Original shows rooted in South Asians’ personal life experiences are so few and far in between that when a promising one comes along with a compelling storyline that is peppered with entertainment, streaming giants and audiences lap it up. This is what happened with “Aarzu-e-Mann” (What Your Heart Desires), a new TV series,that is available on internet streaming service Amazon Prime.
The show is a 17-episode love story set in San Francisco, Calif., and centers on the life of a Pakistani American girl, Samira, who is born in a wealthy and politically connected Shah family. Her falling in love with an American man with a Pakistani American background makes things complicated, as she struggles to achieve her love while maintaining family values.
Indian American actress/model/dancer Neeru Sehgal, who was crowned ‘Miss India California 2015,’ portrays the role of Samira.
The show takes an interesting approach to highlight how immigrant families hold on to traditions while trying to assimilate in their new homeland.
“As an immigrant living in the Bay Area for 19 years, my early struggles centered around ‘fitting in’ and how to reconcile the culture and traditions I grew up with, with that of another culture that I wanted to be a part of but which constantly clashed with my values,” Amir Jaffer, the show’s director, told India West. “I saw the same struggle for many South Asians living here, especially those with children. And when their children came of age, some of these expatriates were forced to compromise and accept the choices of their children when it came to relationships and marriage.”
So, when the opportunity arose, Jaffer said he decided to pick his first major project about the South Asian communities.
Some of the reviews posted by fans give an insight into how well the show is being received.
“A nice depiction of the turbulence that occurs when East meets West,” one fan wrote in the reviews section. “This is so fun and full of intrigue and suspense! I love the combining of cultures and featuring San Francisco! This has something for everyone to enjoy! BRAVO!!” commented another fan.
Some felt that the show is a lot “more relatable to those who left the homeland half a life time ago,” and appears to offer something “new and intriguing.”
Many of the show’s fans have also appreciated the incorporation of Urdu dialogues, a feat made possible by Indian American actress Rashmi Rustagi, who plays the key role of Zoya, the protagonist’s “mean” maternal aunt in “Aarzu-e-Mann.”
“I would sit on the set and translate every dialogue as the shoot came up,” Rustagi recalled to India-West. “Now it’s getting a lot of love from India, and Pakistan, saying they appreciate Zoya’s speaking in Urdu, because they hear her speak in the language, and it fits the character.”
The storywriter, Zulfiqar Talpur, she said, had her in mind when he was writing this show. “We know each other from our previous projects,” added Rustagi, a native of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. “I said, ‘since Zoya is a first-generation immigrant, why doesn’t she speak in Urdu?’”
Shedding light on her role, Rustagi told India-West: “Zoya has her own purpose in life. She is a widow and she is trying to survive. Her son is up to no good, she comes up with all kinds of ways to survive,” adding that “This is her sister’s husband’s second marriage. Since the sister was getting old and was having a hard time getting married so I intervened and made sure she gets a rich husband. He is a decent man. He has some ties to his politician brother in Pakistan.”
While expounding upon the complexity of her role, Rustagi said she is glad that she was able to play the multifaceted role.
“When I read all the episodes, I was like, ‘wow! I can totally see this person,’” she told India-West. “Other than the Urdu connection, I loved her personality, which has a mixture of concern, sweetness, evil, and anger. It’s like every actor wants to be able to play all those things. It’s a great script from an actor’s point of view. I show friendship with a friend, I’m loyal to my friend and my sister, so there are nice windows into her character as well, she is not all evil.”
Rustagi shuttles between Bakersfield, and Los Angeles, Calif., where she takes classes and workshops, and regularly auditions for TV shows and commercials. Seen on shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” Rustagi said she has just finished filming an ad for Nike, which will soon air on national television.
“It’s a really fun commercial where I’m running in a churidar,” she said. “It’s called ‘Aunty is Running.’”
Rustagi, who also runs a YouTube food channel, Rashmi’s Recipes – Jaffer shot those videos – has already added another project to her busy roster.
“I’m writing my next serial. I have hired a writer and we are both working on it,” she told India-West. “It’s about Indian women and their voices. It’s a story about four Indian women: one is a Tamilian, one is from Uttar Pradesh, one is from Punjab. Amir and me have been meaning to tell more and more Indian women stories.”
“Nobody is telling our stories,” she explained, “and we have stories.”
Jaffer, who also served as “Aarzu-e-Mann’s” cinematographer, explained that the show is so much more than just being a soap opera.
“This is not your typical desi drama,” he stressed to India-West. “There are several story-lines and messages...yes, messages. I don’t believe in just entertaining for the sake of entertainment. I believe artists have a social responsibility, and must use this medium to voice their concerns about what is detrimental to our society and community.”
Of course, he added, this series also has the usual “masala” or ingredients, without which no South Asian series would be believable or complete.
“But at the same time, it makes us think about things we encounter on a daily basis in our communities here, but never question,” he noted.
Nine episodes of the show, which was shot in San Francisco, the East Bay, and San Jose, are up, and Amazon Prime subscribers can watch them for free, while non-members can view them by paying $1.99.
Rustagi, Saksham Ghai, Nandini Minocha, Puneet, Satish Ullal, and Rebecca Faiola play regular roles on the show, while the list of recurring characters includes Sher Ali, Shivani Bhagwan, Shivani Rustagi, Ausaf Masud, Cheryl Fonseca, Robert Fleury, Mona Sishodia, Karen Karatz Gonzalez, and Jackie Dallas.
Jaffer and Masud have also executive produced “Aarzu-e-Mann.”