“A Fear of the Freedom That You Thought You Wanted”: Saim Sadiq on Joyland
Winner of the Queer Palm at Cannes last year, writer-director Saim Sadiq’s feature debut Joyland depicts a blooming love between closeted married man Haider (Ali Junejo) and Biba (Alina Khan), a trans erotic performer who employs Haider as one of her (heretofore untrained) back-up dancers. The film chronicles the ever-shifting dynamics between Biba, Haider, his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) and their intensely patriarchal immediate family. A ban on the film in Sadiq’s native Pakistan occurred due to Joyland‘s queer explorations. In a public statement, a right-wing government pundit stated that the film was “against Pakistani values,” adding that “glamorizing transgenders in Pakistan, as well as their love affairs, is a direct attack on our beliefs.”
The film’s ban has since been reversed, though it lingers in the Punjab province, home to the film’s central setting of Lahore. Yet the outrage that surrounded the film in Pakistan post-Cannes may have helped increase championing of the film abroad—particularly in the U.S., where anti-trans attitudes and legislations continue to mount. While trans observations are integral to the film’s narrative, they are also not the only thorny topic tackled: interrogations of masculinity, nuclear family structures, ending bloodlines and religious uncertainty are equally significant.
The first Pakistani film to premiere at Cannes, Joyland pushes back against the lingering colonial influences that have come to shape contemporary Pakistan, but it is not an optimistic tale of a culture ready to embrace change. Indeed, to properly survey the devastating repression that grips a large swath of the population, Sadiq must portray the countless lives that have been stunted, damaged and lost due to social stigmas and state-sanctioned disenfranchisement. In lieu of a happy ending, Joyland embraces the all-consuming fear that comes with sudden freedom—especially when it arrives at the cost of home-grown comforts and (albeit limited) familial support.
Sadiq spoke to me ahead of the film’s opening this Friday, April 7 at Film Forum in New York City. Joyland will expand to the Landmark Nuart in Los Angeles on April 21, with more cities to follow.
Filmmaker: I know that the concept for Joyland came before your Columbia thesis film, Darling, both of which star non-actor Alina Khan, who plays Biba in this film. Were there any other non- or first-time actors in the cast?
Sadiq: All three of the leads are first-time actors, but Alina was the only one at the time who was a non-actor. I think today she can absolutely be called a very good actor! But at the time, of course, she wasn’t somebody who had done any other acting. Ali and Rasti actually come from a theater background, [but] they’d never [done] a feature film before this one. The rest of the supporting cast are all veteran actors, quite well-known back home in terms of their work on TV and film.
Filmmaker: You’ve also previously stated that you cast Alina very last minute. Was there any hesitation on her part to tackle the role?
Sadiq: Yes, but not for this role; it was the role in my short film that she was cast five days [before the shoot began]. She was actually the first person asked to participate in this film. In 2018 and the beginning of 2019, when I edited Darling, I was like, “OK, there’s a spark in her. She’s going to do the role [of Biba].” So, we had one cast member, then were casting around her. For example, all of the auditions that we had for Haider, whoever went onto the second round would come in to audition with her, because we had to check for a certain level of comfort for him to work with her, to see if there was natural chemistry there or not. I was very comfortable with her as well, because of the fact that it took about three years to prepare [to film]. We knew that it was going to be at least a couple of years before we ended up making the feature, so that helped a lot in building trust between me and her—and for her to understand the character and add her own thing to it. She had ample time.
Filmmaker: Was there any hesitation among the actors to take on these roles that deal with taboo subject matter—not just in terms of gender, but also confronting patriarchal standards and religious tradition?
Sadiq: Some, but not a lot. For example, with Haider’s character, there were a lot of actors I was really excited about who didn’t want to do it. But I wouldn’t really approach any actor who was [well-] known. Not that I wanted to, but even if I did, I knew that a lot of them—most, in fact—would not have even given it a read knowing what the byline of the film was. There is a masculine insecurity that is quite prevalent. There’s a certain level of machismo that you must depict as a leading man, unfortunately.
The cast that eventually did the film all came on board very instantly. They had no issues whatsoever. I think it was great, because we never had that conversation on set of them being uncomfortable with the context of the film or what the film was about. They were very much behind it. But yeah, in the process of [recruiting] some of the supporting cast, I had some people tell me, “Oh, I really like the story, but now that I’ve read the whole script, I’m not comfortable doing it.” That’s fair: They didn’t want to take that risk or just didn’t think that it was to their taste, which is completely their decision. I would rather not have a person like that on set, obviously, and instead somebody who actually believes in it.
Filmmaker: Joyland has been embraced by the international film community, but has not been received so well in Pakistan, resulting in a nationwide ban that’s since been lifted aside from the Punjab region. However, I think that non-Pakistani audiences are also unfamiliar with the fact that trans, intersex and so-called “third gender” individuals have a longstanding history in the country. Can you briefly contextualize this community’s history in the region and its ongoing struggle for recognition?
Sadiq: To the first part of your question, there have been problems with government censorship, but the fact of the matter is that when the film did release in half the country and didn’t release in the other half the country, it stayed in theaters for three and a half/four months. So, there was enough of an audience for the film, because theater owners certainly weren’t incentivized by any means to keep the film in a theater film of this nature [without financial payoff]. I was like, “It’s going to go out of theaters when Avatar comes,” but it managed to stay in two or three theaters in the city even post-Avatar. That was still a big deal for us. There was a very loyal community of people that did go and watch the film—multiple times, even. So there was recognition and support.
With regards to the trans community in Pakistan, they’ve existed in our country before the word “trans” was even invented, which they don’t necessarily identify with as they do with [the Urdu term] khawaja sira, which is hundreds of years old and comes from Urdu literature. Before colonization in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, they were not a community or group of people who were associated with discrimination in Pakistan, not the way we see here today or in the U.S., unfortunately. They were associated with poetry and were artists. They were supposed to treat you in royal mannerisms [similar to] princes and princesses. A certain kind of elegance was associated with them—which is an artistic trope in its own right, but at least they weren’t dehumanized and degraded.
When the British came, the Criminal Tribes Act outlawed homosexuality, being trans—any and all behavior, sexuality and gender that wasn’t heteronormative. It was all suddenly considered a criminal act, which was not something indigenous to our land and our people. Unfortunately, post-colonization, the laws that we had in our constitutions in Pakistan and India were British laws we inherited. We are still recovering from and undoing that damage, and we’re now so confused and attribute [homophobia and transphobia] to religion. But in our land, queerness was never in conflict in religion. They were both able to coexist rather peacefully.
Filmmaker: I know that much of the focus on this film has been on trans issues, Joyland is also a really intriguing study of gender across the board. Haider and his wife, Mumtaz, exemplify the dangerous restrictions of traditional gender roles. What did you base these various gender observations off of, and how did you shape these characters and performances with the actors?
Sadiq: I mean, it’s 2023, and trans issues are something that’s important and necessary to talk about, but the conversation around the film somehow got co-opted by the trans element of it. I never looked at it as a trans experience movie. For me, it was really as much about [Biba] as it was about the other two characters. I think the best way, perhaps, to humanize her presence was to just treat her as equally as the cisgender male and female characters—give her as many flaws and moments of joy and levity as possible instead of trying to make her look like a little princess who’s naive, cute, sweet and who we must always sympathize with.
As far as the other two are concerned, we had two love stories. The romance in the film is between Biba and Haider, but the real love in the film, platonic as it may be, was between the husband and wife in a certain way. The actors also agreed that it was perhaps the most tender bond the film has. As a companionship, they worked really well. In my personal opinion, a sexless marriage is probably one of the best marriages, because you’re not expecting anything from each other and can [just focus on] being good companions to each other. You’re friends, but on paper you have to stick together as a team. They’ve made the best of their particular situation: she doesn’t want to have kids, and he probably also doesn’t want to have them. At the very least, he’ll probably have a bit of trouble giving them to her. It was something they understood about each other in a deep way, perhaps even deeper than Biba and Haider understood each other, because their relationship was driven by a very primal desire. If not for the patriarchy coming in and putting them back in their boxes, being like, “No, you’re supposed to do this and that,” they could have followed through with it. Left to their own devices, they perhaps would’ve made a great couple.
Filmmaker: The motif of water, specifically the ocean, is beautifully employed, but Lahore itself is also shot so intimately and lovingly. What was your goal in contrasting these two environments, and as a lifelong resident of the city, what felt especially important for you to capture?
Sadiq: Lahore is, funnily enough, probably one of the most well-developed cities in the country. Today there is a rather decent transportation system. The roads are great, it looks very metropolitan.
Filmmaker: I was surprised how much the subway reminded me of New York’s.
Sadiq: But the vibe is so different. People are still stuck onto that very lazy, almost small town kind of vibe. The pace of the city is certainly the opposite of New York. In that sense, the ethos of the city is not metropolitan at all. It’s like one big colony of people who still live together and are up in each other’s business, but are very laid back and chilled out. There is a almost a daily clash between the old and new in the city—[the film is] shot in the old part of the city, but there’s this shiny new subway that we have, which stands out as a weird, technological piece moving around in a city that is I don’t even know how many hundreds of years old.
The ideas in the city are also very similarly employed. You have these theaters, but tradition is far more important. Whereas the sea is in Karachi, which is truly a metropolitan city. In a certain sense, it’s actually far more individualistic in nature compared to Lahore, at least as far as [personal] freedom is concerned. You do feel freer in that city compared to somewhere in Punjab, particularly Lahore. The culture of that particular state is not as patriarchal as Punjab’s culture is.
I saw the sea rather late in my life—I didn’t get to see it until I was 11 or 12. For the first 10 years of my life, I was living in this landlocked space and had no idea what it was like to see something so all-encompassing, secretive, mysterious and also scary. The later in life that you see the sea, the scarier it is. It’s not the beauty that takes you over, it’s the fear of what could happen if you entered it. For me, I think that the ending felt so correct, because it wasn’t just a beautiful coming of age [trope], like, “Oh, we’re so happy that he’s now riding into the sunset.”
I think there is a certain amount of guilt and a fear of the freedom that you thought you wanted. Once you get the freedom, you don’t know what to do with it. You don’t have any of the comfort that tradition brought you; you don’t have any of the comfort and cushion that family brought you. Everything that you knew is now not true anymore. That’s not necessarily as freeing of a thought as one would think. I wanted that feeling to be there in the film because I think that queer narratives often get engulfed in this trope of, “In the end we raise a pride flag, are all in a march, or are clubbing and dancing to a song and it’s all great.” There’s something about loneliness that nobody wants to talk about because it’s not fashionable or cute enough. I think that’s something that is perhaps most significant to talk about, because we don’t know what we want to do once we get the freedom we wanted.
Filmmaker: Big name producers came on board last year, including human rights activist Malala Yousafzai and Riz Ahmed’s Left Handed Films. How did they become involved in the project, and how did the film’s overall funding come together?
Sadiq: Apoorva Guru Charan was the first producer on the film, and she actually went to Columbia with me. She came on board, and for the longest time it was just me and her. Then Sarmad [Sultan] Khoosat, a friend of mine from Pakistan who’s a very renowned director and producer, came on board, we did a Film Independent Fast Track, and that’s how we started funding the film. So, the first funding came from Lauren Mann who did Swiss Army Man, etc. As we got the ball rolling, many financiers and producers came together to fund the film. It wasn’t one person or one particular area, but it’s actually all American-financed.
Malala and Riz came on board after the film was done. Post our Cannes premiere, they both heard about the film and reached out. We sent them a link, and they saw the film and were like, “We would like to help raise the profile of the film.” At that point in time, we had a film that was getting a lot of buzz and reviews, but we didn’t have any big names attached to give it that kind of push that you need for the award season and for the film to do well theatrically. And who wants to say no to Malala? No one [laughs]. She says, “I want to be a part of this film.” You say, “Thank you!”
Filmmaker: I know that your debut feature is only about to hit theaters in the U.S., but I’m really curious about what you’re interested (or perhaps even beginning) to work on next. Will you continue to make Pakistani-set films considering the state’s reaction to Joyland?
Sadiq: I will always make films set somewhere in Pakistan. I don’t say this exclusively, because I would like to make films anywhere in the world, wherever the story is based. But I don’t think I’ll ever disassociate myself from saying that I want to make films in Pakistan. What I’m writing now is still partially set in Pakistan, but not entirely, and it’s very much about the country. I was born there, I’ve lived there for most of my 32 years of life, so I can’t disassociate with that. It is very much my country and I’ll continue to make films about it and in it, irrespective of whatever anybody else might be saying.