Zara Janjua

Zara Janjua

Redefining Professional Purgatory

A few years ago, the business journalist Emma Gannon coined the term multi-hyphen. It was a revelation, having spent several years in no man’s land, career limbo dare I even say – professional purgatory. Finally, I could pigeon-hole my work as a journalist, presenter, TV producer, writer, actor, comedian. They say variety is the spice of life and being half Pakistani-half ginger, I’d have to agree. 

I am used to ‘not-fitting-in’. My mum grew up in the east end of Glasgow, in a place called Bridgeton which sounds a lot like Bridgerton but is a world away from elite Victorian balls and classically performed Ariana Grande tracks. There were machete gangs on the city streets in the 1950s, so I’m told. My dad arrived in the UK in the 1970s from Rawalpindi village, with nothing but his wallet and passport after being mugged at the airport on departure. It seems like the opening to a Salman Rushdie book but by the 1990s, morphs into East is East

I am of mixed heritage but I’ve never really felt like I belong to either. I am a mixed/other. Too white for some and too brown for others. Raised as a Muslim, I wore a headscarf for Arabic school and the mosque. But now when I use it in my art, I have been told it is a symbol that does not belong to me – a ‘Gora’. I once met a dreamy Indian guy who told me his family would never let us marry, I was a Pakistani Muslim for god’s sake. Which god? I was not sure.  

When I became full-time self-employed, I decided to dedicate 50% of my time to philanthropic or issues-based projects. I debuted as a filmmaker last year with a documentary in Nepal about marginalised and disabled women, acted in a campaign about domestic violence for Solace in lockdown and recently been appointed to the NatWest Ethnicity Advisory Council to advise the group on their diversity strategy. 

Featuring intersectionality, challenging stereotypes and a championing change is at the heart of what I do. It’s my raison d’etre. Especially as a comedian, writer and performer. It makes my soul sing to see TV commissioning embrace diversity. 

The debate about politicising art is not new, nor should it be expected from us – the ‘talent’. But when you are asked to write about what you know, what does that actually mean? For anyone who has written screenplays and sketches, you’ll understand the trade-off between character and comedy. Sometimes in sketches you forgo the story for the pun. Our life is a long form feature, where we look for the truth and honesty of our characters – ourselves. 

So – for me, writing has become a journey of discovery and self-improvement. When I write character comedy, sitcoms or features, I like to do it mindfully with one eye on the toxic patriarchal agenda. I ask myself: ‘how can I fuck their shit up, even just a little bit?’.

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