People in the Movies Aren’t Parsi Like Me, Except in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

By Aryenish Birdie Dec 11, 2018

"Bohemian Rhapsody," the recent film about the life of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, is breaking records. It’s the highest-grossing musical biopic of all time worldwide and is expected to exceed the $600 million mark any day now. It’s also the first-ever blockbuster film about a Parsi, the tiny ethnic/religious community to which I belong. Watching the film was incredibly entertaining, thanks to Rami Malek’s animated and confident performance playing Mercury. But it was also deeply personal for me, as it represented the first time––and perhaps the last––I’ve seen my identity represented in pop culture.

As described in the film by Mercury’s father, Parsis are Zoroastrians who, more than a thousand years ago, fled Persia—what is today Iran—to avoid religious persecution. They found refuge in India. Zoroastrianism is believed to be one of the oldest monotheistic religions, predating and influencing Islam, Judaism and Christianity, but since we don’t evangelize there are only an estimated 190,000 of remaining worldwide. Parsis––Zoroastrians from the Indian subcontinent––are one sect of this small group. As a result Mercury is really the only household-name Parsi in the world. Elders in my community endearingly refer to him as aproo Freddie or “our Freddie.”

I too feel an affinity with Mercury. Like me, he struggled to fit into the nearly all-White culture in which he lived. Early on in the film, a young Mercury is shown working at London’s Heathrow airport when one of his coworkers calls him a "paki" as an insult. When I watched that scene I was reminded of how, just two days prior, a White man at a UPS store yelled at me to “go back to my country” when he thought I was cutting him in line. (Really, I was just asking the cashier—another Pakistani—to fix a minor error he had just made.) 

Mercury went on to change his first name from Farrokh to Freddie. Similarly, when I was a child growing up in Kansas, I changed my name to Anna. To this day, I sometimes introduce myself as Arya because most Americans have difficulty pronouncing my name, and it’s exhausting to constantly correct them.

Mercury was also gay. In the film and in real life the star often avoided discussing his sexuality. Up until a few years before Queen began, homosexuality was criminalized in the UK and it wasn’t decriminalized in India until this past September. When I came out as queer in college, I was especially nervous because the Parsi community can be particularly conservative on some social issues.

A subtle storyline in the film is the tension between Mercury and his parents caused by his disinterest in following the typical Parsi career path—doctor, lawyer or engineer. Only after he shows his father he is giving back by performing at the 1985 Live Aid benefit concert does his father accept him for who he is. When Mercury tells his father about the concert he says, “Good thoughts, good words, good deeds,” which is the core tenet of our religion and is oft-repeated in "Bohemian Rhapsody." My parents also came to accept my unusual career path when I got my first job working at an animal protection nonprofit (as a bonus, Mercury loved cats, who make several guest appearances in the film).

As you’ve likely heard or read, "Bohemian Rhapsody" isn’t without its shortcomings. It’s been rightfully criticized for its historical inaccuracies. For example, in the film Mercury tells his bandmates about his AIDS diagnosis days before the they reunite for Live Aid in 1985. This neatly ties up the movie, as the performance is seen as his swan song. In reality, Mercury was diagnosed two years later. "Bohemian Rhapsody" also failed to explore the nuances of his life as a queer artist, instead delivering a formulaic narrative of rise, fall and redemption.

Despite the film’s flaws, I’m grateful it didn’t shy away from Mercury’s Parsi roots. Those who regularly see aspects of their identity depicted on screen, in novels or in music may take it for granted. They’re regularly reminded––explicitly and implicitly––that they belong somewhere, somehow. For those of us in an already small, ever-shrinking group, seeing ourselves depicted, even if just for a brief 110 minutes, is, in a word, rhapsodic.

Aryenish Birdie is the founder and executive director of Encompass, a nonprofit working to make the animal protection movement more racially diverse, equitable and inclusive.