Bilal Baig On Their Whirlwind 2022 And Compassion
I don’t want to get my hopes up, but it feels like we’re actually making some progress in the arena of Asian diasporic media. Our communities got a foot in the door telling stories about the challenges our families experienced emigrating from Asia, the psychological marks handed down from one generation to the next, and, of course, the pressure on the younger generation to live up to parental expectations. And while those stories serve a purpose and need to be told, I’m excited for the next step: funny, loving, heartbreaking, terrifying and/or thrilling movies and shows where characters just happen to be Asian.
At the centre of this is a group of actors and filmmakers creating exciting projects that have demanded the attention of everyone. Names like John Cho, Riz Ahmed, Ali Wong, Steven Yeun, and Justin Lin come to mind, but there’s one name in Canada that has echoed the loudest: the one and only Bilal Baig.
Sort Of, which Baig is co-creator, writer, and star, is the kind of show that never would have existed when Baig was growing up in Mississauga, Ontario, but one they would have greatly welcomed. The series follows Baig’s Sabi Mehboob, a non-binary millennial and child to Pakistani immigrant parents, exploring what it means to reconcile who you are with your upbringing.
Somewhat unique to the television (and film) landscape we see today in Canada and abroad, we meet Sabi after they’ve decided to live as their authentic self. The transition of Sabi isn’t the focus of the show, instead we simply see Sabi living their life like every other messed up 20-something just trying to get by in Toronto.
“We always knew that we wanted to do something where this character could just exist in the world, and that, actually, their gender and their skin colour isn't necessarily the most fascinating thing about them,” Baig tells The Asian Cut in between photo calls and interviews at the Whistler Film Festival where they have been named to Variety’s Top 10 Canadians To Watch. “[Rather it’s] them juggling the jobs that they have and the relationships they have.”
Similar to their character, Baig intersects a lot of different communities: when Sort Of premiered in 2021, they were the first queer, South Asian, Muslim actor to lead a Canadian primetime television series. While for many, this may have felt like a hefty responsibility, maybe even a burden, to represent so many groups, Baig has taken this in a stride that I envy.
“There's 5 to 10% of me that gets anxious about that. But there's a really big chunk of me that is really grounded in knowing that I'm just following my heart,” Baig says with a serene composure. “I'm making choices that feel right and good for me and we're being as thoughtful and compassionate as we can be on our show.”
It is so much about what feels honest and true to these characters — if it's funny, great, if it's heart achy, that's fine, too. We’re really following our hearts in the process and it's such a privilege to be able to work in that way.
They continue, “I think there's a way to do this work and not be completely crushed by that responsibility. It just means asking for what you need and working with a really good team. It's so not a one person effort [on] this show. Nothing really is, especially in our industry. So I'm really grateful that there are people who listen and who care a lot. I'm not too overwhelmed by it, because I think we're doing things intelligently and compassionately.”
It’s this care and attention to Sort Of that has earned the show the highest of critical praise and numerous accolades. Just last week, Sort Of came away with seven Canadian Screen Awards (CSA), including one for Baig for their performance as Sabi in the award show’s first ever genderless acting category.
The newly formed categories for lead and supporting performances was, in large part, influenced by Baig themselves. Last year, Sort Of led all television shows with a whopping 13 CSA nominations, with Baig notably not receiving one for their performance. The reason for this perceived snub was Baig’s own doing: they opted not to submit themselves for awards consideration citing the binary acting categories.
There are many who would take to social media to loudly proclaim their refusal to participate in the CSAs, garnering as much public outrage as possible. And while there certainly is a place for this type of discourse, that’s entirely not in Baig’s style. It wasn’t necessary anyways — their absence in either acting category last year spoke louder than any social campaign could.
There’s an almost disarming quality to Baig. They belie the flashy image we typically have of creators, and certainly of actors. That Baig quietly went about their business and simply didn’t participate in something that didn’t include them (to their detriment, mind you) isn’t surprising after meeting them. There’s a calm that they emanate that says, ‘do the work properly and let it speak for itself.’
“There’s something Canadian about just doing the work,” Baig observes. “Sort Of holds this, too — it feels like we're just doing the work, and we're putting it out there. The work that really resonates with me [is] the stuff that’s quiet and still powerful.”
Since coming onto the scene with Sabi and company, Baig has been awarded by not just the Canadian Academy and Variety, but they also received a Peabody Award and were listed as one of TIME Magazine’s next generation leaders last year alone. “ has been a complete whirlwind — I'm a slow processor, too,” Baig says with a smile. “[It’s] a total honour, stunning, [but] I'll need more time to actually look at what this year has meant for me, because it's been very fast paced for me.”
For their part, Baig appreciates the position they hold in the Canadian film and television industry. The existence of shows like Sort Of (and Kim’s Convenience and Run the Burbs) is an encouraging sign that our country’s media is starting to see the value in telling stories from across all stripes.
“I think the direction we're headed is great and exciting. It's so much about our industry reflecting the actual world that we live in, and for so long, it hasn't,” asserts Baig. “I feel like if all goes well, we'll have more queer and trans folks, racialized folks in leadership positions, particularly producing, calling the shots, show running.”
“I always feel like things, particularly on the representation front, can move a bit faster, because we know stories led by and created by diverse people work,” they continue. “There's a market and I don't think we necessarily have to prove that over and over again.”