There have been many stories about being young, obsessed with music and starting a band, and the series “We Are Lady Parts” does nail the fundamentals: the joys and the arguments, the feuds and the romantic entanglements, the mortifying gigs and the uplifting concerts.
But the British comedy, which was created, written and directed by 31-year-old Nida Manzoor and streams on Peacock, also feels giddily new. Its fictional group, Lady Parts, is made up of Muslim women.
The prickly lead singer, Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey), who works in a butcher shop, is backed by the imperious Siouxsie Sioux look-alike Ayesha (Juliette Motamed) on drums and the laid back Bisma (Faith Omole) on bass. The new lead guitarist, Amina (Anjana Vasan), is a graduate student in microbiology cursed with stage fright. And let’s not forget the band’s very own Brian Epstein, the no-nonsense manager Momtaz (Lucie Shorthouse), vaping through her niqab.
This is not surprising considering Manzoor’s ecumenical tastes. In a recent video chat about her influences, she recalled how she “sort of inherited” a teenage obsession with Paul Simon from her father (Amina is into Don McLean); acknowledged the trailblazing Riot Grrrl movement; and volunteered that clearing the rights to a certain Dolly Parton song had been “the best day of my life.”
‘King Kong Theory’ by Virginie Despentes
Saira is the angriest, most rebellious member of Lady Parts, at least outwardly. She chafes against restraints of any kind, especially those imposed by men. Manzoor found inspiration for the character in the books of the French writer Virginie Despentes, especially “King Kong Theory.”
“I remember when I came across Virginie Despentes’ work initially, the King Kong image was so powerful: Women are more like King Kong than Kate Moss,” Manzoor said. Look closely at Saira’s bedsit, where the band rehearses, and try to spot the Queen Kong poster on the busy wall.
“We were talking about Saira’s look and I was like, ‘She just looks like she hasn’t had a bath,’ ” Manzoor added. “She only has a few clothes and she sniffs them to see if they’re clean. The whole band is women who have femininity of different kinds. Sometimes they are, as Despentes says, too loud or too hairy, and I thought that spoke to the spirit of the show.”
Faiz Ahmad Faiz
In a scene from episode four, Saira goes to an open mic and recites a poem by the Pakistani communist writer Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who was accused of conspiracy in 1951 and jailed. “His poetry really spoke to me, especially the stuff that he wrote whilst he was in prison,” Manzoor said. “It was all about speaking your truth and speaking your voice, which is the heart of the show. His poetry did that to me as I was writing: It gave me the courage to connect with what I wanted to say.”
Family relationships are central in the series, and it comes as little surprise to hear that Manzoor has a personal connection to Faiz, who was her grandfather’s favorite poet.
“My grandfather was my biggest supporter as a writer, he would read all my poems and all my stories,” she explained. “That some audiences are looking up the poets, as I’ve seen a bit online, has been so exciting because I think that great artists can be left for the older generation and there’s so much punk and cool and interesting work that sometimes gets lost.”
‘The Big Lebowski’
Manzoor is a big fan of Ethan and Joel Coen in general but she singled out their 1998 film “The Big Lebowski,” and more specifically the “I am the walrus” scene in which Jeff Bridges and John Goodman banter at a bowling alley, while Steve Buscemi occasionally pipes up.
“There’s a scene with Amina’s parents in the first episode that’s similar, with the dad at the back,” she said. “I just love what the Coen brothers do: There’s always a character who’s on a different wavelength. You can have multiple characters in the shot and they’re all sort of bounce. The rhythm of that comedy was so inspiring to me.”
Coen fans will spot another hat tip to the brothers in the same episode, when Amina sings “Girl of Constant Sorrow,” which figured (as “Man of Constant Sorrow”) in the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
“East London is where I met the kinds of women who inspired me in the show,” Manzoor said, and so that’s where she filmed many scenes. Bisma, for example, sells her comic books at Ridley Road Market, and Momtaz stomps her way through it.
“It’s such a melting pot of London, different cultures selling different things,” Manzoor said. “We could walk a whole group of Muslim punks down and nobody looked twice.”
Queen Mary University was another valuable location: “We shot the university that Amina goes to at Queen Mary, which is very diverse and has a significant Muslim population. The location felt like it was a character in the show.”
Saira works at a butcher shop called Farrokh’s, which was Freddy Mercury’s real first name. “He was an immigrant from Parsi Indian parents and a gay man, changed his name and became this British rock star, and now all his music is sort of iconic British music,” Manzoor said. “The depth and complexity of his identity spoke to what I was trying to look at in the show: having so many different aspects of who you are, and never being reduced to one thing.”
Beyond a climactic cover of “We Are the Champions,” Mercury’s band looms over the entire series in a subtle way. “Queen’s music is so precise,” Manzoor said. “It’s to the point and very specific, and I also try to be precise in my editing and in the shots, and to be quite stylized. Sometimes I just listen to Queen for that sense of precision.”