Actor, writer, and musician Arsalan Shirazi is on a mission to tell varied stories. His film “On Again Off Again” is about about complicated relationships, his new show “Gen Why” is based on his life experiences, and his original songs, like “Millennial Women (Get Loose)” was featured on exclusive Sony and Universal releases.
As a Pakistani-Canadian lawyer-turned-artist, Shirazi knows he has the insight to tell unique stories. He wants to enable other artists to do so, as well. This inspired him to start Entitld Artists, a digital media and entertainment company that produces and distributes film, television, and music content.
We spoke with Shirazi about the success of his triumphant film, which has 4M+ minute views on Amazon Prime Video, how he blends his cultural roots seamlessly into his work, and what he hopes to achieve with Entitld Artists.
The Teal Mango: Congratulations on the success of your film “On Again Off Again.” I know it’s about this on-again, off-again couple, of course, but what can you tell us about the film? Specifically, tell us about your characters and why you think audiences relate to them.
Arsalan Shirazi: I don’t think on-again off-again relationships are exclusive to millennials, but they seem to be super prevalent with our generation — and it makes a lot of sense why. We’re dealing with a lot of competing forces, an unstable economy, the proliferation of online dating, changing cultural views on marriage, people taking longer to do things like buy a house and start a family — if at all.
You get pulled in a lot of different directions and I think those competing forces can lead to these really intense and confusing relationships where instead of having clear beginnings and ends, we keep coming in and out of each others lives because we aren’t sure exactly what we want.
A lot of people who resonated with the movie, I think they understand those really complex feelings and situations where you can’t seem to stay with someone, but you can’t let go of them either – and if you have gone through it, you connect with the movie immediately.
TTM: I’m curious as to why you think it’s important to incorporate your South Asian cultural roots in a film that’s not necessarily about that.
Shirazi: My super talented co-director and co-writer Biko Franklin and I talked a lot about this issue while writing and filming. We are both first generation kids raised in Toronto. I’m Pakistani and Biko’s family is from the Caribbean.
We really felt there was a lack of authentic, three dimensional first generation characters on screen. People like us whose cultural heritage is a factor in their dating lives, but by no means is the only factor. When you are the product of different worlds, there is a lot of nuance to who you are as a person, and ultimately as a real fan of off-beat relationship movies such as “Like Crazy” and “500 Days of Summer.” I wanted to make that type of movie with strong south asian characters on screen because we are out here, we exist, and our lives make for incredible storytelling because of all of the layers of who we are.
TTM: The film premiered at the Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival in 2016 and was distributed on Amazon Prime Video in late 2017. How has the journey been for the film since then?
Shirazi: We had the first sold out screening in the history of the festival (two of them actually), which was such a great feeling because we were a bit different from the types of “South Asian” films the festival usually showcased. The organizers gave us an incredible opportunity and I think we made the most of it.
But like most indie filmmakers there was a “what’s next?” moment. How do we get this to a larger audience. Amazon was incredible for that. They launched some really cool programs for indie creators and having the film on the Prime Video subscription service has been a game changer. To have thousands and thousands of people all over the world watch the movie, over four million minutes of viewing — it really validated for me that there is an audience out there hungry for authentic and reflective storytelling.
I’ve had people from all over the globe reach out to me about the movie and what is the most satisfying is that the two things I set out to do, namely, tell a complex modern relationship story and create characters that authentically represented the first generation experience — seem to be the two things that fans of the film resonated with the most.
TTM: You’re working on your next series, which is titled “Gen Why?” It’s based on your own experiences as you transitioned from being a lawyer to an actor. What motivated you to create a show about this subject?
Shirazi: Whenever I tell people that I am an artist and a lawyer, it’s almost like they don’t know how to process it. The pieces don’t add up for them, but for me that journey seems really normal because it is the product of all of these different forces in my life like my culture, my city (Toronto), my family, my education, and my circumstances.
I really wanted to share some insights into that transition because I think ultimately my journey, and the show itself, is about having the courage to say, hey I know that I’m really fortunate to have this opportunity and career, and I know I can stay on this path and not rock the boat too much and I’ll be good. But I have this itch, this feeling that maybe I can do more. That maybe by taking some risks, and being brave enough to be vulnerable, and fighting for a life that is more authentic to who I am, that I can ultimately live a more fulfilling, creative life that brings together all of these worlds I am from and carve out a new path not only for myself, but for people who might in the same position and are considering doing the same thing.
I’m shopping the pilot around to media funds, production partners, and investors and I’ve had a lot of interest so it will be exciting to see where the series goes as I continue to develop it.
TTM: As a Pakistani Canadian, what was it like for you to pursue your passions? Did you always know that being a lawyer won’t be as creatively satisfying as the work you do as an actor and musician?
Shirazi: The honest reality about trying to be an artist in this new economic model is that it’s never been easier to create and reach an audience, but never been harder to get compensated for your work. The honest reality is that most actors have “Joe Jobs” — that is jobs they do like bartending or being a barista — which support you while you try and pursue your career.
I think those challenges are compounded for a lot of South Asian and other first generation artists because in addition to the financial challenges there are the cultural expectations of the types of careers you are supposed to pursue, we all know right, with the doctor, lawyer, engineer. So my thought was okay knowing the economic realities of pursuing a career in the arts as well as knowing the unique challenges that come with being a Pakistani Canadian — could I shift the paradigm and do things differently? Could I find a job that might give me a more solid foundation to build the type of artistic career I really wanted and stay in it for the long haul?
Ultimately, that led me to running my own law practice and while juggling that and being an artist has its challenges, I don’t see my legal career as a burden or unsatisfying. I see it as a platform that helps me be an artist on my own terms. I couldn’t have funded my own feature film if I was working at a coffee shop. The entertainment industry is changing so much. DIY is more and more the name of the game, so maybe as artists we need to be open to other options and avenues to achieve our goals. That’s what I love about the arts, there is no such thing as the path, there is only your path, you need to find a sustainable creative strategy that works for you.
TTM: You founded Entitld Artists, which produces and distributes film, TV, and music content. This is a pretty huge undertaking. What inspired you to do this and what do you aim to achieve?
Shirazi: I’m a big believer that if the stories you want to see aren’t being told, if you feel that you aren’t being represented, if you feel like people such as yourself don’t have a platform in a certain arena then you need to find a way to tell those stories in whatever way you can. I really tried to do that with “On Again Off Again,” I do that in my hip-hop music as ENTITLD with songs like “Starbucks Dreams” and “Millennial Woman (Get Loose),” and I’m doing that in the new series and projects I’m working on.
One of the reasons I’ve always been such a big Jay-Z fan is because if you read his book “Decoded” and listen to his interviews, he talks a lot about how he was thinking about his art as a business right from the jump, and how building something of his own gave him a lot of leverage to make deals that ultimately made him the success he is today — and all these years later you see that he’s still doing it with moves like TIDAL. Always thinking as both an artist and an entrepreneur. That’s really what I want Entitld Artists to be all about. An independent, self sustaining, movement for diverse millennial artists to come together and create amazing stories in all cultural arenas. And I just continue to work toward it one project at a time. Big visions start with small steps, always.
TTM: What are some of your future projects you’re excited about?
Shirazi: After the incredible response to my track “Millennial Woman (Get Loose),” it got 30K+ streams in under a month and was featured on an album with tracks by Snoop Dogg and Raekwon, I’m really excited about working towards dropping my first album “Millennial: Act One” in 2019.
The pilot and series bible for “Gen Why” has really been coming along well, and I have a short form digital comedy series coming out soon called ENTITLD. That series which is all about millennial life and adulting. It’s my first foray into short form video content, and I’m excited about it because I think the episodes are really relatable and easy to digest.
At the end of it all, what excites me the most is just getting up as an artist and entrepreneur every day, and trying to find new ways to create, tell stories, and reach an audience. After a lot of years of learning the craft, of putting projects together, it feels like there is an energy to the work that I’m not really in control of, so I’m just showing up, doing the work, and seeing where it all goes!