Manifesting Malala

Manifesting Malala

June 19, 2024


The return of We Are Lady Parts for a second season about the titular Muslim punk band brought with it a standout cameo from Malala Yousafzai. Series creator Nida Manzoor explains how a song title led to the activist arriving on set for a western-themed music sequence.

When Bisma, the bassist in all-female Muslim punk band Lady Parts, shares the news that her rebellious daughter has been suspended from school for protesting, she reveals the excuse she was given: ‘Malala made me do it.’

From there, a new song – Malala Made Me Do It – is born, a tribute to the Pakistani education activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, who even appears sitting atop a horse and wearing a cowboy hat as the band perform the western-inspired tune in Channel 4 and Peacock’s We Are Lady Parts. The show, which is produced by Working Title Television, returned to screens at the end of May.

Here, series creator, writer and director Nida Manzoor tells DQ about the evolution of the standout scene in season two’s second episode, how she convinced Yousafzai to appear in the sequence and how it was filmed.

Where do we meet Lady Parts at the start of season two?
At the end of season one, they were just trying to get one gig, and you see that gig at the end of season one. Then we enter season two and they’ve got more of a following. They’ve got actual human fans, as Amina [Anjana Vasan] puts it, and of not an insignificant proportion. We’ve just pushed them forward in their success and given them a bit more of an audience and more of a following, which was really fun to do, because then it just allowed us to create a rival band and allowed Amina to have grown to a point where she’s in her villain era, setting boundaries. We wanted to push them on a little bit further, but not too far along, just so we could get to some fun story stuff.

What was the main challenge when creating the second season?
I knew I wanted to go deep into the other characters, not just Saira [Sarah Kameela Impey] and Amina. So it was the challenge of doing that in six half-hours and really serving the other characters. That’s where we had to really work the story and be economical and make it work for the timeslot we had. That was the biggest challenge, really giving each character a real moment, a moment of depth and complexity within the the limitations of the time we had.

Nida Manzoor

Malala Yousafzai’s cameo in episode two is a standout moment in the second season. How did it come about?
One of the first ideas I had for season two was a song called Malala Made Me Do It. That’s all I knew. I didn’t know how it would come up. I just had the title of the song in my head, and I knew very quickly that I wanted it to be a western-inspired track in the style of those very macho American stories about these the Lone Ranger types who are riding in. And I wanted to do that, but I wanted it to be a hype track for Malala. I thought that idea was really funny.

That was where it was born, and then it seemed to weave in quite nicely with Bisma’s storyline, where her daughter’s pushing her and saying, ‘Well, I’m doing this because Malala made me do it’ and accusing her mum of being a people pleaser. But when I started writing it, I had no intention of actually reaching out to the actual Malala. I thought, ‘I’m going to write the song. It’s going to be about Malala. She’s obviously not going to be in it.’ It took me a while to get to the stage where I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll reach out to her.’

Malala does appear in the scene, sitting on a horse, as the band play Malala Made Me Do It. How did you secure the cameo?
I remember being really nervous about it because I’m like, ‘This is the one shot we’ve got. And if Malala says no, then I’ll have to live with Malala saying no for the rest of my life.’ I’d gone to a talk of hers, and she was talking about her love of comedy. I realised, ‘OK, she’s funny. She’s really witty. She’s got brilliant sense of humour. Maybe there’s a world in which she would be interested in being in the show.’

I came up with this idea of, if I was going to have her in the show, she’d obviously have to be the hero. It’d be a set piece and it’d be western. It’ll have a studio backdrop feel. So I wrote her a letter and just said, obviously I love her and everything. She’s done all this important, amazing work. But just asking her if she’d be in the show and just explaining to her everything that she’d have to do – sit on a horse, maybe wear a cowboy hat, maybe wear some cool costumes. She was just so up for it.

I remember being so nervous to send it in, and Anjana was like, ‘She’s going to do it. She’s going to do it.’ She’d just posted a really funny post about her and her husband at the Barbie premiere, and I was like, ‘OK, maybe she’ll say yes.’ It turns out she was a big fan of the show and was immediately like, ‘Yeah, what do I have to do?’

We called it ‘Malala Day’ on set because the whole production was there because Malala was on set. It was such a huge moment for everyone. She was so gracious and just normal, because you forget she’s just a young woman in her 20s. She loves comedy. She’s got this great sense of humour, as well as being this really amazing activist who does this important work that has real impact. She’s also just a really nice person.

Manzoor says Malala Yousafzai has a great sense of humour

How did the set run on the day of filming the Malala Made Me Do It sequence?
It’s just stressful. It’s TV, it’s a television schedule. It wasn’t the only thing we shot that day. I had other scenes to shoot with Momtaz [the band’s manager, played by Lucie Shorthouse] in the morning, which was actually alright because Malala went through hair and make-up and costume. My amazing costume designer, PC Williams, had put out different options for her, and when Malala decided she liked a certain outfit, they tailored it to her. It was really bespoke and they added all those embellishments with the tassels and the different sequins. Then it was seeing which scarf she liked and what hat. It was really just about making sure she felt comfortable and confident in the costume, while feeling western and cool and badass. So much credit to PC Williams, who along with her team made this brilliant costume.

Meanwhile, the set was coming up. It was pretty much there [already], but we had cactuses going up. Sand was being poured in to give it the sand effect. We had the wind machine, and it’s like, how much wind is too much wind? You can’t be just blasting wind at Malala. But she was incredible. It was just a ‘pinch me’ moment. Every department really upped their game. We had such beautiful lighting that day, and PC Williams had dressed each of the band members in bespoke western-style costumes for this one very quick scene.

I often have to beg to have a crane on set so I can do big crane moves, and I was like, ‘OK, there are two places I need a crane: the Malala Day and the end of the show when Amina sings to Ahsan [Zaqi Ismail]. We’ve got Malala; we need to get a crane.’ So we had this nice big crane going, and then the girls came and they just put Malala at ease, Malala put them at ease, and they improv’d this amazing dance. Anj and Sarah and all the girls just started to dance and we were like, ‘Let’s keep shooting. This is brilliant.’ They were really loose and free.

Then I had a very last-minute idea, the day before we shot. I was like, ‘What if we got hobby horses?’ So there’s one shot of them all on hobby horses, just riding beside Malala. Bless my art department, they scrambled together a load of hobby horses so each of the girls had their own hobby horse. [The scene] was planned and we storyboarded it, so we knew what we were doing. But there was so much silliness and improv fun on set as well.

The We Are Lady Parts stars have discussed the idea of touring as the band

Was writing a western song very different from Lady Parts’ usual punk-inspired material? 
No, actually, it wasn’t. I remember going to my brother [Shez Manzoor] and sister [Sanya Manzoor] when we came together for our songwriting sessions and being like, ‘Malala Made Me Do It, and western,’ and I had the song The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance [in my mind], which is such a banger. It’s so catchy. But it’s also a story of this hero, the man who shot Liberty Valance. It’s a really heroic song. I basically played that to my siblings and they were like, ‘OK, cool,’ and immediately we were riffing on a western. A lot of credit goes to their ability to work across different music genres. And, growing up, we loved westerns and American folk music in my household, so it didn’t actually feel too wildly outside the kind of stuff we might make.

Villain Era is very classic Lady Parts punk, and then we wanted to go a bit grungier with Glass Ceiling Feeling. Then I just was just like, ‘Let’s just do a western and have them all singing in American accents,’ because why not? It felt really silly and fun. I had no idea that Beyoncé was going to do a whole western thing [with her recently released album Cowboy Carter]. That was just the universe bringing Malala and Beyoncé together in this beautiful moment.

How do you look back on making season two, evolving the sound and building story up from season one?
I’m really just impressed by the entire team. There was a real collaboration that went even deeper in season two across departments. Everybody felt a little emboldened after season one. The actors were in such possession of their characters that they could go further. We were having deeper chats. And similarly with all my creative team, I trusted them even more. I was excited to put these big ideas out and see how everyone would riff. You could question and go further in a way that I don’t think I had been able to in season one, and having made a film [2023’s Polite Society], you want to scale up.

We made season one in lockdown and we had to build a lot. We couldn’t go into real locations, so I wanted to go out on location. I wanted big set pieces, because now we could get crowd in and I felt like we could scale the show up in a way that would still keep its DIY punk aesthetic, but that could also feel like levelling up.

Season two has a satisfying conclusion, but could there be more?
I’m staying open to it. I loved coming back to it in season two; I love working in that world. But equally, I have other ideas I’m also excited by. I did the thing to wrap it up. If it was going to end, it could end and it doesn’t feel like I’ve teed it up and it hasn’t continued. I’m just staying open and seeing what the universe has in store.

Could Lady Parts ever go on tour?
Sarah, who plays Saira, is just desperate for a tour to happen. She wants it. But they’re all extremely successful actors. This is the problem – getting their schedules to align to do a tour is difficult. But they’re all so talented that I would love that. It’s just whether their schedules could accommodate it.

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