Stage & Screen

Tasbir Malle: ‘Just sharing stories, our stories, based on true life is important’

Screenwriter Tasbir Malle knows that being a writer in the entertainment industry is no easy thing: yet between developing new stories, discovering a positive balance between her work and her health, and advocating for spinal cord injury patients, she has never lost her incredible drive to find both hope and truth in her work.
Tasbir Malle. All photos by Linda Wei.
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Tasbir Malle: ‘Just sharing stories, our stories, based on true life is important’

Tasbir Malle is the kind of writer that you’d call a ‘writer’s writer’. She might not be a Hollywood name (yet) but if you move in British screenwriter's circles, the chances are that if you don’t know her yet, you know someone who does. When I met her in her home in the UK one chilly autumn day, I asked Taz what she’d call herself. The title ‘writer’ is one that she’s come to settle into with quiet confidence over the past few years; but in this label obsessed world, I wonder what else feels right to her.

She thinks for a moment, then says: “Disabled Indian Screenwriter, film maker, advocate for animals and pressure relief for SCI (spinal cord injury) patients... British Disabled screenwriter, advocate for animals, Disabled and Sikh Indian characters... but not in that order! Any order, what the day brings! It doesn't help that I can be indecisive too! I’d say my IP is not just about Disabled, Indian voice inclusion but in particular [that of] Sikhs, who are also underrepresented: my storytelling uses everyday elements and stems from my multi-cultural, Disabled experience.”

Though she writes for TV and film today, I ask Taz to take me all the way back, to those early days where she was still tentatively flirting with the idea of being a writer. For many in the creative arts there is always a ‘flashpoint’ moment when one realises you might be able to do this for a living, and that you might actually be good at it. For Taz it all started almost by mistake when she was studying moving image in college and none of her classmates would write a script for a collaboration with some drama students.

“I'd written short stories before and I thought, well, I've not written a script, I might as well try it. I guess, for me, just seeing the emotion of writing a story in a different way… I really loved it and I knew that I wanted to do more of that. So I guess for me, that was the beginning. Then after that I wrote more shorts. It wasn't until [later that] I wrote my first feature, which was for someone else. They invited me to rewrite another script that they’d been working with someone else on.”

She tells me about a play she wrote early on in her career called Written by Jessie that her family still talk about today. It’s a story about a Disabled woman aspiring to be a writer and the conflicts she goes through with her family and her neighbour, who was based on one of Taz’s relatives. The main character uses writing as an outlet throughout the play and Taz particularly remembers the audience’s reaction.

“The actress that played this neighbour, she was absolutely brilliant… the way she played her, everyone just remembers her for bringing out the character and for her dancing! Her attempt to sing the song [in the play]was so funny. For me, when the audience was laughing at that, I felt like:“Yes, I agree!” I finally got the [emotional] result that I wanted because I always was a bit hesitant about how my play would go down, you know?”

Despite her early achievements, Taz is honest about the difficulties she has faced as a writer, especially during the pandemic. In some ways, her life hasn’t changed: the life of a writer can be quite isolating, pandemic or no, with hours sat at the table honing your craft or working on your next project. Yet managing her health has had its ups and downs over the years and Taz is open about the effect it has had on her creative output.

“This week I finally completed a complaint form for my health,” she tells me. “It has taught me many things about myself… in particular, how looking after your health comes before your career. This is after spending the past three years indoors due to a pressure wound. I have had to prioritise some things over others, such as projects.

Looking back six or seven years ago, I was working on three projects (at different stages) during the week: one main project, another on the side and an ideas project where I would edit a logline, one pager or beat sheet ready.

Compared to how I work now after my pressure wound, just one project, there are days where I don't get to write as it’s disrupted by my health. It's a full-time job looking after a disability. Before COVID I used to have carers who did the chores for me to alleviate some of the daily tasks on my schedule. But I'm ok with doing [them now] as it's a form of exercise and gets the blood pumping and muscles moving.

I recently bought myself a smartwatch. It really has helped, as I'm currently resting on the bed during the day. I have a 'time to roll' notification that pops up; obviously I can't 'roll' in bed but I move my arms for a minute in a wheelchair pushing motion and I get my goal for an hour, technically it's cheating but the idea is that I'm moving compared to sitting there working and not taking a break.”

Her newest film project Ruppee has had rave reviews from TV executives so far and sees many of her life experiences reflected through the eyes of the main character Ruppee, a young Disabled Sikh woman who lands her first-ever job at a radio station and finds herself locked in battle with an old family friend who goes out of his way to try to sabotage her burgeoning career.

“When she lands this radio job, her voice is being heard, right? And he's jealous. You know, she's talking about topics that he might not be talking about. So he puts a twist on them saying it's disgusting, that certain things shouldn’t be talked about… it's not appropriate, you know, during the daytime and stuff like that. So he encourages - he has a tag team, if you like - he's got the local mums. He encourages them to protest and phone up as well to say you shouldn't be talking about this or that.

Basically, anything she does, he just puts a [negative] twist on it. But Ruppee also finds her own protective family, and she's also learning about herself… so we see a different side to her towards the end. It's really about showing Ruppee's growth, interacting with others, and not being excluded in society. In having her first job, that's a huge thing for her.”

We talk further about the extent to which she feels a responsibility to fly the flag for Disabled Sikh voices in her work, or if it just comes naturally. We talk about a conversation I had with Disability Rights CEO Kamran Mallick, where he mentioned the lack of representation for the Disabled community as a problem in mainstream media and Taz concurs with this. Today, it serves as motivation for her to keep encouraging positive change in her work, and she looks forward to the prospect of hopefully being able to work with not just other Sikh writers, but also Hindu and Muslim writers, one day.

“I've never seen an Indian Disabled character, in TV or film," she says. "For many years, I always wondered why. Now that I'm a screenwriter, I've got the opportunity to take up that baton, because I realised that nobody else is going to write it.

If Disabled people were given the same level of opportunities [as] non-disabled writers instead of being shown or encouraged to enter another initiative or scheme in a way to be seen… it makes me a little dubious about filling in the 'Do you see yourself as Disabled?' forms added to the end of an application. Despite daily health setbacks, working whilst under restrained conditions and finding the stamina to pitch projects, the drive for Disabled people is as equal to non-disabled to not to miss an opportunity.

Aside from writing, I'm also working on a personal project pushing for better acknowledgment in local hospitals on pressure relief for SCI patients, as it is a different level of care for SCI that requires high level of pressure relief compared to that given to disabled patients or non-disabled patients who are not prone to pressure wounds. Living with and dealing with pressure relief… [there are] prolonged periods of nursing and recovery whilst [being] stuck on bed rest, being stuck in a room 24/7 for months on end, with no light at the end of the tunnel. "When will I heal?": there are a million other questions that start to eat away at your integrity. This is not talked about and needs to change as someone like me, a screenwriter dealing with mental health issues at the same time is disruptive physically, emotionally, mentally but also psychologically.”

Given the hardships she has experienced I can’t help but be curious about what the purpose of her craft is to her. For some writers the process is one of self-healing, a means of emotional release; whereas for others the process is a means to connect and interact with people and ideas beyond themselves. For some it is just a job. For Taz, her craft really does seem to be a means to acknowledge and speak the truth of her own experiences, as well as ensuring that she can use her stories to connect with people both like her and also completely unlike her.

Her work is imbued with hope. Even though the pandemic has not been easy on her (nor has it been on most), Taz lights up when she talks about all the new ideas and stories the time has meant she can explore. She speaks of crafting a new story as something she deeply enjoys and gets great meaning from, not just something she does because it’s what she does. She reflects for a moment on how the pandemic changed people and brought out different sides of them, whether through lifestyle habits or personality. For her, this growth in creative expression is that shift, a shift that she feels has been helping her grow both creatively and in the conviction she feels in her own voice.

“I think just sharing stories, our stories based on true life are important. Some execs [said to me]: “We need you to share these stories”. So I think I'm a bit more comfortable writing them now…

You know, it was a difficult path. There were a lot of setbacks and a lot of delays. I think if I was a kid now, looking at someone like me, I'd be like: “Well, she can do that, I can do it.” If that's your dream or your goal, don't let go… and finally, if you're on a path, follow that path. Because the only way you're going to get to achieve that goal is by sticking to your guns. Don't listen to anyone else saying that, “Oh, you should try something else or do something else.”

I think I’d like to be remembered for my voice… and who I represent. I think sharing my voice and listening to other people's voices through my work: it's something I'm starting to embrace and I know there are opportunities out there [that] are looking for it now.”

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