Bilal Baig is ready for their close-up in groundbreaking new Canadian TV series Sort Of

The co-creator and star of Sort Of, Canada's first TV series with a non-binary lead, walks me through Little India and discusses what it’s like to be making pop culture history

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      Bilal Baig is taking me on a mini tour of Little India—their Little India. It’s early afternoon on a weekday, so the patios are closed and there’s none of the liveliness that comes at night when this stretch of Gerrard in Toronto resembles a bustling, brightly lit urban street in India or Pakistan. 

      But there’s still plenty to see, including a shop that serves up delicious paan, a boutique displaying colourful saris and bangles and a grocery store with the unintentionally funny name BJ Supermarket.

      When Baig’s groundbreaking new series Sort Of premieres in October on CBC, and later this fall on HBO Max, you’ll recognize some of these locations. 

      After all, this neighbourhood means a lot to Baig, who as a young Mississauga-born kid of Pakistani immigrant parents would occasionally come down to the city for a family meal at the famous Lahore Tikka House.

      “This was the only place my parents would take us in the city,” Baig says. “They’ve got the best, most authentic Indian-Pakistani food.”

      They point to some painted rickshaws and a makeshift patio with uncomfortable-looking seats and says this must have felt like a bit of home to their parents. 

      “Apart from this, Toronto was the big, bad city. It was the place where you might get killed. I’ll admit, I’d get excited seeing the CN Tower. The cliché was true: the city represented possibilities. I had this feeling, even as a young person, that there were things going on that were beyond what my parents were telling me. I was so curious.”

      Tiana Smith

      Sort Of, which Baig co-created with Fab Filippo, centres on Sabi, a queer, gender-fluid millennial electrician who’s working as a nanny to a hipstery couple’s two kids, as well as a bartender at a trendy queer bar.

      Insightful, funny and refreshingly diverse, the game-changing series is remarkable in the way it presents all its characters and their conflicts. Sabi is the first non-binary lead on Canadian TV, and Baig is the first South Asian, Muslim actor to star in a Canadian primetime TV series. After watching this series, you’ll wonder why it took any network so long.

      We stop outside the nondescript-looking Baldev Paan and Cold Drink House, which Nelu Handa (Sort Of’s story editor and one of its writers) wanted to include in an episode for its paan.

      “She knows the owner,” says Baig, “but we didn’t end up shooting here because of the pandemic and the size of the store.”

      It’s an important point, however. The presence of South Asian artists like Handa (Baroness Von Sketch Show) and Ian Iqbal Rashid (Touch Of Pink, This Life), who’s also queer, and trans consultants like filmmaker Chase Joynt and therapist Ronnie Ali all meant a certain level of authenticity.

      (No fear of Kim’s Convenience-style writers’ room whitewashing on this show.)

      “At times the process felt so fairy tale,” Baig says. “Sienna Films, the producers and Fab kept asking what was important to me, and what would help me feel like I could do this thing. They called this aligned values. So I’d say, ‘I’d love to get this person involved, and this person and this person…’ and they just appeared. It’s basically my dream list of people.

      “There’s a lesson in this: want things and wish for things, and then they can happen.”

      The presence of consultants like Joynt and Ali wasn’t just optics. 

      “Chase pointed out that in a story with a trans character, there’s always a mirror,” Baig says. “You’ll see them looking at themselves in the mirror, hating their body or examining themselves. And Chase said, ‘There are no mirrors in this show’. And we didn’t even do that intentionally.” 

      Ali, meanwhile, went through all the scripts and explained why Sabi felt so detached and talked about how many trans people need to show this face to the world that says “I’m okay, I’m not as troubled as you think, I’ll take care of things, don’t worry about me”, when inside there’s this whirlwind.

      We walk a bit further east. A few shopkeepers stand idly outside their stores, sizing us up.

      “This place is complicated,” Baig says. “You’ve probably noticed the glances we’re getting.”

      Bilal Baig points out some bangles at Maharani Fashions.
      Tiana Smith

      We stop outside a clothing store. 

      “As I got older and started to get a deeper understanding of my queerness, I would come here a lot, not so much for the food but for the clothes.”

      Lately, Baig and friends in their circle have started discussions about clothing shops where queer and trans people can feel a bit safer when shopping. They mention Chandan Fashion, where Drag Race Canada winner Priyanka often shops, and Kala Kendar, as being positive. 

      “It’s not like you walk in there and they say, ‘Oh, we’re so happy to have you!’ It’s more that they don’t pry, or look at you in certain ways. The dream is finding a place where we can be more explicit in our conversations, with shop owners going, ‘Yes, you’re welcome here, and we will do our best to ensure your safety.’ ”

      Safety is an important issue. And it’s best to be on the offence.

      The genesis of Sort Of goes back to a 2018 production of the play Theory at the Tarragon. Baig and Filippo were part of the ensemble, and during the run both noticed when they weren’t onstage they were writing furiously on their laptops.

      “We started exchanging thoughts and ideas and pitched things back and forth,” Filippo says in a separate interview. Filippo (Queer As Folk, Being Erica) is a well-known actor who’s moved to TV directing and writing in the past decade. 

      “We decided that after the play was done we wanted to get together and see what we could come up with,” he says. “We write well together, and respect the perspective the other brings. One idea was building a TV show around a character who was a bit like Bilal, this person who was self-possessed and able to be kind and generous, even when schooling the world on how to accept them and deal with them, which came out when we were doing talkbacks after the play.”

      Baig, an emerging young theatre artist whose biggest credit up until then had been the play Acha Bacha, remembers the conversation well. 

      “When Fab asked me about TV, I told him that the reach of it felt super powerful. My communities have such a hard time getting to the theatre—you have to leave at a certain time and find parking. It can be inaccessible. So to actually be inside people’s homes and hold certain identities while you’re there…there was something really powerful about that.”

      But Baig had one major concern. Why collaborate with a straight, cis, white male?

      “After having worked with several of them, I needed to know where Fab’s heart was at, and what was at stake for him,” they say. “I didn’t want to pour out everything and then have him just make money from it. I wanted to know: Why us?”

      Filippo went away and reflected on how his 15-year marriage was ending, and the impact that had on him and his two kids. He thought that the show could be about how everyone was in transition in various ways. He and Baig came up with the Sabi’s hipster couple employers, Paul and Bessy, who are each going through a transition themselves and are played by Shaw veteran Gray Powell and Mary Kills People’s Grace Lynn Kung.

      “I loved hearing a cis person use the word ‘transition’,” says Baig. “That did it for me. I realized then we had a real chance at building some sympathy and empathy for trans and non-binary characters.”

      Photographed by Tiana Smith at Chandan Fashion. Makeup by Olive Grey; hair styling by Selena Hoffman; wardrobe styling by Vanessa Magic.
      Tiana Smith

      Although there are some similarities between Baig, who worked for a time as a nanny, and the character of Sabi, they shouldn’t be confused. 

      “We need to be in a place where we can offer creators who are intersectional the same kind of courtesy that we offer artists who don’t look like us,” says Baig, who shadowed a bartender for two weeks and watched electrician videos to get those details right. Even their posture is different from Sabi’s.

      “Sure, there are some similarities, because I want the character to feel truthful and authentic. But there’s such a thing as craft and imagination. When people close to me see Sabi for a few minutes, they notice hundreds of differences.”

      And how are Baig’s parents enjoying their child’s success? Not all kids who go to work in the big bad city meet bad ends, right?

      “I’m in the midst of letting them know,” Baig says, calmly. “It’s not just, ‘Hey mom and dad, I made a TV show.’ It’s about letting them into every facet of my life. Like Sabi, there are walls between me and my parents that have worked for us for a number of years. And they’re not going to work any more.

      “I’m about to have a conversation with them. I’ve written them a letter about it all, and a high school friend has translated it into Urdu, so there will be no miscommunication. And I’ve prepped my three siblings who know about me and the show, telling them, ‘If this gets messy, I need you all to stand with me.’”

      Baig, who at one point considered leaving writing and acting to focus on community work for non-profits, says in a way Sort Of presents them with an opportunity. 

      “When the show started to come together, I remember thinking about what this could mean for a young person—or even an older person—to turn on their TV and think, ‘I know that,’ or ‘I feel that’, or ‘I’ve been waiting to experience someone like that on my TV.’ So in a way this all feels like a grand act of service. My faith tells me we are here to make this a somewhat nicer place than when we first entered it. It’s a duty, and I’m beholden to that duty.

      “This act of service has to be the first thing, and the other things I can work through: doubts, the fear that people might make fun of me or my parents won’t love me. All of that is secondary.”

      Sort Of, created by Bilal Baig and Fab Filippo, will premiere on CBC Gem October 5, then November 9 on CBC TV.