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Unicorns: A queer love story with plenty of heart

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by Sarah Finnan
09th Jul 2024

Jason Patel and Ben Hardy star in this touching queer romance about the enduring power of love.

Directed by Sally El Hosaini (The Swimmers) and James Krishna Floyd, Unicorns premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival – placing Jason Patel on several Best Performers lists and ultimately earning him a prestigious Screen Star of Tomorrow award. 

Jason Patel photographed by David Reiss.

A queer romance starring Patel and Ben Hardy, the film follows Aysha (or Ashiq, when not in drag), a South Asian performer living a double life, and Luke, a young, single father who works as a mechanic. When they meet, an unlikely friendship is formed. It’s a powerful story of forbidden love and opposing cultures, set against the vibrant backdrop of the UK ‘Gaysian’ nightclub scene. In Patel’s own words, “The project is just full of so much life.” 

“When I first saw the audition call-out, I said, ‘Yeah, I can definitely do this’,” he tells me over Zoom. “I just had a gut feeling. If I’m that passionate about a script, it’s a no-brainer for me.” The whole thing came about quite organically, with Patel working closely with both Sally and James to mould the script around his interpretation of the character. “I think they took a lot of who I was and made that part of the project, which was really, really lovely. I wouldn’t say I am Aysha or I am Ashiq, definitely not, but I took a lot of life experiences that I had and just funnelled that into these two characters.”

Unable to deny the spark between them, Luke and Aysha/Ashiq are forced down a path of self-reflection, where they must question their identities and confront their individual truths to ultimately achieve self-acceptance. 

Jason Patel as Aysha in Unicorns

A performer by nature himself – Patel comes from a theatre-heavy background – this was both familiar and unfamiliar territory for the star. “I didn’t think it was a drag to be in drag,” he laughs. “It was quite exciting! If I’m performing, I always feel like I’m at the Grammys, or, you know doing my Super Bowl halftime show or a stadium tour. Whether the stage is big or small, I give it everything I’ve got.” That much is clear and Patel is mesmerising as the spellbinding Aysha. 

However, while the story is strong enough to stand on its own, it’s the synergy between the two leads that really sells it to an audience – and that’s not something that can be taught. “We met in our chemistry test and we were both like, ‘Wow, there’s something there’. Sparks were flying in such a wonderful way,” Patel remembers of working with Hardy. “Nothing was forced. I feel like you can’t buy chemistry; you can manufacture those things and engineer scenes in such a way but you can tell if it’s organic or not. So, for us to have that was so strong.”

Ben Hardy as Luke and Jason Patel as Aysha in Unicorns

Unusually, Sally and James decided to separate the actors during rehearsals, hoping their time apart would protect that initial connection and help it shine onscreen. “They didn’t want us to lose our fire. They wanted to keep that kind of raw, vulnerable energy. It was very much like I was in one door, Ben was out the other one… it was kind of like before you get married actually!” Without giving too much away, the plan worked and their dynamic is quite simply, electric. 

As a gay man from a working-class Indian family in Manchester, the importance of representation is not lost on Patel who says this film is special to him for more reasons than one. “I feel like I was preparing for this role my whole life. For me to be able to do this, to represent a community and all the people that shine in that community, to give them the light that they deserve – they’re some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. They’re so strong and brave. They’re so inspiring – it really meant a lot to me to represent the queer community, South Asians, people who are both, people who are on that journey for their identity, and performers. It’s quite a big deal because I think we’re always knocked down and to have that positive representation, it meant a lot to me and I wanted to do it justice.”

What does the word pride mean to him? “I really love that question. It makes me emotional. Pride means never apologising for who you are, never giving up. It means coming together, uniting and making sure that no one is excluded. There is a place for everyone in this world.”

Alternating between the thrill of raw desire, the gravity of familial responsibility, and the transformative power of being seen for who you really are, Unicorns is a love story at its core – one unburdened by labels or fitting people into neat little boxes. To quote Aysha, “My only pronouns are ‘icon’ and ‘legend’.” And despite the heavy content matter, it’s surprisingly uplifting too. “For me, it’s definitely about hopefulness,” Patel agrees. “Everyone’s just living life – let them live it and go and ride. Paws up as Lady Gaga would say! This film shows that even in the worst times, we can find a lot of love within each other.”

Celebrating Unicorns’ recent premiere in cinemas and the upcoming release of his debut EP, July is an exciting month for the rising star who teases that “there’s a lot of really cool, exciting things happening”. Sounds like this is just the beginning. 

Gritty while still hopeful and fun, you can catch Unicorns in select cinemas nationwide. Watch the trailer below.  

Unicorns is now showing in select cinemas nationwide. 

Imagery courtesy of Telescope Agency