By Sumaiya Malik
Mustache, a coming-of-age film about a Pakistani American fourteen-year-old boy who moves from an Islamic school to a public high school and has a hijab-clad family, drew large crowds at the SXSW festival Mar. 10-18 in Austin.
Written and directed by Imran J. Khan, a Los Angeles based American filmmaker with Pakistani heritage, the film is set in the 90s in the heart of Silicon Valley and is loosely drawn from Khan’s own experiences while growing up, trying to navigate his Muslim side and just being a teenager.
“This [film] literally didn’t happen but it’s very true to what it felt like and what my experiences were,” Khan said while talking to the audience at the end of the last show on Mar. 18.
Illyas Khan, played by Atharva Verma, feels self-conscious about his mustache and wants to shave it off, but his parents insist that he keep it on. While he is going through early puberty, his parents move him to a public high school. Already feeling awkward and now in a new setting Ilyas hatches a plan to make his parents put him back into the Islamic school he came from.
Khan shows Ilyas navigate through opposing feelings at home and in class. At home his three siblings, a hijab-clad mother who speaks mostly Urdu, and a dad who is struggling in his newly founded business surround him. At the high school, he faces initial coldness until he finds his passion in theater and that helps him break the ice with other classmates.
As Khan tries to show the warmth within the immigrant Pakistani American family and the Muslim community in general, he also shows a teenager trying to navigate puberty and feeling awkward and trying to fit in, something relatable to anyone in the audience.
Clueless star Alicia Silverstone plays Ilyas’s theater teacher who tells him to always be creative. How Ilyas takes on that advice wins all hearts around him, drawing laughter and accepting smiles is something to watch. The film maintains a feel of light comedy even in the tense moments making it as close to reality as possible.
The story goes through twists and turns identifiable by any family whether immigrant or native. At a key moment American comedian, actor, producer Hasan Minhaj makes an appearance drawing in the audience even further. Like any American dad or mom, Ilyas’s parents “Abu’’ played by Rizwan Manji and “Ami” played by Pakistani actress/singer Meesha Shafi try to give their best to their kids.
Khan said he had been working on the film since 2017 while he worked as a film editor during the day and developed Mustache on nights and weekends. Then in 2022, he quit his job and decided to take it on full time.
The initial draw of the film may have been the presence of Hollywood stars Alicia Silverstone and Hasan Minhaj, but the audience is drawn to every character even in a small role. Big brother played by Shaheryar Rana, and big sister played by Mojeane Sadr who Ilyas catches shaving off her upper lip are equally convincing.
Khan thanked the audience before the film began and brought in his wife, toddler kids and his parents to the premiere and shared their thoughts amid laughs.
“Honestly, I just hope people feel for this character and the story and relate to it no matter what background they come from, and to be able to relate to this Pakistani Muslim kid growing up, I think is really cool,” he said.