Joyland director Saim Sadiq talks about queer history in Pakistan, and why American audiences struggle to understand that “this is a film with a trans person as one of the leads, not a film about a trans character”
Six days before his film was due to hit cinemas in Pakistan, Saim Sadiq was told by censors it had been banned. “We’d done everything, we had the certificates in our hands,” says the 32-year-old director of Joyland, an exquisite feature debut that took home the Jury Prize at Cannes last year. “We expected problems when the film was submitted but they passed it, with certain cuts which we agreed to. They did it at the last minute so we had very little time to act; [the message] was like, ‘OK, just give up, shut up and sit down.’ But I’m glad we didn’t.”
What followed was a media feeding frenzy where Sadiq was invited on to every talk show in the land to join the national ‘debate’. The charges? Joyland features a trans woman, Alina Khan, as a leading lady in a family drama exposing the faultlines in patriarchal Pakistani society. Eventually, the censors board, who had caved to right-wing pressure groups in banning the film, relented, and it became a big hit with domestic audiences, earning £1m from a budget of under £100,000. “It’s really a monster of their own making,” says Sadiq. “They gave it so much attention it’s still playing in theatres there.”
Joyland tells the story of a family in Lahore sternly watched over by its ailing patriarch (Salman Peerzada). His youngest son, Haider (Ali Junejo), is a stay-at-home dad who takes work in an erotic dance theatre – without disclosing the specifics – to avoid the jibes of his brother and father. There he meets a beautiful trans woman (Khan) who forces him to ask difficult questions about his life, while his wife at home, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), is left to ponder her own lonely fate. By turns tender, funny and tragic, Sadiq brings a wonderful lightness of touch to this searching family drama, which makes trenchant points on toxic masculinity without selling his characters short or skimping on the electric bhangra dance numbers, which go hard.
AnOther spoke to the director, who cut his teeth as first AD on the Pakistani Game of Thrones, about the film.
Alex Denney: You’ve taken this film all around the world now – has that been an eye-opening experience?
Saim Sadiq: Yeah, in good and bad ways.
SS: People were extremely generous and kind wherever we went – but it also took some time for people to accept the fact that this is a film with a trans person as one of the leads, not a film about a trans character. A lot of people, especially Americans, are not used to ensemble films and get a little confused when a film is not taking a very individualistic route of storytelling. But gradually the film made space for itself and people allowed it to be what it is.
AD: Part of the film is set in this world of erotic theatre in Lahore, was the character of Biba inspired by anyone you saw during your research?
SS: No, the character of Biba was there from before I started doing my research; I had spoken to a few trans women before I started writing the first draft. I felt like I needed to find one person who was like [the character I’d written] so I’d feel she was authentic enough in terms of character, but what happened was I was able to find many traits in many different girls. Because her experience needs to be authentic and real enough, but apart from that, she should be allowed to be whoever she wants to be. We should allow her the same breadth of human experience we imagine for all the other characters, instead of being like, ‘Oh, it’s a trans person, she must be sweet and kind, she must be a great person.’ Giving [characters] this burden of righteousness can also be dehumanising in a way.
AD: Are there important differences between the way that trans identity is conceptualised in Pakistan compared to the US or the UK?
SS: There are many differences. Historically speaking, these people were never discriminated against [in Pakistan]. If you look back [to] pre-colonisation, they were actually a big part of our history, they had a huge amount of respect in the Mughal era. It was really post-colonisation when queerness in general was criminalised, so we inherited that and then we kind of ran with it, and that discrimination became a core part of our system as well. But it’s not a part of our DNA.
AD: It’s an import?
SS: Originally, yes. Queer and especially trans people [in Pakistan] face this dual battle where they have to fight the perception with western queer activists that we need to follow exactly in their footsteps, because it’s like, we inherited a lot of problems from you! They also have to fight this idea back home that this movement is all imported from the west, and they’re like, “No, our movement is very indigenous. We existed on this land way before LGBTQI or any of this terminology was formed, way before Stonewall. We’ve been here for a very long time.”
AD: It’s interesting, given that your film has been called ‘anti-Pakistani’ by the people who briefly succeeded in getting it banned.
SS: Exactly. I could say this film doesn’t have a trans person, it has a khawaja sira, and then suddenly you have thousands of years of history of trans and intersex people [in Pakistan].
AD: In many ways, Biba is the most liberated character in the film. Was that important to you?
SS: In the world we live in [Biba’s] very existence is a challenge to the patriarchy in a certain way, and to the family [in the film]. When Biba first arrives at their house it’s as a cutout. [Haider sneaks an advertising cutout of Biba into the family home.] She’s just an image, and that image is enough to sort of baffle and confuse them in many different directions. Everybody gets into a spiral in their own lives just because they saw the image of a trans girl in their house. It seems to have shaken something.
Joyland is out in UK cinemas now.