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On a warm summer evening, Bilal Baig scans the cozy outdoor patio of Sweetie Pie, a bakery near a park in downtown Toronto, and chooses a seat tucked into a corner. Shielded by a side of wooden fence and the overhanging canopy of a tree, it provides a refuge – sort of.
“This is a nice spot to escape attention,” Baig says, settling at the table and tucking into a mini banana cream pie. For someone who identifies as trans, being an object of attention can be unsettling, they explain. There’s a desire to go unnoticed. “I realize how ironic that sounds now that I’ll be on national TV.”
Totally. That word, delivered with a straight face but an inward eye-roll, is one of many catchphrases audiences will get a kick out of when watching Baig play protagonist Sabi Mehboob in Sort Of, a new CBC series airing this fall, co-created by Baig and veteran actor/writer Fab Filippo (Save Me, Being Erica).
The show centres around Sabi, a gender-fluid millennial who works as a nanny for a downtown hipster family and a bartender at an LGBTQ bookstore/bar, all while negotiating their relationship with their Pakistani family. The role is being celebrated as the first non-binary lead character on Canadian television, while Baig is billed as the first queer South Asian Muslim actor to anchor a Canadian primetime TV series. And that’s not all. Sort Of also sets an example of a truly diverse group of talent both in front of and behind the camera, giving space for all creatives on the show to express themselves.
“There’s immense responsibility and a really exciting celebration around the possibility that this is happening now. I felt the responsibility to honour the character as truthfully as possible. … We are never going to watch Sabi agonize over their gender identity, over their sexuality, over their brownness. They are going to exist with all of those things at once,” Baig says.
“What they are going to agonize over is: Are the kids okay? Can I repair or salvage my relationship with my mother? Will I ever be loved again? You know, things that we also feel as a trans and non-binary people.”
Sort Of came about after Baig, 26, a well-known actor in Toronto’s theatre scene who in recent years has been called a rising talent to watch, acted in Tarragon Theatre’s 2018 production of the play Theory, alongside Filippo. Partly because Theory, written by Vancouver playwright Norman Yeung, is about testing the limits of free speech, Baig and Filippo got to talking.
“We were both not the leads of the play and backstage quite a bit, during the show or rehearsal. We both had our laptops open and we would talk about writing quite a bit,” Filippo says in a phone interview. He was immediately intrigued by Baig’s sense of self. “They are graceful when it comes to schooling people around them about how to see them, you know?”
Those conversations backstage turned into chatting at coffee shops, spitballing ideas.
“Then I woke one morning and just realized I want to build something around Bilal. And I think I even said, ‘And we’ll call the character Bilal!’ And Bilal was like, “No,’” Filippo continues with a laugh.
Baig was, however, intrigued by Filippo’s proposal. A TV show could reach a wider audience than theatre, for one thing.
“With the snap of your fingers, you’re instantly in people’s homes. They don’t have to drive out from Mississauga to come to Toronto and find parking, and stress out to see a play that happens in a shed,” Baig says, dryly. But there was also hesitation about an industry that could be cruel to trans artists, or “not respect a specific identity and their kind of vision.”
So, Baig told Filippo, if they were going to work on something together, they needed to know what Filippo was bringing to the project.
“I didn’t want to pour all my vulnerabilities into something and have someone else who gets to hide behind my vulnerabilities,’ Baig recalls. “I really wanted to know where Fab’s hurt would be in the storytelling.”
Filippo took time to think about it and came back with a personal experience – the end of his 15-year marriage.
“He said this gorgeous thing about what if we looked at every central character in our story like they’re navigating some sort of transition – that the word ‘transition’ is going to apply to every single human being on our show,” Baig says.
The duo pitched their idea to Sienna Films, an independent production company in Toronto. The demo they made attracted interest from CBC (the series will also air on HBO Max in the United States this fall), and by 2020, Sort Of was in production. Then the pandemic hit.
Beyond maintaining strict COVID-19 protocols, Baig wanted the sets to be a safe space for all. An open casting call for trans and non-binary people resulted in a flood of applications. Baig brought their experience as a community arts worker to their new role of co-showrunner and co-executive producer. Pizza, doughnuts or “whatever the talent wanted” in the background holding room was always in supply.
“The most delicious thing is that there are trans and non-binary people who play trans and non-binary characters. There are also trans and non-binary actors who you think are cis because they never talk about their gender. They just appear and exist in the world, and then are off to do other things, you know,” Baig says. “I remember an assistant director saying, ‘Never in my career have I seen a holding room that feels like a nightclub.’”
As far as Sabi’s Pakistani background goes, South Asians will immediately recognize some inside jokes – such as the stack of yogurt containers that Sabi’s mother (played by Ellora Patnaik) delivers one night. Baig laughs at the observation and points out that even that character has her own transition, presenting an insightful portrayal not often accorded to immigrant women on TV.
“What happens to a woman of her age, in her 50s, who has stopped working and has some time on her hands? She just feels so disconnected to her husband and then starts to watch her child emerge into a really true version of themselves,” Baig says. “What does that mean for her? What is her journey?”
Family plays a big role in Baig’s real-life world as well – and the show may well be a catalyst on that level, too, as Baig has so far managed to avoid coming out to their parents.
“There’s no way I’m gonna be on a national TV show and tell them, ‘Oh, yeah. Some producer forced me to be trans.’ So, yeah – it’s gonna unlock some new conversations,” Baig says.
“I’m in so much therapy, you have no idea … I’m crafting this letter that’s gonna be translated into Urdu, so that my mom can easily read and digest it. And it’s gonna be a bit of a tell-all.”
Sort Of is available to stream on CBC Gem starting Oct. 5 and CBC-TV beginning Nov 9.