Q&A: Saim Sadiq and Alina Khan open up about Pakistani film ‘Joyland’

Haider (Ali Junejo) and Biba (Alina Khan) in "Joyland," opening April 7 at Film Forum.
Haider (Ali Junejo) and Biba (Alina Khan) in “Joyland,” opening April 7 at Film Forum.
Oscilloscope Laboratories

In Pakistani director/cowriter Saim Sadiq’s extraordinary feature debut, “Joyland” — it won the Queer Palm and Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes among other prizes —Haider (Ali Junejo) meets a transgender exotic dancer, Biba (Alina Khan), when he takes a job as one of her backup dancers. Haider soon finds himself attracted to Biba; a scene of them in her apartment brims with sexual tension, and it is dazzlingly shot with lights dancing on the characters’ faces. However, Haider is married to Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), and while he does care for his wife, he struggles with his desires. 

Joyland” shows how Haider, Biba, and Mumtaz, as well as several other characters, flout gender roles as they experience both empowerment and setbacks. The film also showcases trans life without condescension. Watching the main characters buck social conventions — or knuckle under them — is affecting because they reveal themselves in their most vulnerable moments. 

Sadiq and Khan spoke with Gay City News about their queer Pakistani film, which was shortlisted for the Oscar and will screen April 1 and 2 at New Directors/New Films before opening for a theatrical run at Film Forum April 7.

Saim, “Joyland” was quite controversial and initially banned for “highly objectionable content” and “normalizing LGBTQ people and relationships.” Can you talk about the reasons for telling this story and the impact this situation has caused?

Sadiq: When I was writing the film and making it, I was doing it for purely selfish reasons. It was my first film, and I was interested in these characters. I never looked at it as a “queer” film, or not as a “queer film,” either. I was just looking at this story, and these people, and wanted to go deeper into what they are all about. Once you put it out there, the media needs these tags and these labels to process what the film is about — even before they see the film. Initially, I felt it was unfortunate that the film was mired in so much trouble, even before most people had actually seen it. We had passed the censor boards and had certificates before it was released, and suddenly, that decision was reversed because of pressure from conservatives. It was in our favor because we started putting pressure. It was an unfortunate game we had to play, and it shouldn’t be our job as filmmakers to take to Twitter and start protests and call up politicians for favors to cross the red tape to get the film released. In hindsight, I appreciate how tenuous that moment was. But what came out of it was a deep tabooing of all things queer. None of these things were shameful to talk about anymore, even if they are still against them. But the first seed was sown. That was uncomfortable, but it was certainly necessary for any movement to really become mainstream. The initial part is always unpleasant, and we were at the center of that unpleasantness, but hopefully end up on right side of history.

Alina (Biba) is often simultaneously desperate and determined. She wants to perform. It is an escape for her. She also wants dignity and respect; she has to sacrifice herself at times, but she also is empowered. What observations do you have about her? 

Khan: Biba was a strong character, and a great opportunity for me because it was my first feature and the first time in South Asia that a trans character was cast appropriately and had a say in how their story would be told. I was excited about that, and all these aspects to the character that made her so real. I wanted to depict her in a way that people who saw the film saw her as a real person rather than caricaturized or sanitized, as trans people have been historically depicted in film. Biba was good and bad and had flaws rather than someone with a heart of gold. I wanted to carry Biba’s anger and ambition as well as her vulnerability and her love.

Saim, the other female characters are “trapped” in society because of their gender. There are scenes of women being subjugated by men — Mumtaz being asked to get a glass of water for her husband or asked to stop working — but there is also an episode where Biba is harassed by a woman on the subway, and Haider breaks convention and sits next to her in the women’s section. Can you talk about these scenes?

Sadiq: When people speak about gender, the first instinct is to talk about violence. I wanted the film to have an emotional level of violence, rather than a violence that is easy to condemn and turns situations into very black and white. I wanted to play on microaggressions that are so tiny and you look like you are creating a fuss if you call attention to them. That is why so many women don’t bother speaking up. Most responses in the film are silence. Even Biba — who is a very angry person, and a motormouth in every other situation — in the subway she goes quiet because she doesn’t want trouble. “I’m going to shut the f*** up and sit here and wait for this moment to be over because it’s too small for my anger to come out.” Those moments are more interesting and more relatable — even for straight people. I’ve lived in New York City for four years and I’ve seen this in how men talk to women. It is not only in Pakistan. No place is free from patriarchy.

Alina, why do you think Haider is attracted to Biba? And how does Biba process his interest in her? 

Khan: It starts out from their working together, but deep down she likes Haider because so many men and women in the theater never look at her with base level respect and dignity, and there is a sense of equality — even though they are not equal; she is the boss. He never looks at her in a way that is respectful. For her, apart from the physical attraction, that is at the core of their relationship. She expects he would understand her, and she’s really never allowed a man close to her in an emotional sense. But the support he offers her, that no man has done for her, someone who doesn’t want anything back from her. She is not used to that, so she allows a window to open in her heart and she hopes he understands her in her totality. He understands her to a certain level, which is a rarity.

I can’t speak for Haider, but I think he sees a little bit of himself in her. She inspires him because they are both outcasts. He feels like an outcast. She deals with it differently, and that sparks inspiration and an attraction in him that he doesn’t fully understand.

Saim, the film is gorgeous, with lavish colors and textures — blood-red water being swept into a drain, a constellation of moles on a back being massaged, the light dancing on characters’ faces in Biba’s bedroom, the costumes, the heat. Can you talk about creating the sensorial experience of your film?

Sadiq: I’ve lived in the city all my life, and there are certain textures that stick with you and these details I have collected over all of my life. I have one film to put them into. I gave them this importance more than the story of the film. The heat is important. This could have been a film about these people where the audience feels alienated and looks down on them. I wanted empathy, which informed my visual language — to get you excited about the position of these characters, and as they were feeling. For example, in the scene where they were almost about to kiss. There is a certain level of magic about falling in love. But that is seldom depicted on screen. When they are falling in love, I wanted it to have a level of magic. The light on the face was a happy accident. I didn’t know that would happen until we were on the shoot. 

What do you think “Joyland” has done, can do, or will do regarding trans visibility, understanding, and dignity? 

Sadiq: The idea that starting with appropriate casting, and putting a real trans person on screen, looking beautiful but also vulnerable — for us to humanize them is something I’m proud of and Alina is proud of. That there is a start of conversation on queerness and trans rights in Pakistan in such a mainstream way. Middle-aged conservative women are talking about this today — of course not nicely — but in some ways that is a welcome sign. Now that we have taken the first step, the next steps are also taken and hopefully the journey is not too long.

“Joyland” | Directed by Saim Sadiq | Screening April 1 and 2 at New Directors/New Films; Opening April 7 at Film Forum | Distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories