Hollywood has never been so accessible for Muslim creators.
Los Angeles is the go-to spot for fostering creativity and making it big – and it’s also home to dozens of promising Muslim artists who are breaking into the industry and redefining what it means to be Muslim. Follow columnist Umber Bhatti as she covers local creators and discovers how they plan to make their mark in the city.
Manaal Khan opened up her own production company at 26.
She chose the name Amyale because in Arabic it means “those aspiring for infinity” – a term she said aptly describes herself.
The alumna said her love for storytelling stemmed from voraciously consuming Bollywood films from a young age, and her company now focuses on telling narratives from diverse voices. She said she was always fascinated with the behind-the-scenes elements of the industry, such as award shows.
“(I was) the wildest, most intense, passionate Bollywood kid in the world,” Khan said. “It was insanity how much I worshipped directors at a young age.”
When the Bollywood film “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” was released, she said she was obsessed with not only the stars but director Karan Johar for the emotion he conveyed through the film. However, Khan, who was raised in Saudi Arabia, said she expected to go into business like her father, despite her love for film. That is until she visited LA as part of a leadership program during high school, when she realized she could pursue her passion for film. This reconciled both her love for movies and her parents’ desire for her to acquire a higher education, she said.
Straight out of high school, Khan moved to LA and studied at Santa Monica College for a year, which she said was a major culture shock. In her Pakistani community, she said she was catered to and spoiled, never having to fend for herself. Khan said the idealized vision she had of living in LA was immediately snatched away from her.
“You’re in community college, living on Pico Boulevard, and it’s not the LA you visited two years ago,” Khan said. “That dream of being the girl from (Bollywood films) wearing designer clothes and carrying a Starbucks to her high-rise building was taken away from me in a way that I forgot I’d even dreamt of it.”
When Khan was finally accepted into UCLA’s film program, with a concentration in directing, she said it was a major accomplishment, but the road ahead would be fraught with difficulties. Classic Hollywood was an unknown world after all, and she hadn’t even seen “The Godfather.” When a professor screened the Bollywood film “Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India” in her international film studies class, Khan noticed her classmates laughing at a poignant scene, and she said she felt like an outcast.
But Khan said she learned to be self-sufficient and is grateful for the education she received, having grown an appreciation for classic American films. And she is especially proud of the first short film she directed while at UCLA, “Through the Red Doors,” which follows women refugees who are forced into prostitution. Khan’s friend Alev Canoglu said Khan has always prioritized stories that bring awareness to important issues.
“One thing that’s really particular about (Khan’s) work is that she’s always very socially cautious,” Canoglu said. “(With what) she writes and creates from scratch herself, at UCLA and even today at (Amyale), … she wants to tell stories that have social impact.”
Khan also produced an indie feature film for an MFA directing student in her final year as an undergraduate student – her initial foray into producing. But after graduating, she struggled to find development assistant jobs. Then, one day, an established production company asked her to come on as a full-time producer.
But after 2 1/2 years working there, she realized she didn’t make the move to America to tell other people’s stories, she said. So, she founded Amyale. The company currently has many projects in development, including works from the Middle East, South Asia and United States.
One of these projects is an adaptation of the young adult novel “500 Words or Less,” in collaboration with Gabrielle Union. Khan is working in conjunction with writer, actor and producer Matt Nicholas’ company, Rebel Maverick. Nicholas said he and Khan immediately clicked.
“(Khan) is really a person who leans into prestige arthouse projects that mean something,” Nicholas said. “She’s interested in investing her creative energy into projects that are really going to allow people to think. And, she has such an interesting view on the international market, especially coming from Saudi Arabia.”
Khan said her background as a Pakistani Muslim woman from Saudi Arabia will impact her work as a writer, producer and director going forward. She’s noticed certain Muslim characters disengaging with their cultures in popular media, citing a scene in “The Big Sick” in which writer and actor Kumail Nanjiani’s white girlfriend finds photos of South Asian women he’s rejected hidden in a box. Khan said her projects will focus on the antithesis of this scene, showing diverse characters who are proud of their heritages.
Looking back, Khan said these huge shifts had to occur for her to be where she is now, mentally. She began as a young, insecure girl moving to a new country, but now, Khan said she could not be more proud of her achievements and her culture.
“My (Muslim identity) is natural as hell – I don’t care if my protagonist is drinking while casually telling someone she’s Muslim because she’s not running away from it,” Khan said. “I don’t need to make any statement beyond the fact that I’m here and couldn’t be prouder.”