertained.
In the year since I’ve met Rasika for this interview, I’ve seen her career take her through some eclectic journeys. She recently just got back from doing a comedy show in Amsterdam (in English), she’ll host Desi weddings sporadically, do stand up with her comedy troop “Siblings with Doctors” and was recently part of a Hollywood burlesque show. Rasika does not take a conventional path, and it’s fun to have become friends with her since this interview and see what comedic adventure she’ll take you on next. If you aren’t a fan of hers yet, I highly suggest you jump on the RasiRas bandwagon.
If you are at Umich, she will be speaking at the South Asian Awareness Conference on January 22nd, and will be at the Chetna Fundraiser in Dallas in February. Keep tabs on Rasika by checking out www.RasikaMathur.com or www.RukusAvenue.com. Let’s also not forget the twitterverse – you can follow RasiRas on the tweets.
(photo at beach Â© J. Grant Ball 2010)