There is a moment in BBC Three drama Murdered by my Father where London teen Salma, played by Kiran Sonia Sawar, flees from her father’s imprisonment and jumps over the nearest balcony in her block of flats. While this happens, the camera pans to an Asian neighbour opposite who sees Salma escaping and in response, speedily closes the curtains. It’s a moment that is small, but extremely significant.
“Any close-knit communities will shut themselves out from directly addressing problems, but instead gossip about them, and I think that’s the problem”, says Sawar. “They’re more than happy to have a conversation with someone else about it, but they’re never going to hit it head-on. And I think that’s what that scene really effectively represents, it’s that problem of ignorance.”
Murdered by my Father focuses on honour killings and the plight of Salma, who becomes victim to her father’s rage after falling in love with cheeky charmer Imi (Mawaan Rizwan). As the title suggests, it ends with disastrous consequences.
Rather than feeling angry or upset about the family dynamic however, Sawar empathised with Salma’s father Shahzad (Adeel Akhtar): “I think it’s a gorgeous relationship, I think Salma really, really loves her dad and brother, and obviously Salma doesn’t see her dad’s demise, she doesn’t see that side of it until it’s too late, but her relationship with her dad is completely one of love.”
Having grown up in a Pakistani family herself, Sawar’s desire for discussions surrounding honour-based violence to be more prominent is palpable. While she has received incredible support from her liberal Asian parents – they have always encouraged her to pursue a career as an actress – Sawar feels a deep connection with Salma “in terms of love, intelligence, a passion for wanting to live your own life and make your own choices and deal with those consequences”. She adds: “That’s how you learn, that’s how you grow.”
But in trying to understand the mind-set of girls and women like Salma, portrayals of honour-based violence can often be inaccurate, dismissing the individual’s internal struggle to make life-defining decisions. “The media can describe it from a westernised point of view,” she says. Sawar understands the misconceptions attached to this issue and when discussing victim-blaming, her objection towards such attitudes is clear.
“It doesn’t make any sense in my mind. How can anyone dare to blame the victim in any situation where somebody is being attacked? Salma goes back [to her family] out of love, out of duty, out of care, out of passion, out of honesty, out of who she is as a person. For someone to want to walk away from their whole lives, from everything that they’ve built, and all their relationships and their parents, it’s a massive, massive, massive deal,” she says.
Sawar’s appearance in Murdered by my Father also comes at a crucial time for BBC Three. The broadcaster is redefining itself as a front runner in producing compelling documentaries and drama, while offering a platform for young emerging talent. And Sawar is no stranger to working with the BBC, having appeared in an episode of BBC One’s Holby City. More recently, she has also starred in the US TV series Legends, which aired on American TV channel TNT.
“My first TV job was only last year in June, which was ‘Legends’, and all three of my TV jobs have been based completely on the fact that I’m Asian. But I think that I’m not somebody who shies away from my culture and who I am, and should the story need to be told, I’m more than happy to comply and tell the story from an Asian perspective. That’s not an issue, but it would be lovely if there were more opportunities to play characters that are a bit different, a bit more daring, definitely.”
She is currently rehearsing for her next role in the world premiere of Brideshead Revisited. Sawar will play youngest daughter of the aristocratic Brideshead family in the adaption of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, set in 1943.
“I find that theatre is much more open to colour-blind casting and to casting based on what somebody can bring to a role rather than their appearance,” says Sawar.
For Sawar, Murdered by my Father is not just about using ground-breaking TV to educate girls. She wants to use this medium to change the mind-set of her male audience too.
“I’ve had lots of lovely messages from young Asian men. They’re going to grow up to be the next dads and uncles and grandads, and they’re just as important in this storyline,” explains Sawar. “If this is being taught to men from a younger age, about their treatment of women and their respect for women and how women are entitled to their own choice of freedom, then I feel like that’s my job being done.
“This is a human issue, it needs to be dealt with,” continues Sawar. “I don’t want honour killings to be another thing that people see and think: ‘oh, that’s not our problem, that’s this problem or that’s somebody else’s problem’, because it doesn’t just happen in Asian communities.”