People Library

Re-writing Representation

Forging race equality within the TV and media industry

There comes a point in life, when we decide that rather than letting life ‘happen to us’, we’re going to ‘happen to life’. It’s comparable to a ship once adrift at sea, buffeted by the waves and weather, now opening its sails, steadying its rudder and setting course for a destination no matter the conditions ahead.

Meeting Muj Shah you get a strong sense of the latter and it’s possibly deeper than just a decision. “As pretentious as it sounds, it’s like a calling,” he says, when talking about his desire to forge a broader representation of what it means to be an Asian or Muslim within the TV industry.

His parents moved from Pakistan to build a better future for themselves in the UK. “I’m a South Asian, Pakistani, male, Muslim – however I never thought of these labels when I was a younger.  Kids don’t see race. It’s only when we’re older that we notice differences.”

“I was born in Bradford, but spent the majority of my life in Bristol and Derby, and only returned to Bradford about eight years ago,” he explains. The origins of his current profession began when his A-Level drama performance left several members of the audience moved to tears. “My teacher pulled me aside afterwards, and suggested that I should look into acting for my future,” he recalls. “The belief and validation from someone else was a huge influence in my life.”

So significant was this event, that he chose to study Drama, Film and Television Studies at University, and trained as an actor with the National Youth Theatre and The British American Drama Academy. “Afterwards I was expecting the same career trajectory as actors like Orlando Bloom and Daniel Craig, who also went to the same institutions. However, once I started auditioning, I realised that people perceived me differently from how I perceived myself.”

He explains further, “For me it’s been explicit in the characters I’ve played and the scripts I’ve been offered. My first role on TV was as a suspected terrorist in Casualty, which I know was a comment on stereotypes, but it also reinforces the same stereotype.” He continues, “Acting and modeling are probably the two main industries where your physical appearance plays such a big factor in the work you get.”

It’s common for actors to be offered bigger opportunities after an appearance in Casualty, but Muj has repeatedly been offered similar stereotype-reinforcing parts, so much so that he regularly turns down parts he’s offered, refusing to contribute to a singular narrative.

From his perspective, change is slow. “I feel like there’s a surface-level change where conversations are happening, but often it’s just virtue signaling and talk. I think we still have a long way to go. We have to confront those things head on. Companies say they want to tackle diversity, but they’re only taking small steps…we need drastic change,” he says. “In this day and age we’re still getting firsts like ‘the first muslim superhero by Marvel’. Surely we should be beyond that by now?”

When asked why he believes the change is so slow, he responds “It’s a commercial market and they don’t want to fail, so if someone takes a risk and it tanks, then it jeopardizes anything similar coming after it. However, the excuse can’t be that ‘we tried and failed’ – risk and money need to be funneled into these roles.”

An experienced actor friend encouraged Muj to start screenwriting to craft authentic stories from his own lived experience. “Change wasn’t happening through my auditions, so I started to write. It’s a case of ‘build it and they will come’. If I wait for opportunities they will never come.

He first developed a Muslim superhero comic (Maghrib) which led to radio interviews, recognition from publishing houses and many individuals reaching out to thank him for his counter narrative to the negative portrayal of Muslims.

As his confidence grew, he began screenwriting – collaborating with industry professionals, developing TV series and pitching them to Netflix, Sky and Channel Four. “I know now what I’m capable of…and that my writing will get me into these rooms, so my self belief has grown over time.”

Speaking of this internal growth, he says, “You have to find your voice and a sense of self belief. Know that what you have to say is important no matter where you are or what the response is.” He says with passion, “I have a right to my voice and opinion, so my validation is internal now rather than external.”

“I’m also learning to be less apologetic about my experiences. I’m getting tired of dancing around the subject, so I’m more direct now and I’ve decided that I’m not going to feel bad for being a minority anymore.”  He continues, ”Imposter Syndrome as a person of colour never goes away, so we have to challenge and disrupt those things. People don’t like being called out on their racism.”

It’s a difficult journey, I feel like I’m breaking through walls, but every time you break one down there’s another in the way. If I wasn’t teasing with success, I may have given up a long time ago.” He references David Oyoyello, who played Martin Luther King, who said as a black actor he has to work twice as hard, to get half as far in the industry.

Expanding on the resistance and his response, he says, “Things often come from a place of ignorance rather than malice, so it takes the education of that person. But it’s tiring and exhausting having that same conversation time and time again. So I feel like I need to show people rather than convince people now, which means making something.” Hence the writing of original screenplays and his specific approach. “Preaching turns people off, so I write comedy, because comedy holds up a mirror to humanity. It’s subtle, less confrontational and you can express the uncomfortable truths in an entertaining way.”

Describing his motivation, Muj says, “Being British and Pakistani didn’t exist 70 years ago, so navigating eastern values in a western world can be challenging, and it’s been really hard for a lot of people to find their identity. Media is powerful, it reinforces perceptions of people, places and culture. If you’ve never met a Muslim or spoken to a south asian before, then your entire perception is formed by what you see in the media. So I’m driven by a desire to bring better representation of both Muslims and South Asians.”

Having been away from Bradford for most of his life, Muj says that he’s excited by the ‘bubbles of creativity’ he’s seen under the surface. Investment from Channel 4 and the Council in filmmakers, through ‘The Unit’ as well as the buzz of Bradford’s 2025 City of Culture is promising to him. He believes that where investment happens within the next few years is crucial to empowering the next generation and raising up voices and stories that have historically been hidden within the city.

When asked about his future in Bradford, he says, “I wasn’t overly keen to come to Bradford, but now I’ve seen things that have begun to appeal to me. I like the passion that I see, but at the same time if my career can progress further elsewhere then I may move. However the next few years could be a tipping point for people staying and building something within Bradford itself.”

Ultimately Muj’s calling is to bring freedom to future generations by pioneering authentic representation within TV and media. This will lead to a sense of belonging and equality to people from minority backgrounds, creating a level playing field for opportunities in life.

He concludes, “I get a sense of pride in my work because it offers a different portrayal, which

is important because it will ultimately give people a sense of belonging, and empower the next generation to believe in themselves.”

Story and photography by Tom Harmer (Faith & Bones)