‘It’s about valuing their audience’: why Ghostbusters called in a Muslim ‘cultural consultant’

<span>The film-makers wanted to get the exact nature of the elaborate brass figure carvings right … (l-r) Celeste O’Connor, Kumail Nanjiani, Finn Wolfhard and James Acaster in Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire.</span><span>Photograph: Jaap Buitendijk/Courtesy of Sony Pictures</span>
The film-makers wanted to get the exact nature of the elaborate brass figure carvings right … (l-r) Celeste O’Connor, Kumail Nanjiani, Finn Wolfhard and James Acaster in Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire.Photograph: Jaap Buitendijk/Courtesy of Sony Pictures

The “sensitivity reader” is a well-established, if controversial, figure in the publishing world, offering advice on whether a book’s content might cause offence. The film and TV industry has also been forced to confront similar issues, with “intimacy coordinators” now widely employed to ensure that filmed sex scenes neither harm the actors nor outrage audiences. Perhaps less well-known, but now gaining ground in film and TV, is the role of a “cultural consultant” – advisers taken on by productions to help them navigate the choppy waters of sensitivities around ethnicity and faith.

Sajid Varda, founder and CEO of media charity UK Muslim Film and director of the UK’s inaugural Muslim international film festival, recently completed an assignment on Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, the latest instalment of the popular and long-running series of supernatural comedies. Varda says the key to such roles is “authenticity”; it is, he says “not just saying what is wrong with this, but how can we make it better and improve it?”

The Ghostbusters franchise would not appear to be the most obvious cultural minefield, but Frozen Empire contains a significant Pakistani-American character called Nadeem, played by Kumail Nanjiani, who kickstarts the movie’s plot by selling an ancient relic previously owned by his grandmother, a relic that is connected to a malevolent ice-wielding demon called Garraka.

Varda, an actor who has appeared in Byker Grove and who is also credited story consultant on TV soap Hollyoaks, says his main job was to iron out any inaccuracies in the details of Nadeem’s character, as well as inconsistencies and errors ascribed to his ethnic background. “It was about understanding his backstory and making sure that, in the script, they had really authentically portrayed him and his background, and his cultural heritage too.”

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire turns on Nadeem’s discovery of a secret room in his grandmother’s house, and Varda says that the film-makers wanted to get the little details right, from the nature of Nadeem’s relationship with his grandmother (“in our community, there would always be an element of honour there”) to the exact nature of the elaborate brass figure carvings she had hidden away (“if it wasn’t obvious they were naked I think it would be all right”).

Islam itself doesn’t play a significant part in Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire – Nadeem and his grandmother belong to a fictional demon-fighting sect called the Firemasters – but Varda says he still had to make sure a few “faith-based references” were correct. Overall, he says, “it was just done really well, really beautifully.”

Varda’s experience sheds considerable light on the workings of modern Hollywood. He says he was initially contacted by film studio Sony Pictures, via email after “a recommendation” in January 2023, before filming began. After signing an NDA, he was asked to a Zoom meeting with the film’s director Gil Kenan and producer Jason Reitman (“on big projects they want to meet you first, they want to see if you’re for real, if you know what you’re talking about”). Having got the thumbs up, Varda was sent a secure digital link to the script for a time-limited period. He wrote up notes and then was invited to a physical meeting with the pair at Shinfield Studios near Reading, where the production was based.

As a self confessed “Ghostbusters geek”, Varda says that working through his notes on the script with Kenan and Reitman was a great experience, and that he “felt the level of respect that the production was showing the south Asian community, and also showing the Muslim community”.

Varda adds that he was impressed with the pair’s determination to get things right. “They really wanted to make sure that they weren’t going to offend anyone with anything that had been written in the script, that they were, in fact, making sure that the community was being truthfully represented. For them, it was about valuing their audience as well.”

However, Varda says his role is not about censorship. “When you’re consulting you present film-makers with, ‘Here is the issue, or the concern’, and ‘This would be the recommendation’ – and then it’s really up to them whether they take it on board. Sometimes a certain incident or a line of dialogue is for them integral to the story and to change it in a significant way may take the shine off.”

As Hollywood has become more interested in diversity issues, cultural consultants have become more common, notably in Disney/Pixar productions, including lawyer Marcela Davison Avilés who worked on Coco, and 11 credited consultants on Soul, among them musicians Questlove, Herbie Hancock and Marcus McLaurine.

As an example of what he is trying to head off, Varda points to the BBC TV series Bodyguard, which was criticised at the time for its portrayal of Muslim women. “As soon as that came out, we saw the impact it was having. The next day I could see there was a feeling of unease among hijab-wearing Muslim women on the Underground and in the streets; there was definitely a feeling to be there to protect them, which shouldn’t really have to be the case.”

“I don’t feel that that it’s something the film and TV industry can afford. The Muslim world is a huge market, two billion people, and it’s largely untapped. It’s a world waiting for great mainstream content that speaks to them, where their values are appreciated, and that reflects them. But whether it’s for the Black community, south Asian, south-east Asian, the Muslim community, the Jewish community, the Christian community, you really do need to make sure that you get it right, because then you are building the foundation for a brilliant relationship with your viewers.”