The Sex Pistols were created to sell trousers. Let that sink in. Punk rock, the ultimate anarchistic anti-establishment genre, came about because canny impresario Malcolm McLaren thought an ultra-hip clothing shop in London’s Camden Town could do with a house band, and so he threw together a bunch of charismatic, high-energy young men with the right look—no musicianship necessary—to play in the store. Steve Jones, Paul Cook, Glen Matlock and Johnny Rotten. It was a few short months from the store to the first ever punk rock album Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. The rest is badly behaved history.
In the rousingly entertaining series We Are Lady Parts (JioCinema), a young woman is thrown out of a mosque after annoying elders with a Slipknot ringtone on her phone, and swiftly recruited into a band. True to punk, she doesn’t know drumming but learns “on the job” and writes songs with lyrics about how her headscarf frightens white people—“Does other headgear scare you too? A hat? Helmet? No, just you!”—all while driving an Uber for some money. The band she’s in hasn’t been discovered, you see.
Similarly undiscovered are the talents of Amina, on the hunt both for a PhD in microbiology as well as a good husband her family and friends will sign off on. The mousy and self-flagellating narrator of this six-part series, Amina can wield a mean guitar but is mortified at the thought of performing with it. Audiences make her vomit. Literally. Therefore she conforms, keeping her life as neat as her room. Posters of her favourite musicians—Don McLean leads the pack —are inside her wardrobe while her walls are spotless. Even her fandom is closeted.
Created and written by Nida Manzoor—making waves this year with her smashing stuntwoman-vs-patriarchy film Polite Society (on BookMyShow Stream)—We Are Lady Parts is a predictable underdog story of a girl trying not to hurl. It is also, however, a sweary, swaggering and culturally groundbreaking comedy about an unlikely band of young Muslim women who refuse to be boxed in. This is the kind of show that slags off Blink-182 in a conversation about three-person bands, then drops a Blink-182 song over the closing credits.
We Are Lady Parts is an all-Muslim punk rock band. One of the bandmates—Momtaz, the manager—lives behind a niqab, wreathed in vape-smoke, choosing to hide her face because of the confidence it gives her. “Like Queen Nefertiti,” she says, moving her elaborately gloved hands. “Or Beyoncé.” All we see are her eyes. She’s the one trying to persuade Saira, the bandleader, that popularity is not a bad thing. Having fans does not necessarily mean selling out. It is an audience, she points out, “of young usses”.
Saira is sceptical. All tattoos and anger, she is mistrustful of the internet, authority figures, men, labels, motives. She sings passionately about being “broken by the Empire, raised by MTV” (the original songs in this series are really something, by the way) but also breaks out Faiz Ahmad Faiz at one of those insufferable spoken-word poetry evenings where people applaud by snapping their fingers.
It’s a witty and sharply observed series, and assembles a fine band of players. Anjana Vasan’s Amina is both self-serious and dreamy, reminiscent of a Jane Austen heroine or Lata from A Suitable Boy. Sarah Kameela Impey’s Saira brings the punk energy hard, yet also grounds the show’s many, many emotional moments. Juliette Motamed’s Ayesha has the fiercest stage presence but is the tenderest whenever she drops her guard. Faith Omole’s bright-eyed Bisma is black and a mother and a murderous cartoonist, and the best actual singer. Lucie Shorthouse’s Momtaz, acting exclusively with her eyes, kills it. Eyerolls are even more emphatic when all you can see are eyes.
Nida Manzoor’s most distinctive strength might be the lightness of touch with which she—always authentically—explores the world of the British Muslim. A young man pretending to be devout claims he goes to “Ye Olde Local Mosque”. In a song about killing one’s sister (for stealing one’s eyeliner), the aforementioned murder is referred to as a “honour killing”. Yet these rebel girls (or grrrrrls) aren’t blaspheming; they aren’t against Islam at all but proud of their Muslim identity, and expressing their own individuality. Loudly.
At one point, an outsider asks the women that—being a punk group—“Aren’t you not supposed to care what people think?” The problem lies in the “supposed to”, the fact that even this most non-conformist label is but a label. That comes with expectations and these must be rubbished. Just as when The Police came along and, as virtuoso musicians entering a genre where people couldn’t play guitar, revolutionised punk. There are no rules. In one scene, We Are Lady Parts covers a Queen song—one about making bad mistakes—and their merry but amateurishly sung version reminded me of an iconic Sid Vicious cover of My Way. The Vicious version is a godawful rendition, one that makes the ears bleed. That's punk. When making a mistake, make it unmistakable.
Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series.