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’re 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.
Saagar Shaikh last shaved his beard in 2014.
Little did he know the decision would get him featured on a BuzzFeed article that showcased his decorated beard with holiday-themed trinkets.
Not only did Shaikh gain a social media following from it, the facial hair scored the Houston native more acting opportunities as well. But the road to a career as a performer remained laborious. Having moved to LA about a decade ago, Shaikh said he is seeing his efforts pay off. He’s now represented by reputable management and made solid industry connections.
“It’s not like (my success) happened overnight or I just got lucky,” Shaikh said. “I’ve been here throwing darts, hammering the hammer. Everything that I have been working on, … it’s finally starting to rise together.”
Prior to venturing toward acting, he graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio with a business degree, only pursuing school for the sake of his parents. Shaikh said he always had an itch for acting, but wasn’t sure how to pursue his passion.
Through sheer luck, he found his way in when he landed a business internship at what turned out to be a talent agency. After securing the job, Shaikh told his employers he was also interested in acting, and they sent him out to auditions in between his regular working hours.
Shaikh was cast in a few small commercials in Texas, but he said he wanted to move to LA to book more substantive roles. Once in LA, Shaikh went from taking on odd jobs to working full time at Nordstrom, while struggling to find an agent. When he finally got management, Shaikh said he still was unable to land any solid roles.
Eventually, Shaikh pursued postproduction gigs to gain some experience within the entertainment industry. Auditioning for parts in between his day jobs, Shaikh said he finally began noticing a shift in his career once he grew out his beard because of sheer laziness.
“Without the beard, (casting agents) didn’t know what to do with me,” Shaikh said. “I was ethnically ambiguous.”
After the beard though, Shaikh said he landed more roles as casting agents were capable of typecasting him. Many had him leaning into the part of a “hipster” but he often got approached to play the terrorist trope too – a role Shaikh said he always refused to take.
Currently, he’s a part of the Upright Citizens Brigade sketch-comedy team The Get Brown – an all-South Asian performance group. Shaikh said he regularly writes sketches for the show alongside his castmates, which allows them to bring an authentic depiction to the South Asian narrative. Penning his own solo blackout sketches as well, Shaikh draws inspiration from relatable Muslim experiences, like the struggles that come with praying five times a day.
Aside from his comedy work, he was one of the very few actors selected for the 2019 ABC Discovers: Los Angeles Talent Showcase, which provides up-and-coming talent an opportunity to be seen by industry executives. The actor performed to a room full of over 400 producers, casting directors and agents, ultimately attaining better talent representation.
But Shaikh also explores various side projects – which he dubs his “five ventures” – including writing a short film about his experience being randomly chosen by TSA agents, and co-hosting “Bollywood Boys,” a podcast about Hindi films with his Get Brown castmate Shaan Baig.
Baig said he was driving with Shaikh one night during Ramadan and the friends went down a rabbit hole of old Bollywood songs, igniting the idea for the project. Though the podcast leans toward the humorous side, Baig said they wanted to add a nostalgic element of what it’s like being a Desi-American kid.
“For so many of us, … we have this dual experience of being raised on Disney movies and Pixar movies and Nickelodeon,” Baig said. “But, you’re also raised on Bollywood. And it’s an equally vital part of growing up.”
The current entertainment landscape is finally merging the two disparate genres. As Shaikh said, there’s been a “brown renaissance” with a steady stream of Muslim narratives depicted in mainstream culture. However, he believes certain creatives still depict Islam negatively, including Kumail Nanjiani’s “The Big Sick,” which Shaikh said stereotypes Pakistani women.
“It’s so hard,” Shaikh said. “(Some Muslim creatives) put us in a position where we want to support them … but it’s like, ‘Don’t write for (Hollywood), write for us.'”
That’s why Shaikh said he’s developing Muslim Independent Films, a lab that will help fund and showcase work made by aspiring Muslim creatives. Hadeel Hadidi is currently collaborating on the project with Shaikh. The two met when they both worked for the YouTube channel “Good Mythical Morning” and Hadidi said she’s always appreciated Shaikh’s desire to create a more authentic space for Muslims to tell their stories.
“He’s really doing a great job about representing (Muslims) in a way that is favorable and honest and genuine,” Hadidi said. “There’s no motive behind it. … He’s not afraid to be vulnerable and create stories that are important to represent us.”