Plan your screen time with the weekly What’s Watch newsletter. Sign up Today.
On a hot summer evening, Bilal Baig scans the cozy outdoor patio of Sweetie Pie, a bakery near a Toronto city park, and chooses a seat tucked away in a corner. Shielded by a wooden fence edge and a canopy hanging over a tree, it provides a shelter—one of a kind.
“It’s a good place to escape the attention,” Begg says, settling at the table and tucking into a mini banana cream pie. For someone who identifies as trans, being the object of attention can be distressing, he explains. Wants to go unnoticed. “I realize how ironic it is now that I’ll be on national TV.”
Completely. The word, delivered with a straight face but an inner eye-roll, is one of many catchy phrases that viewers will get a kick out of when playing Baig’s protagonist Sabi Mehboob. like, a new CBC series airing this fall, co-produced by Baig and veteran actor/writer Fab Filippo (save mehandjob being erica)
The show centers around Sabi, a gender-fluid millennial who works as a nanny for the city’s hipster family and bartender at an LGBTQ bookstore/bar, all the while on her relationship with her Pakistani family. have a conversation. The role is being celebrated as the first non-binary lead character on Canadian television, while Baig is billed as the first queer South Asian Muslim actor to anchor a Canadian primetime TV series. and that’s not all. like Sets an example of a truly diverse group of talent both in front of and behind the camera, giving all the creatives on the show a place to express themselves.
“There is a lot of responsibility and a really exciting celebration around the possibility that this is happening right now. I felt a responsibility to honor this character as truthfully as possible. …we’re never going to see everyone torment about their gender identity, their sexuality, their brownness. They will be present with all those things at once,” says Baig.
“The thing they’re going to agonize over is: Are the kids okay? Can I mend or save my relationship with my mom? Will I ever be loved again? You know, things that we also feel as a trans and non-binary people.”
like Baig, 26, came after a well-known actor in Toronto’s theater scene, said to be an emerging talent to watch in recent years, starred in Tarragon Theatre’s 2018 production of the play Theory, with Filippo. partly because Theory, written by Vancouver playwright Norman Yeung, is about testing the limits of free speech, Baig and Filippo had to talk about.
“Both of us were not the leads in the drama and backstage during the show or rehearsals. We both had our laptops open and we talked a lot about writing,” Filippo says in a phone interview. He was immediately struck by Beg’s sense of self. “They’re beautiful when it comes to schooling the people around them on how to see them, you know?”
Those backstage conversations turned into coffee shop conversations, splattering on ideas.
“Then I woke up one morning and realized I wanted to build something around Bilal. And I think I also said, ‘And we’ll call the character Bilal!’ And Bilal was like, “No,” Filippo continues with a laugh.
However, Baig was impressed by Filippo’s proposal. A TV show can reach a wider audience than a theater, for one thing.
“With the snap of your fingers, you are immediately in people’s homes. They don’t have to come from Mississauga to Toronto and run out to find parking, and insist to see the drama happening in a shed,” Baig says dryly. But there was also hesitation about an industry that might be cruel to trans artists, or “doesn’t respect a specific identity and vision of their kind.”
So, Baig told Filippo, if they’re going to work on something together, they need to know what Filippo is bringing to the project.
“I didn’t want to put all my weaknesses into something and let someone else hide behind my weaknesses,” Baig recalls. “I really wanted to know where Fab’s hurt in storytelling.”
Filippo took the time to think about it and came back with a personal experience – the end of his 15-year marriage.
“He made a beautiful point about what would happen if we looked at every central character in our story like they were navigating some sort of transition – that the word ‘transition’ was going to apply to every single human being on our show. It is,” says Baig.
The two gave their idea to Sienna Films, an independent production company in Toronto. The demo they created had CBC interested (the series will also air on HBO Max in the United States this fall), and by 2020, like was in production. Then the pandemic struck.
Apart from maintaining strict COVID-19 protocols, Baig wanted the sets to be a safe space for all. An open casting call for trans and non-binary people resulted in a flood of applications. Baig brought her experience as a community arts activist to her new role of co-showrunner and co-executive producer. Pizza, donuts or “whatever the genius wanted” was always in supply in the background holding room.
“The most delicious thing is that there are trans and non-binary people who play trans and non-binary characters. There are also trans and non-binary actors that you would consider cis because they never talk about their gender. They just appear and exist in the world, and then cease to do other things, you know,” Baig says. “I remember an assistant director saying, ‘I’ve never in my career seen a holding room that looked like a nightclub.'”
As for Sabi’s Pakistani background, South Asians will immediately recognize some inside jokes – like the stack of yogurt containers that Sabi’s mother (played by Ellora Patnaik) gives one night. Baig laughs at the observation and explains that even that character has his own transition, offering a practical portrayal that is not often given to immigrant women on TV.
“What happens to a woman of her age, in her 50s, who has stopped working and has some time on her hands? She simply feels very detached from her husband and then begins to see her child emerge into a true version of herself,” says Baig. “What does this mean for him? What is his journey?”
Family plays a big part in Baig’s real life as well – and the show could be a catalyst on that level as well, as Baig has so far managed to avoid coming out in front of her parents.
“There’s no way I’d go on a national TV show and tell them, ‘Oh yeah. Some producer forced me to be trans.’ So, yeah — it’s going to unlock some new conversations,” Baig says.
“I’m so into therapy, you don’t know… I’m preparing this letter which will be translated into Urdu, so that my mom can read and digest it easily. And that’s going to tell everything.”
like Available to stream on CBC GEM from October 5th and on CBC-TV from November 9th.