Exclusive Interview: Saim Sadiq & Alina Khan on the Queer Palm-winning Joyland “it’s been the collaboration of a lifetime”

Writer-director Saim Sadiq and actress Alina Khan speak exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about Joyland, which opens in select US theaters, including the Film Forum in New York, from Friday, April 7th, followed by the Landmark Nuart in Los Angeles on Friday, April 21st, 2023. Having world premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, winning both the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize and the Queer Palm, the film went on to play at other major festivals around the world like TIFF and Sundance, winning a raft of awards, including the 2023 Independent Spirit Award for Best International Film.

Alina Khan and Saim Sadiq at the 75th Cannes International Film Festival. Photo credit: Amandine Goetz / FDC.

Sadiq’s stunning debut feature explores the many sides of love and desire in a patriarchal society. It follows the gentle and timid Haider (Ali Junejo) who lives with his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), his father, and his elder brother’s family in Lahore, Pakistan. Following a long period of unemployment, Haider finally lands a job at a Bollywood-style burlesque, telling his family that he is a theater manager, when he is in fact a backup dancer for a captivating and strong-willed trans woman, Biba (Alina Khan), whom he soon becomes infatuated with. As the steadfast traditional dynamics of his household are shaken up, Haider begins to break out of his shell, while his connection with Biba opens his eyes and ultimately his worldview.

Ali Junejo and Alina Khan in Saim Sadiq’s JOYLAND. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

During the interview, Sadiq discusses the film initially being banned in Pakistan in November 2022 and the debate that Joyland has sparked in the country, while Khan shares her thoughts on the film’s groundbreaking trans representation and taking on the role of Biba.

Saim Sadiq & Alina Khan on JOYLAND’s groundbreaking trans representation in South Asian film

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: You’d already worked together on the short film Darling; Saim, why was Alina someone that you wanted to collaborate with on both films and what did she bring to them as an actress?

Saim Sadiq: “She’s my friend, so I can be very honest. The truth is we were not really spoilt for choice when it came to casting Darling in the fall of 2018, because there were no trans actors in the country. So I had to sort of create a trans actor in a certain way. Me and my casting director, Sana Jafri, were looking for any trans girl who had some kind of ambition and some spark, then we thought that we would add to that and give her any training that we could. Unfortunately, we got to Alina really late in the process. It was about five days before the shoot of the short film.”

“I met her and there was just a spark about her and of course the camera loves her in such a specific, beautiful way. There’s a movie star quality to her presence, even without her being directed, so I thought what if she was directed and trained and given the tools? Darling was essentially a long audition that allowed me to see if she had that in her. After we made Darling I told her, ‘I’m writing another film, Joyland, which is the whole point of doing this short, and you’re going to be in that.’ So it’s really been a collaboration of a lifetime in that sense.”

Alina Khan: “With Darling, the character was struggling in their life and at that time in my own life I was a teenager and related to that a lot because I was struggling myself. It felt like a good opportunity to show my own life through the character. I was also fighting and trying to do something with my life. Getting to do it felt like a dream, I was in shock that I was cast in Darling.”

“After that, I didn’t get any big work in Pakistan and when Saim reached out about Joyland I loved the character of Biba. The character was strong and wasn’t shown in a comedic manner or a way that was trying to make fun of her. She was going to do something with her life, she was going to fight for her life, she was passionate and talented. She chose to stay with her trans community since she didn’t have family support. I thought that I needed to play this character because it was the first time in a South Asian film that a trans character was in control of her own life. I was very happy about the role, but it was still challenging. Before we started shooting, I did a 3 month workshop and had a lot of support and love from the cast and filmmakers. They didn’t make me feel like a new member of the group.”

“I knew I that needed to take the role because it was an opportunity to show how trans women rely on dancing and this sort of work to make a living. It was an opportunity to get people to be more understanding about these sorts of situations. I worked hard to make sure I understood the character and why she might be making some of the decisions that she makes in the film. I reread the script and I tried to embody the character while on set. I’m so happy to be part of Joyland and for all the support we have received internationally and that people are interested in learning about the trans community that exists in Pakistan.”

Ali Junejo and Alina Khan in Saim Sadiq’s JOYLAND. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Saim, you said that when you when you wrote the film over here in New York, that it was partly as a “heartbroken love letter to your homeland”. The film is still banned in Lahore where you shot it, but was released in the rest of the country, how meaningful has it been to each of you to see the debate that the film has sparked in Pakistan?

“It’s something that I’ve come to terms with now after the fire has been being put out. November was really chaotic for us when the ban first happened. Then it was unbanned nationally, but banned in Punjab. It was emotionally taxing, but also a time when you couldn’t really do much about our emotional states because we had so many pragmatic things to do. We still had to push for the film, so none of us really got the time to actually step back and be like, mentally and emotionally I need a I need a timeout, because we couldn’t take a timeout. We had to do what was best for the film and push for it to be released. The good thing that came out of that was the debate and the fact that conversations about queerness and the trans community are not hush-hush conversations anymore.”

“One completely understands that the majority in the country is still perhaps very much not for that kind of an acceptance at this point in time. But this is that very uncomfortable first step that one needs to take to be able to open up that conversation and see who is against and who is for and what they’re talking about, what their reasons are. It’s not the nicest experience to be part of to be honest, but it is the necessary one. If you look at any movement anywhere historically speaking, this is the necessary first big step that has happened and I’m glad that Joyland happened to be at the center of all that. I was also very surprised by how much support there was. It was far more than I had expected from Pakistan, so that’s been very gratifying.”

Ali Junejo in Saim Sadiq’s JOYLAND. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Is there anything you’d like to add to that Alina?

Saim Sadiq (translating for Alina Khan): “She says that film has done so many things for her in the sense of just bringing the conversation out into the open and giving her an opportunity. It’s the first time in South Asia that appropriate casting has been done, with a trans character actually played by a trans person. She also wants to mention that it’s not just her character, but when there are scenes of her with her chosen family, those characters are all played by trans women too, who were given the opportunity to be in the film. In that sense, it sets a great precedent for future films in Pakistan.”

“The character of Biba wasn’t a victim. She was volatile, sometimes very angry, and a woman with a lot of agency. To be able to see that represented on screen without compromising on her vulnerable side was also something that she was very excited about. Again, it set a very human precedent for depicting trans characters on screen. Instead of just glorifying her, it showed the complexities and the layers of what a trans person can be all about, which is all the complexities and layers that come with being a cis man or a cis woman. She was also happy that this particular film wasn’t only about the trans experience, because we’ve had a lot of those stories before, not in Pakistan, but the world over. With Joyland, she’s happy that it was an ensemble film that happened to include a trans character who is part of other people’s stories and other people are part of her story. It was that inherent inclusion that makes Biba, and the film, revolutionary because it shows trans people don’t have to be segregated and exist separately both in life and in stories. We can actually bring them together and see what happens when they clash. There are moments of beauty and of discomfort that come out of that, which are both necessary.”

By James Kleinmann

Joyland opens in select North American theaters from Friday, April 7th, 2023 including Film Forum in New York, and followed by the Landmark Nuart in Los Angeles on Friday, April 21st. For more locations visit the Oscilloscope Laboratories website.

Saim Sadiq & Alina Khan on JOYLAND’s groundbreaking trans representation in South Asian film
Joyland – Official Trailer – Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Joyland – Official Poster – Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: