The starting point for Touch of Pink began
with a little conundrum about my mother…
The power of Hollywood films to penetrate the everyday lives and dreams
of Americans is a common theme of, well, Hollywood Films. But, of course,
people from all over the world are susceptible to Hollywood’s
charms, even people who rarely figure as the audience of Hollywood’s
imagination. My mother, I believe, was one such woman.
When she was barely in her 20s, my mother travelled from Colonial East
Africa to London, ostensibly to take a secretarial course. A few months
later, she suddenly left the course and went back home, immediately
accepting a marriage proposal from my father on her return. Not a hugely
puzzling story, you might think. But my mother was from a poor, uneducated
Muslim family. That journey to London to take a secretarial course is
so out of keeping with the rest of her life: it might as well have been
a trip to go golfing on the moon. I have never been able to fathom what
got her to London, never been able find out why she came back so hurriedly.
The answers to those questions remain unshared. But they’ve always
So I invented a what and why for myself. My mum and I share a love
of old Hollywood films. My family came to Canada as refugees in the
early ’70s and my parents immediately took on several menial jobs
to keep us going. “Quality time” with my mother was rare,
limited to days when I was home sick and she would take time off work
to look after me. Those were very special moments. The two of us tucked
into the sofa under a warm blanket, slurping our Campbell’s Chicken
with Stars, watching whatever old movie happened to be on TV that afternoon.
Her face would soften on those snowy afternoons and she would tell me
about the first time she had watched those films, back home in Dar-es-Salaam.
The movies she loved most were the old romantic comedies. Her favourite
was That Touch of Mink: Cary Grant starring
as a gleaming, handsome millionaire and Doris Day a poor, aspiring secretary
whom he falls in love with and marries. I imagined that my mother went
to London all those years ago to become a secretary and marry her own
Cary Grant. But the world wouldn’t allow her to have her Hollywood
Years later I myself moved to London, from Toronto. (To find my own
Cary Grant?) Often, while walking the streets of London, I felt as if
I was retracing her footsteps. And so I started to write a script about
the two of us, and about our relationship with the Spirit of Cary Grant,
who has in so many ways happily inflected (and in some ways spuriously
infected) both of our lives.
In the early drafts there was a flashback scene set in a dance hall
scene to which a young Nuru (based on my mum) has gone, nervously, in
her hand-made frock. Once there, she feels spurned and rejected and
rushes back home to her bedsit, never having had her dance with a rich
and handsome stranger. And then, soon after, she goes back to East Africa,
forsaking the dreams that brought her to London in the first place.
When I first started writing Touch of Pink,
my boyfriend Peter was working at the Photographer’s Gallery in
London. He had just curated an exhibition by George Zimbel and I came
along to the private view. One particular image, Irish Dance Hall,
The Bronx immediately caught my imagination. It was a documentary
photograph taken in the 1950s: a handsome young man and a group of women
checking each other out on the edge of a dance floor. There was something
about this photograph that seemed to share a connective tissue with
the story I was trying to tell.
I think Hollywood is very present in Irish Dance Hall, The Bronx:
the handsome young man posing, the girls behind him dressed in their
Saturday night allure, willing him to choose them for the next dance
but feigning indifference. Everyone looking and aware of being looked
at, the manufactured nonchalance…. The ersatz glamour is an underfed
yet vivid reminder of its source: the movies. (Zimbel, by the way, also
took that amazing series of Marilyn Monroe from the location of The
Seven Year Itch, with her skirt billowing gloriously toward the
heavens.) But there’s a toughness in the Irish Dance Hall
photograph, a sexuality and desire not mediated by happily-ever-after
which would have frightened someone like my mum, whose knowledge of
the West was formed by the sweetened romance of Hollywood films.
I bought a postcard of the photo and kept it on my bulletin board as
The years passed and the rewrites continued and eventually I dropped
the flashback. (But I made good and sure that Nuru got her dance.) The
postcard, however, remained thumbtacked just over my head. The spirit
of the image continued to inspire me, just as my mother’s story
continued to inspirit Touch of Pink.
Christmas 2002, and Peter and I are visiting my family in Toronto from
London. I get a call from Sienna Films, the Canadian producers of Touch
of Pink, a script I’ve now been working on for over eleven
years, and that we’ve been trying to finance for a good four of
those years. Sienna want to take us out for a meal. Over lunch, they
tell me that we’re finally green-lit! We’ve managed to confirm
a measly sum of money which will allow us to (maybe just) make the movie.
After much clinking of glasses and many ‘how-the-*!#*-are-we going-to-do-this,’
we finish our meal and leave the restaurant.
Suddenly, I feel something swift and sudden, like a spider has dropped
onto my shoulder. Gazing at me from the gallery next to the restaurant
is George Zimbel’s photograph: the image that I’ve been
staring at, almost daily, for over eleven years. I’m not a superstitious
man but sometimes, when the right hook is used, I can be snagged and
reeled in just as if I were one of Dionne Warwick’s Psychic Friends....
George Zimbel’s evocative photograph now hangs in front of me
in my study, as I type this. What else was there for me to do?