There’s nothing better than taking a chance on a new TV show, only to immediately fall in love. These days that doesn’t happen very often. As streaming culture thrives, many of us are reverting back to old TV favourites — I see all you Friends fans out there — rather than exploring new titles. But, it is through those new titles that we experience modern stories, addressing modern issues. Whether those issues be related to gender, sexual orientation, culture or religion, mainstream media is slowly starting to reflect society as it is today. After all, representation DOES matter. CBC’s newest TV show “Sort Of”, starring Bilal Baig, does exactly that.
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“Sort Of” follows Toronto millennial Sabi Mehboob, a gender fluid, Canadian-Pakistani as they navigate the twists and turns of, well…life. The show has everything. Sabi struggles with their gender identity and sexuality, friendships, work, and relationships all while coming of age. Based loosely on Bilal Baig’s life, “Sort Of” is the first show on TV to star a trans-feminine, queer, Muslim actor. Not only is the show breaking down barriers in subject matter on mainstream television, but providing on-screen representation for those who may not have had that prior.
The Making of “Sort Of”
“Sort Of” is loosely based on the lives of creatives Bilal Baig and Fab Filippo. Having met in a show at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, Baig and Filippo found a common love for writing. While Baig has experience writing plays, they had never delved into the medium of television. For Fab and Baig, it was imperative that this project would be a true creative collaboration. It was only when they were able to combine their stories did the true message of the show emerge: transition is universal.
The Concept of Transition
One of the most powerful takeaways from “Sort Of” is the concept that we are all in transition. Whether that is pertaining to gender or sexuality, work life, home life, or medically, the word is really universal. While some transitions are more accepted than others — like retirement for instance — change is a natural part of life and something that we can all relate to.
“IF WE START TO LOOK AT ALL OF OUR CHARACTERS LIKE THEY ARE MOVING THROUGH SOME SORT OF TRANSITION, WE HAVE A REAL CHANCE AT NORMALIZING THAT WORD, AND INVITING OTHERS TO EMBRACE THAT WORD”.BILAL BAIG
Once the themes were nailed down, it was smooth sailing from there. Now, that’s not to say that it wasn’t a difficult process. For Baig, the task they undertook was a massive creative challenge. Not only playing the lead, but also being an active part in the creation and direction of “Sort Of.” For their first time on television, the process was challenging and exciting all at the same time.
The Medium of Television
While it was Fab who ultimately pushed for the series to be a television show, Baig was excited at the prospect of diving into a new creative medium. Mostly because of the massive scope mainstream television has, but also it’s intimate nature. When we consume a TV show, most likely we are in the comfort of our homes, lounging on the couch or in bed, with no societal stigmas or pressure bearing down on us.
“THE KEY TO DEEP, HONEST EMPATHY IS WHEN ALL PARTIES ARE REALLY COMFORTABLE. THE PEOPLE WHO NEED TO MEET EACH OTHER, AND UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER NEED TO BE AT EASE IN ORDER TO HAVE ACTUAL LISTENING AND SEEING HAPPENING”.BILAL BAIG
They knew that Sabi’s character is one we haven’t seen on the screen before. But the opportunity to learn and connect with the characters of “Sort Of” is a gift to television.
For Baig personally, they knew that sharing their story would be a difficult task. As an introverted person, the fame and “celebrity” that could follow has never been of interest to them. Baig was more focused on the story and the message at its core. Bringing art into viewers homes has always been the driving force behind “Sort Of,” and not the desire for fame.
A Home Grown Toronto Show
Having grown up around the GTA, Baig wanted to make sure that we all knew it was set in Toronto. From the physical setting, to the vibe of the people, to even the original music for the show, everything was very Toronto.
Shot during the 2020 lockdowns, “Sort Of” was filmed in multiple locations around the city including: the Roncesvalles area, Queen St. West, Parkdale, Little India and Mississauga to name a few. In multiple scenes you can see the Queen streetcar buzzing by, or familiar shops and signs along the streets.
For the music, there was a desire to work with local artists for a number of reasons. Firstly, on the production side, it would be easier for the editors to have original music that could be woven into the show without needing to purchase the rights to big name songs. Secondly, the music needed to be authentic to The 6ix. They selected five musicians from all walks of life to create the music: Gay Hollywood, Haviah Mighty, TRuss, The Kount, and Säye Skye. What they created was the perfect playlist of music, specific to “Sort Of”.
Who is Bilal Baig?
Bilal is a Toronto grown, trans-feminine queer Muslim actor/writer. They have not only written their own work, but performed on stage in Toronto several times. Being heavily involved in the creative and queer communities, Baig has always been a leader for other trans and queer folks around the city.
One of the major ways they support their community, is through work with several charitable projects. One being The Trans Gems which started under The Amy Project but has now developed into it’s own initiative. The Trans Gems aims to help trans BIPOC creatives…be creative! The project gives participants a safe space to write whatever they want, and have a voice to share them publicly as well. Baig hinted about several exciting partnerships coming up with The Trans Gems, so stay tuned.
Outside of The Trans Gems, Baig works with The Paprika Festival mentoring young play writes, Story Planet working with newcomer and BIPOC children in the arts, and Rivers of Hope focusing on delivering workshops combatting Islamophobia in high schools and communities around Toronto.
When it comes to finding your tribe, Baig says to look for communities and people that you want to connect with. Sometimes, the best place to start is a simple Google search to remind you that you aren’t alone in this world. Starting inward has always been a big part of Baig’s process for self-discovery. Ask yourself the hard questions, and answer as honestly as you can to really find what you’re passionate about. Baig also stresses the importance of following your gut. At the end of the day, your gut will guide you if you know how to listen to it.
A Strong Muslim Foundation
Having grown up in a Pakistani home, Baig’s parents were always very set in their religion. To them, Islam values are the foundation of life that everything else is built on. Religion was never something that was frightening, or aggressive, it just was a natural part of growing up for them. When Baig started to become aware of their identity, it became a natural extension of who they already were at their core.
“I THINK THERE’S A NARRATIVE OUT THERE THAT IF YOU ARE SOMEONE WITH INTER-SECTIONAL IDENTITIES IT MUST HAVE BEEN HARD FOR YOU TO RECONCILE CERTAIN THINGS, OR YOU SPENT YEARS AGONIZING HOW COULD YOU BE ONE THING AND NOT THE OTHER, BUT THAT WASN’T MY EXPERIENCE”. BILAL BAIG
Listening to Baig speak about their experience with identity and religion, the only thing on my mind was: you’re right, we are all dynamic humans. Why is it that we put these restrictions on ourselves? In Baig’s instance, the assumption is that if they are Muslim, they also can’t be okay with being trans-feminine. When in reality, we all have layers. We all have the ability to choose our path in life, and to keep what serves us well, and let go of what doesn’t. As we continue to grow, we evolve and discover new things about ourselves. You could go so far as to say, we have times of transition.
Bilal Baig in The 6ix
Having spent time living in Parkdale, that area is one of Baig’s favourites around the city. They love Queen St. West. The energy and vibe of that area is special, and one they always go back to. One area of The 6ix that Baig would love to explore more is Little Italy. For anyone who knows the area well, we are taking recommendations!
In terms of restaurants, Baig mentioned two they LOVE. The first being Fushimi on Church St. This hole-in-the-wall spot has some of the biggest sushi pieces and creative specials they’ve ever seen in the city. The second spot they can’t live without is Lahore Tikka House in Little India. This authentic, delicious food is some of the best in Toronto according to Baig. The restaurant also holds a sentimental attachment having visited frequently with their family growing up.
Outside of writing and acting, Baig loves being one with nature spending time hiking, walking and being near the water. They find it extremely important to fill up their creative well, and just being present in nature is one way Baig does that. Another past-time that Baig loves is spending an afternoon in a second-hand store. Surrounding themselves in beautiful things that inspire them is another great way to replenish creative juices.
“Sort Of” Premiers on CBC
“Sort Of” is making its North American debut at TIFF, but you can catch it on CBC Gem starting October 5th, 2021. Be sure to let us know what you think of the show by commenting down below!
Words and Interview by: Merrill Flynn and Steven Branco
Photos: Courtesy of CBC, shot by Greg Wong and Yann Gracias (as identified per shot). Wardrobe Styling: By Bilal Baig from their own personal collection.
Art Design and Curation by: Steven Branco