There are few people in the American TV/Film industry who possess a background as unique and decorated as Salma Qarnain – a Muslim actress and producer of Pakistani descent, co-founder of Black Man Films, Ivy league scholar, and of all things, a rocket scientist.
One conversation with the Stanford, MIT, and Harvard alum will make it abundantly clear that she is troubled by Hollywood’s history of ignoring and overlooking South Asian and Muslim talent, except for largely insignificant and stereotypical roles. Her mission is to change that by helping to improve authentic representation for people of color overall, as well as those who share her ethnic and religious background.
“There are not many people who write for Pakistani people or Muslims where they are well-developed, well-rounded characters,” Qarnain said. “Most of the characters written by non-South Asians are terrorists, like in Homeland, or co-stars where they just fill out the world – like the deli owner, taxi driver or doctor. When I tell people I’m Pakistani, these are the type of roles I am offered, or I am miscast as a Latina or what is known as ‘ethnically ambiguous.’”
The two-time Helen Hayes Award recipient and AUDELCO nominee has worked in the industry for 20 years, so she has many of these experiences to draw from – including the roles she has booked on major networks such as CBS, ABC, NBC, HBO, HBO Max, Hulu, and also on off-Broadway productions.
Fortunately, Qarnain is celebrating a major career breakthrough. She has recently been cast in the major Broadway play, Life of Pi, an adaptation of the acclaimed 2012 motion picture. It opens March 9 in Manhattan. Qarnain will play two South Asian characters, Mrs. Biology-Kumar and a Muslim cleric named Zaida Khan. Qarnain eagerly reflects on one of the scenes featuring Zaida Khan, where she helped the playwright.
“For that particular scene, I was able to work with the playwright to make the scene more culturally accurate so that she could rewrite it. She also wanted to know some of the basic tenets of Islam,” Qarnain said. “I felt very grateful to be part of that process because I could challenge her and make her think about what the Muslim character would really be like.”
The play is a powerful and positive step, as it is the first Broadway production centered around South Asian characters since Bombay Dreams. Still, Qarnain knows that a lot of work remains to be done with regards to inclusivity and representation. She is reminded of that every day as the co-founder of Black Man Films, a company she operates alongside partner and fellow actor Roderick Lawrence. They produce films centered on the Black American experience, merging art with activism to spark important conversations that are not typically discussed in Hollywood.
Additionally, they focus on collaborating with the best Black and Brown talent both in front of but also behind the camera and providing developmental opportunities for those starting out in the industry.
Qarnain coordinated their film, Silent Partner, from inception all the way to launch, and the project dominated the film festival circuit. It was accepted to 19 film festivals (four Oscar qualifiers) while claiming eight awards and nominations, and it qualified for an Oscar.
Some may question why a Pakistani woman would choose to run a company focused on highlighting Black issues, but it is something that makes perfect sense to Qarnain.
“There is a huge amount of bias and racism in Pakistan and South Asia with regards to color. The darker you are the less attractive you are considered, and you won’t be given the same opportunities,” she said. Also, my older sister’s husband is Black, and her kids are Black. The thought of my own niece and nephew not getting opportunities they are deserving of makes me angry.”
Recognizing the history of Black people in America, Qarnain believes South Asians can learn a lot from the Black community, whose experiences can add perspective to the current challenges South Asians encounter when seeking opportunities and better representation, particularly in arts and media.
“I want to help change the narrative and do something about the way people are treated in this country – not as “other” but as humans and Americans. I feel like by helping Black men and women to rise, it helps lift up Pakistani American men and women in turn.”
For more information and updates on Salma Qarnain, visit www.salmashaw.com and follow her on Instagram at @salma.qarnain.