Azam Mahmood didn’t have any writing credits before 2022. But it is a testament to his talent and determination that within the space of one year, he’s worked as a story editor for the reboot of “Queer As Folk,” in the writers room for the latest season of “Ramy,” on a project with Riz Ahmed, and now on the forthcoming season of HBO’s “Industry,” among other projects. While a staff writer on “Ramy,” Mahmood even co-wrote an episode with the eponymous star, Ramy Youssef.
The Pakistani, queer writer grew up in Karachi before moving to London to work in finance and tech. Despite his best efforts to conform to expectations, Mahmood could not quiet a deep-seated desire to work in television and tell stories. He tried his hand at stand-up comedy and, as he figured out his own voice and honed his craft, started cold-emailing some of his industry heroes. To his shock, he actually started getting responses.
Throughout his work, Mahmood has explored the contours and facets of masculinity, specifically male vulnerability, and themes that challenge Western paradigms of queerness. “So many of our individual afflictions would be solved if we just talked about them. Male vulnerability — I mean, this is not just on screen, but in life — male vulnerability is so underexplored,” Mahmood said. “And teaching men, giving them the room to be vulnerable without conflating it with weakness, is so important.”
Mahmood sat down with HuffPost to discuss how his experience as a young, queer, immigrant writer in an industry grappling with authentic representation of minorities has been largely positive, but has not come without its challenges. Ultimately, Mahmood hopes to tell bold, daring, deeply human stories, which defy the stereotypes that saddle some of these identities.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell me a little bit about your journey and how you got started?
I’ve always known that I wanted to be a writer. I think back to things that I did in school that make a lot of sense. I would write out a story on a page and distribute that among a group of friends on the school bus every day. And then the next day, I would distribute another page that was sort of the same characters, but something new would happen, which I realized later was basically a TV show. I invented television when I was 12. So, I always knew that that was something that I enjoyed.
But, of course ― you know, at this point, I get bored of hearing myself say it ― but I didn’t see myself reflected on screen. I didn’t see myself reflected behind the scenes. And I thought, why would I set myself up for failure? And so I went into just bleak territory. I worked in investment banking and then worked in tech and was miserable. They just weren’t the right jobs for me. And then I noticed sort of this change in the industry. You know, shows like “Master of None” came out and “The Big Sick.” This was probably 2014, 2015, ’16. And that was when I really began to think about the kinds of stories that I wanted to tell. And I began constantly writing just in my notes app because I wanted to make that leap. And I started to do a bit of stand-up, just to kind of get a sense of what jokes work. I obviously thoroughly embarrassed myself, but, you know, also kind of learnt quite early what it means to pander in your writing.
One of the first things that I’d written was just very identity-focused but for all the wrong reasons. I was really like, “Oh, you know, Netflix just made this show about an Indian Muslim, I bet they want a show about something similar.” And I just wrote this garbage. It was like five or six pages and it was truly the worst thing that anyone could ever read. I don’t have any of it anymore.
You burned it?
I burned it. Like, truly burned it from my memory. It was just because I was doing it for all the wrong reasons. And then I began to write about one of the jobs that I had, like a comedy. It sort of felt like I was living in a comedic “Black Mirror” world, and I decided to write about that. And that’s when I really learned and understood what I was doing. I just got really obsessive about it. I followed a bunch of TV writers on Twitter, etc.
But the real thing, and this is the very honest story: I think anyone who reads this would hate me for saying this, but I cold-DMed and cold-emailed every writer and showrunner that I respected and whose work I loved. A lot of people are like, “That’s so cool that you did that.” But it speaks to nothing of me because, for me, it was just writing an email. I really think it speaks to the generosity of so many people in the industry who replied. I was shocked. I wish I could name these people. But, obviously, I would be ruining their lives if I named them.
You touched on this a little bit in your answer about how you got started with writing stories as a kid. But what exactly is it about storytelling that gets you most excited?
The honest answer is: I wish I was different, but I just have a lot of things to say. Some of them are hot takes and there are the hot takes where I’m like, “This hot take is going to just solve the world; this hot take is going to solve every problem that everyone has” ― which obviously I don’t actually believe.
I also feel like a therapist would probably be able to answer that question better than I can. There’s a part of me that wonders, you know ― I grew up kind of an outsider, not feeling comfortable in my skin, in my body, for a million reasons. A lot of it obviously has to do with my queerness, but also a lot of it just had to do with how I felt about myself. And I think storytelling is what gave me value. It’s what gave me purpose. And, honestly, I think it helped me kind of make sense of things.
I love that idea — that it helps you make sense of the world. I think that resonates with a lot of people. And you talked about not seeing yourself represented. I think that there’s so much weight and expectation placed on those who represent marginalized communities in an industry that is really grappling with representation and authentic storytelling.
In light of this, how do you want queerness and Islam — or the intersection of two — to be understood by audiences? Or is that even important to you?
I never want to separate these things from my work. I never want to write just a blank character that anyone can fit into. When I move through the world, it’s not like I go to meet a friend and being queer or brown or Pakistani or Muslim comes up in conversation. But it certainly informs so much of what I do, I don’t even know to what extent.
So, when I’m writing, I want it to come out in all the quiet moments for the characters. So the reason that a character would do something would probably come from different facets of their identity. While I don’t believe that you can separate the two, I don’t think I would want identity necessarily to be the story. There is obviously this pressure, which I know a lot of underrepresented creators talk about — the pressure of “you have to represent everybody in your work.” And, for me, I really just want to represent one version of something.
So something singular rather than universal?
Yeah, exactly. I really do think that in telling a more specific story, you make it more general. That’s what I have found in my work. I think about “Fleabag” a lot. There’s people that you talk to who will tell you that “Fleabag” is a story about a woman and her sexual misadventures. But to me, it was never about that. To me, it was about loneliness; it was about grief. It was about something much bigger. I saw myself reflected in “Fleabag,” probably more than I had in most shows that had come out before that, including shows about Muslims, shows about queer people. And that’s sort of what is important to me. I really believe that if you ― and this has been my experience in writing ― if you think about your characters enough, if you love them enough or if you give them enough respect, they will write themselves.
The number of times in the writers rooms that we haven’t been able to make something click, or you’re thinking about something for days, and then something that wasn’t even planned kind of falls into place on day four ― it’s because you let the character live. You’ve given them breathing room to do what they want to do. And so that’s really how I want to approach it. It’s, like, write a character — whether they’re queer or Muslim or queer and Muslim or Brown or Pakistani or an immigrant — who has the room to just be all of those things and none of those things.
How or to what extent do you feel the Western gaze constrains authentic storytelling in the writers rooms you’ve worked in?
I’ve had primarily positive experiences. People have, for the most part, approached things that they don’t know about or are not aware of with curiosity. And that’s all I ask of anybody — is, like, be curious. I also am a big believer in giving people the room to fuck up. I think that’s OK. I think provided that they’re not obnoxious if the answer is something maybe that they don’t like and they’re willing to kind of hear something that maybe would be a negative reflection on them. I’ve been more than happy to hear from a number of brown women or brown people who aren’t cis men about their experiences with brown men, for example, which aren’t always positive.
The biggest value that I bring, interestingly, is I don’t think as a queer person — in my opinion, no one has ever said this to me, so this is just my opinion — but not as a queer person, not as a Muslim, but just as an immigrant, as someone who did not grow up in the West and who can think outside of those structures.
Turning to your work on “Ramy,” you co-wrote episode nine this season. One of my favorite scenes is the one that features you in the beginning with Uncle Naseem, who engages in sexual activity with cisgender men, but refuses to identify as gay and is horrified by the suggestion. And this is such a common phenomenon; I think about Pakistan and a lot of non-Western countries where Western LGBTQ paradigms and labels don’t really apply to sexuality and identity in the same way. But I feel like very often when it comes to storytelling and narratives, the West tries to impose these labels onto these characters where it doesn’t necessarily fit.
So there’s this beautiful nuance in that scene. And I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit about this tension and how important it is to even label queerness?
This is, in many ways, a big question that I ask myself all the time and something that I’m trying to center a project around. The short answer is, I don’t know. I wish I knew. But I think there are these big questions of, “What does it mean to be gay? What does it mean to be publicly gay? Is it important to say it?” I definitely think that you cannot take the Western template of queerness, of masculinity, and apply it to the East. It’ll never work.
I know this is true in the Middle East as well, but certainly in Pakistan, you see two men holding hands on the street, two straight, cis men holding hands on the street; that is just a sign of platonic affection. Straight, cis men in the West would not be caught dead holding hands, including the best of them. It’s just like masculinity, friendship is not expressed in a tactile way in the West. The way that the West would view something like that is “That’s pretty gay.” The West really does categorize things and try to make sense of things a certain way.
There’s like an obsession, a preoccupation with labeling things and categorizing things.
Yeah, absolutely. And with Uncle Naseem [Laith Nakly], there’s a scene later in the episode where Dena [May Calamawy] says to him, “You are whatever you say you are.” I’m a really big believer in that. Uncle Naseem is whoever he says he is.
I feel like this season does a really good job of exploring its male characters in crisis. This is made worse by a complete absence of support and their inability to articulate their emotional reality. To what degree are their crises amplified by their own cultural constraints?
I think those constraints exist within a culture, but I think that culture is masculinity more than anything else. I’m not Egyptian, so I can’t specifically speak to that, but I know there’s a lot of overlap between being Egyptian and being Pakistani and obviously, there’s just being Muslim in general. But a lot of this operates within this paradigm of masculinity that exists very much in the West, too. There’s three characters — one who’s dealing with sexual orientation, and the other who’s dealing with issues of meaninglessness and power and sex addiction, and the third one who’s dealing with not being the provider. These are all kinds of afflictions that exist within the broader culture of how we have decided, as a world, to define what it means to “be a man.”
This is true for people in general, but so many of our individual afflictions would be solved if we just talked about them. Male vulnerability — I mean, this is not just on screen, but in life — male vulnerability is so underexplored. And teaching men, giving them the room to be vulnerable without conflating it with weakness, is so important. Particularly for these three men who really represent ideas. They’re obviously characters in and of themselves, but they also represent certain versions of masculinity. And when you’re so preoccupied with performing masculinity, you can’t do and you can’t be anything else.
Isolation is another big theme in the show. The characters seem to have a real fear of intimacy — both with themselves and with others — which leads to their isolation.
I think they all kind of have their guard up just because they’ve all for different reasons experienced so much suspicion. In turn, they move through the world with a sense of suspicion — rightfully so. And I think that suspicion leads to a lack of intimacy. When you’re on the receiving end of so much suspicion and every move you make is being watched or anything you do can be used against you, it is going to be very difficult for you to be intimate with another person. You saw it in season one when Dena tried to be intimate with somebody. It was very much used against her because that guy ended up just fully fetishizing her.
If you think about Ramy’s family, they obviously deeply love each other, but, as a result of how the world has been with them, they’re kind of behaving a certain way with each other. And I don’t think they trust one another in some ways. And that comes to a head in Ramy’s monologue in episode nine where he says it. He literally says, “I think my family is fucked up. I think my family is the reason behind all of this.” In that kind of environment, how could you not be fucked up? It would be incredibly difficult to learn what intimacy is.
Can you talk a little about your experience in the TV industry and what your next projects are?
So I’m now currently in the writers room for “Industry” season three on HBO. To me, it’s been phenomenal. And I think that the creators — Mickey Down and Konrad Kay — are geniuses. They have this unique ability to capture characters with this intensity that can be sad, thrilling, hilarious — often all at once. I’ve really had the good fortune of being able to learn so much by working with geniuses in the industry, including Ramy. He’s so funny and so generous and I’ve learned a lot about storytelling from him. Of all the people I’ve worked with, he’s very bold. I really appreciate how much he’s helped me lean into being bold. And then there’s the project I worked on with Riz Ahmed, which I can’t say much about, but imagine working with one of your heroes and having it surpass every expectation. He’s such a genuinely surprising person, in such a disarming way. It allowed me to really bring every piece of myself to the project.
What are some pipe-dream ideas or projects? What would you create if there were no budget constraints?
Right now my pipe-dream project is a project that I am currently developing, and it’s a tragic comedy about a Pakistani, queer Muslim in London. And it’s funny because you’re saying there’s no budget constraint, but the way that I thought about this is, “I will write this if it has to be the most budget thing in the world.” What matters to me more is if there were no constraints, I would make this the most deranged, fucked up show I could think of.
I mean, really, the dream is to be able to make something that is incredibly bold and unflinching and shares the perspective of someone who we have not seen before at all. There’s no show, not to my knowledge — at least in the kind of slice-of-life shows that “Ramy” and “Atlanta” and “Insecure” and “Fleabag” and “Girls” and all fit into — there has been no show by and for a queer man of color.