With limited Asian representation on or behind the screen, finding a way into the film industry wasn’t easy for Abid Khan. But his passion for cinema drove him to achieve his goals.
From working in a cinema as a teen, to becoming the creator of a feature film customers now pay to see on the big screen, Abid Khan has come a long way. The director, who is the son of immigrants from Pakistan, has just released his first movie, Granada Nights – a wistful tale about a young British Asian student who comes of age during a summer in Granada, Spain. Recovering from a breakup with his girlfriend, he finds a sense of community among a group of fellow foreigners studying Spanish in the Andalusian city. It was released in May across selected UK cinemas and it will be available digitally from early autumn.
Selected for “Breakthrough” by Film London, Granada Nights won best feature award at last year’s Barnes film festival. The chair of the judges, Daniel Battsek, director of FILM4, said their remit was to find a new film-maker “who could step into the shoes of Danny Boyle, Lenny Abrahamson & Steve McQueen”.
Getting such industry recognition was “a great affirmation”, says Khan. “It says I’m here now, and makes the struggles worthwhile. It’s a great launchpad.”
He wrote and produced the movie, which is inspired by his own life-changing visit to Granada in his 20s. “I never felt like I belonged anywhere,” he says. “It was only when I was in Granada, living with other international students, that I felt a sense of belonging because of our shared experiences of being young foreigners in a new city. It didn’t matter where we came from, we were all in the same boat together. I want more people to have that experience.”
“Don’t wait for permission. Have that obsessive self-motivation.”
The film is the realisation of a dream he’d nurtured since adolescence, when he worked in his hometown cinema. “I lied about my age to get that job,” he confesses. “It was my film school. I was there for three or four years … I’d sit in the cinema and watch films numerous times. I started seeing the structure of films, appreciating the mise en scène and really dissecting characters. I learned about cinema, and it caught me.”
But the journey to becoming an auteur hasn’t been easy. While his three siblings went off to do well in stable mainstream careers, Khan always wanted to be creative. But “I didn’t see a viable career path, because it just wasn’t there. There was no [Asian] representation on-screen or behind the screen.”
Having written his lead without an ethnicity in mind, Khan cast Antonio Aakeel, whose role in The Hungry “had this vulnerability and energy that I really liked”. But casting an Asian actor led to suggestions that “the script should be rewritten to reflect that … producers would say it should start off with him working in a restaurant in Brick Lane, or he’s a cab driver. I got very allergic to this thinking. His identity wasn’t defined by his race or nationality but by his failed relationship and his desire to find his own identity.”
Having finished the movie a year before Covid-19, lockdown meant its initial planned release was delayed – so Khan took the film on a private digital tour of UK universities. The screenings were used to encourage students to study abroad and to kickstart conversations about xenophobia and multiculturalism. “One student from China told me that she never felt like she belonged anywhere, but watching the film and seeing others like her made her feel less alone in the world,” Khan recalls.
Khan had to raise the funds required to produce Granada Nights himself, including from crowdfunding. “It was a very slow process,” he says. “I got support from the local community [in Granada], then from people who’d studied abroad, had lived in Spain or had some kind of connection to the experience.” He also participated in medical trials to raise funds. For Khan, it was “to prove to myself how far I was willing to go. Am I really serious about making this film?”
He has never let barriers stop him. When entering the industry, “getting the opportunity to pitch, to be in the room” proved challenging – he “started gatecrashing events and parties. I would network, come out of my shell and work the room. Then it was uplifting. People talk to you, they help you. I just had to get over that hurdle of getting in.
“The people who helped me most were my peers, who understood my struggle and shared stories of their own processes and experiences of making films. Jack Tarling and Manon Ardisson are two producers who are always great to meet at festivals and give a lot of advice. James Cotton and Stephen Follows ran a scheme for microbudget film-makers, which was a lot of help, and both have a wealth of knowledge.”
His advice to any other outsiders wanting to break into the movie business is: “Don’t wait for permission. Have that obsessive self-motivation. That’s something no film school or anyone else is going to teach you. And have the patience to know it’s not an overnight success.”
But more importantly, they should “know why they want to make this film. The personal reasons, what you want to say and who you’re making it for. These are the things you’re going to be constantly questioned about by producers, investors, press, programmers, even actors. When you know the importance of your story to others you can use that as fuel to push through the difficult times and give you the drive to fight for your story. Once you’ve got that, it’s not a matter of if, but when, you’ll make your film.”
Driven by deep and powerful experiences, Khan’s passion has helped him to break through many walls since, and now he hopes to inspire others to do the same.
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