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'If you have too many girls, that's a problem'

By ASEEM CHHABRA
Last updated on: June 28, 2022 17:23 IST
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'If you don't have children, that's also a problem.'
'There's no right way to live because everybody has an opinion about your personal life, and how you should live.'
'You have to listen to them, unless you can pick a fight with everyone.'

IMAGE: A scene from Joyland.

At 31, film-maker Saim Sadiq is having quite a life.

His short film Darling premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2019 where it won an award.

Last month, his debut feature Joyland won two awards at the Cannes Film Festival -- the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize as well as the Queer Palm.

Joyland is the first Pakistani film to compete at Cannes.

Lahore-based Sadiq has an MFA in film direction from Columbia University's School of the Arts. It was at Columbia that he met an Indian American student Apoorva Guru Charan, who came on board as Joyland's main producer, making the film a Pakistani-Indian collaboration. Other classmates of Sadiq also stepped in to play key behind-the-scenes roles in the film.

Joyland is heart-wrenching story about a Punjabi family in Lahore.

The film explores gender, patriarchy, the demand for a male child and even love, in the midst of the claustrophobic joint family atmosphere.

At the centre of the film is the romance between the family's married son Haider (Ali Junejo) and Biba (Alina Khan), a transwoman, who he meets at a dance theatre.

Khan is a trans-actress, who first appeared in Darling.

Joyland stars a number of well-known Pakistani actors, including Sarwat Gilani who Indian audiences saw in the explosive series Churails.

In fact, Sadiq took the basic premise of Darling -- a trans dancer and her young male admirer -- and expanded that into a full-fledged narrative for Joyland.

After Cannes, Joyland played at the Sydney International Film Festival. It is expected to play at other festivals in North America and Europe.

Sadiq, who is very keen to show his film to audiences in India, tells Rediff.com's Long time Contributor Aseem Chhabra on the phone, "Pakistan passed a law in 2018 recognising the rights of the third gender. That's extremely progressive. There are only 13 countries in the world that recognise trans people's rights. But there are contradictions. While trans people have started mobilising, they are still the victims of horrendous acts of violence... Every month or two, you will hear that one of them was shot for no reason."

Saim, you said two key things at the film's premiere in Cannes. First, that you were aware from then on your life was going to change. The film was celebrated and received good reviews. How do you feel now that you are back in Pakistan?

Exhausted, but much better.

My mom sat me down and said, 'Listen, I know these people are giving you a lot of importance. But I just can't bring myself to do that.'

You know what you see in the movies?

You get two weeks of being the favourite of everybody.

Everyone wants to talk to you.

Then, I am sure in two weeks, nobody will remember.

We are enjoying it as much as we can, but sometimes it gets irritating as people ask stupid questions.

Just as in a lot of developing countries, we don't have much of a film culture.

Unfortunately, film journalism is also not that developed.

IMAGE: Saim Sadiq. Photograph: Stephanie Cornfield

The second thing you said was that you had lived with this story for seven years.

I started writing the script after I graduated in 2019, but in a way, I had been writing it almost since the beginning of Columbia in some form or shape.

I was making notes on my phone, then it became like a script or the first draft.

In between, you made Darling. There were just two characters in Darling, but you expanded that image into a much bigger story. Where did the story and the characters come from?

It's a mixture of my imagination and more perhaps.

We don't really know where stories come from because you keep them in your head.

Sometimes, one is sitting alone at night, smoking cigarettes and imagining things.

A lot of it is my own family.

It's not that somebody from my family became a particular character, but by observing the women from my father's family, my aunt and particularly my mom.

Women struggle, but are okay with that.

But some of them do not find a way to be okay with it.

I thought about which woman is considered a good woman which one is considered problematic?

I come from a regular, upper middle-class family from Lahore.

Here everybody is into each other's business.

There's no idea of what privacy is, or what bedroom space is supposed to be.

Now there's a culture emerging of knocking on the door before you enter.

IMAGE: Saim Sadiq.

Punjabis are the same, no matter which part of Punjab we come from.

Yeah, Punjabis are interested in everything for no reason. And so it is with my family.

There's no space to exist as an individual.

Everybody is going in and out of each other's rooms.

The dinner table is filled with like seven people and three kids running around.

You have to exist as a group and that is the only way you know.

Your individualism gets lost, until you find a way to discover it.

Once you find a bit of your individualism, there is a struggle to let it exist and breed in the midst of that chaos.

You have captured the claustrophobia of the family very well in Joyland.

Thank you. It's something that we all understand, the joint family, two sons, the younger brother not having a child.

If you have too many girls, that's a problem.

If you don't have children, that's also a problem.

There's no right way to live because everybody has an opinion about your personal life, and how you should live.

You have to listen to them, unless you can pick a fight with everyone.

But then there will be no conversation.

You show exotic dancers on stage in Darling and Joyland. Does that happen in Lahore?

You have groups of dancers putting on filmi kind of performances.

It happens across the country.

In some cities, there will be a particular street where these theatres exist. It's been so since the '90s.

They would show recorded versions of these dances on cable as well.

When the men are sitting alone, even in my family, they will sometimes stop at that channel and watch a dance.

And when the family is sitting, they turn it off.

Pakistan's conservative Islamic society has found a way to cater to its sexual and voyeuristic needs, at least for the men, and it's become part of the culture.

Nobody talks about it, but it is very much prevalent.

IMAGE: The Joyland poster. Photograph: Kind courtesy Alina Khan/Instagram

I have seen quite a few Pakistani films. In some like Bol, Zindagi Tamasha and now Joyland, trans characters are discussed and shown as part of the narrative.
Is it easier to narrate stories about trans characters, instead of showing same-sex relationship couples?
In India, there are quite a few films and shows that explore gay and lesbian characters, especially after same-sex relationships were legalised. What about in Pakistan?

There are a few short films that talk about gay relationships.

Also out of 25 films, if there are two or three that talk about sexuality, that's still a very good percentage.

But I think it's the case of the visibility of the trans community.

That is so in Pakistan, and I am sure in India as well.

In Pakistan, in the last two decades, the trans community has made itself consistently visible and in a good way. Now there are news anchors, PhDs, and they get publicity.

They are not just visible at traffic signals, where they are begging.

There was a politician who ran for an election.

There were two of them in the last elections, but they didn't win.

Pakistan passed a law in 2018 recognising the rights of the third gender. That's extremely progressive.

There are only 13 countries in the world that recognise trans people's rights.

But there are contradictions.

While trans people have started mobilising, they are still the victims of horrendous acts of violence.

They go to parties to dance and make money. But every month or two, you will hear that one of them was shot for no reason.

For me, it was fascinating to make a film that talks about gender and patriarchy, and to show a trans character who is very out there, but not as an activist.

She doesn't want to make it because she wants to make things better for her community. She is doing it for herself.

 

IMAGE: Saim Sadiq, Alina Khan and Asif Mughal at Cannes. Photograph: Kind courtesy Alina Khan/Instagram

I read that Alina was first contacted by some agency for Darling. What did you see in her as an actor?

We auditioned Alina two months before I was supposed to make Darling.

She seemed very uninterested that day and gave a bad audition. Perhaps she was tired or had just woken up.

I knew she was a good dancer, but I thought she would not work, so we went for another actor.

Since he was not a trans actor, I needed him to learn the trans body language and the dance moves that are very specific.

We decided to take him to Alina's place so she could teach him the dance moves.

But this time, she was in her element.

When she started dancing to show him the moves, I kept looking at her and thought, 'Why am I doing this?'

He could never do what she was doing, no matter how good an actor he is.

I think he also understood that something was not working out and it had nothing to do with his ability as an actor.

It was five days before the shoot that I approached Alina and asked her if she wanted to act in Darling.

She said yes.

For those five days, she worked really hard.

For Joyland, I had the time. We started six months before the shoot with readings, rehearsals and workshops.

She had to break out of her shell because in real life, she's a very sweet, docile person and Biba is the opposite of her.

She's really acting in the film, and not playing a version of herself.

IMAGE: Ali Junejo. Photograph: Stephanie Cornfield

What about Ali Junejo who plays Haider? How did you cast him?

For Haider's role, we had a casting call and auditioned nearly 600 actors. It was crazy!

I wasn't there for all 600 auditions, but my casting director was. And we didn't like anyone.

There were actors who said they couldn't do the role.

I knew I needed a courageous actor.

I had almost given up and we would not have made the film if we hadn't found the right lead. But then somebody recommended that I see this theatre actor who had no Instagram, no social media presence. He didn't exist except on stage.

Ali walked into my living room and in 10 minutes, I decided I was going to cast him.

Even before he read the script, there was something about him that I liked.

He made the film happen in many ways.

You were able to get some very beautiful emotions out of him. There are close ups of him and Biba which are so romantic.

Yes, but Alina is a non-actor.

Ali is a method actor. He has done a lot of theatre and has a process of his own.

So I had to work very differently with the two.

Ali has a long career ahead because he is magical.

He made more out of the character than there was on the paper.

It is exciting to find a male actor who's this good and unafraid of doing something like this in his first film.

IMAGE: Alina Khan. Photograph: Stephanie Cornfield

I am aware that Pakistan's film industry was completely shut down in the 1980s when Zia-ul Haq was the president. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy made a lovely documentary Song of Lahore which talked about the collapse of the music industry at that time.
Things have changed. But how easy or difficult it is now to get an indie film made? While Apoorva Charan is your main producer, you have a number of other producers as well. One of the executive producers is Ramin Bahrani. I suppose he taught you at Columbia.

The way this film was made is a very unique.

I don't think it's something that happens often because this film was made entirely with American financing.

The main producer was Apoorva, who brought all the financing.

If I have been working on this project for seven years, she's been on it for six. She came on board very early on when it was nothing.

The other main producer is Sarmad Sultan Khoosat (director of Pakistan's 2020 Oscar entry Zindagi Tamasha). Without him, we wouldn't have been able to make the film here. 

As a student at Columbia, I had a lovely relationship with Ramin. He read the script and liked it.

He said he wanted to help.

He wasn't on the set, but I would get in touch with him whenever I needed to talk to him, to get his advice.

Making the film was quite easy for me.

I have been working on the film for seven years, but we only started raising the financing, etc after I graduated from Columbia in 2019.

So in 2022, I get to premiere my first feature, I think that's pretty good.

I shouldn't complain.

I know more established people have been trying for much longer. It's a tricky business.

Unfortunately, the infrastructure is very dicey here.

We cannot match the crews and technical expertise of Bombay.

But we lucked out.

My DP (Director of Photography) Joe Saade came from Lebanon.

My production designer Kanwal Khoosat is from Lahore and is very experienced.

I edited the film in my apartment. My co-editor Jasmin Tenucci was in Brazil and we would work together on Zoom. We didn't have the money to fly her to Pakistan.

Later, I did the sound and colour in LA and that's where I found out that we got into Cannes.

IMAGE: Joyland gets a standing ovation at Cannes. Photograph: Kind courtesy Asif Mughal/Instagram

How did you make the choice for the film's aspect ratio? It has a very compact 4:3 box like feel.

I have a personal preference for that frame unlike cinemascope or widescreen 16:9. I just like things framed in a box.

Also with this particular film, I knew it was going to shift subjectivities and perspectives.

I had to capture thoughts about the characters.

This frame makes you focus on the human beings, their faces and eyes, far more than a cinemascope or 16:9 frame.

When you see a face, that's all you see. Nothing else.

For me, having that kind of subjective experience with all of the characters was important because the film was about the clash of their subjectivities.

I met your co-writer Maggie Briggs. You studied together at Columbia. How did it work out? Giving her a sense of Pakistani culture must have taken some time.

Maggie had read the draft and she was not a co-writer initially.

She is a good friend of mine and an amazing writer.

But about three-four months before the shoot, I was about to go into pre-production, and that's when I mailed her the draft.

At that point, I was confused about particular things and I could use some help.

I needed a person, who was not from here.

I also wanted a woman's sensitivity which was essential for this story.  

We started talking and it became a seven-hour long discussion.

It was then that I suggested to her to try a draft because I was going into pre-production.

I didn't have the time and was freaking out.

I think 80 percent of it was already there, but the 20 percent that I needed to change was important. So we had a three-month-long collaboration over the script.

She knew that I would take care of cultural nuances, so she really had to work on some of the characters.

You have said that even if the film gets censored in Pakistan, you still want it to be shown. What do you think will be censored?

I can't talk about specific scenes without giving away the spoilers.

But when we were shooting, we were aware that some scenes especially those of intimate nature could raise attention.

I am okay with it since there's far more to the film than for me to pick a battle I know I cannot win.

The battle that I want to win is that this film should reach the audience in Pakistan in some form.

I want Pakistanis to watch it as a theatrical experience, the way people will see it in France, US and other places.

I made Joyland for everyone, but especially for my own people.

If the film releases in India, at some point, it will give me great gratification because the way you and I can talk about the film is not the way I can talk to with a French journalist.

The conversation kind of stagnates there at some point.

But for South Asians, the film can lead to discussions between people.

I guess in the long term, that's the point of making a movie.

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ASEEM CHHABRA / Rediff.com