Tthat movie Joyland can be Oscar buzz generation, after becoming Pakistan’s first film to be screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in May – and winning the Jury Prize. But Joylandwhich depicts a love story between the youngest son of a “happy patriarchal” family and a transgender star, has caused waves of controversy in the conservative Muslim country.
A week before its nationwide release on November 18, the government of Pakistan banned the film after a series of complaints, citing that it contained “highly objectionable material”. This prompted high profile Pakistani actors including Humayun Syed as well as executive producer of the film Malala Yousafzaito speak out in favor of lifting the ban.
The government has since relented after Ann order by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to review the countrywide ban on the film opening in three of the country’s four provinces earlier this week. But Joyland remains banned in Punjab, the country’s most populous region.
TIME spoke with director Saim Sadiq about his new film and the controversy surrounding it.
What feels most unprecedented Joyland for you?
Sadiq: The most unprecedented thing is that there was a banned film that remained unbanned. This year alone, Pakistan has banned at least three films – so in that sense, it’s a moment of victory for Pakistani filmmakers at home that’s as important to celebrate as winning international awards. It’s a half-won battle, but not completely, as audiences in Punjab are still unable to watch the film.
Why does it matter that the film is still banned in Punjab?
Honestly, it’s heartbreaking. Half the movie is spoken in Punjabi. The film is set in Punjab, which is also the country’s biggest film market. This is something we are still actively working to reverse. I hope that the political interest in this film dies down and it is allowed to be just a film.
When the film was banned, Pakistani authorities said it was “highly objectionable” and rumored to be against Pakistan’s religious and cultural beliefs. What was your reaction?
I expected this argument. I knew some people would label him as having an LGBTQ agenda to make sure the movie didn’t get released. Using religion is the easiest way to tell someone not to use their brain. The movie doesn’t talk about religion because I don’t think patriarchy is something that stems from religion as much as culture.
Most of the characters in the film are conservative and are presented as decent people. If anything, I do a lot to encourage empathy for conservative Pakistanis. How often do you see this – especially in sex films? They are often seen as an affront to people who are fulfilling their true identity. But I didn’t want to do it because it didn’t feel right.
What is the power of a fictional narrative in exposing issues surrounding patriarchy, gender, and trans identity?
This is not an issue film about trans rights or women’s rights. She is not an activist at all. Not much is said about the diseases of patriarchy. It does show female characters going through problems in their personal lives, but it is seen as a fictional story and that makes it stronger.
I don’t care if people walk out of the movie with the same conservative views as when they first walked in – as long as there’s an empathy built for the characters who may not be like them.
The romance between Haider and Biba – a young man and a trans woman in Lahore – attracted a lot of attention. Why is their relationship so central to the film?
Pakistani cinema has never depicted a romance between a Lahori boy and a trans woman, so people cling to it. But at its heart it is an ensemble film about a family and Haider is the youngest son who has a budding relationship with Biba and enters the unseen world of Punjabi dance theatre. The film follows how his decisions affect every member of his family and in particular his wife Mumtaz.
It’s rare to see movies that take into account the longing to be individualists, but you can’t because of how interconnected family members are. As Pakistanis, our experiences are never individual. Many of us live in shared family systems and understand what it means to have every member of your family involved in decision making – how privacy is so elusive.
Haider has genuine feelings for Biba. But sometimes the way he expresses his love can seem painful to her. At one point, he questions why she has to do “all this” about wanting to get gender confirmation surgery, adding “I like you the way you are.” What was the thinking behind including this scene?
Both are well-intentioned and want to do good for each other. But there is a fetishization of trans women happening all over the world by men. Despite the fact that Haider is a gentle and good person in many aspects, I did not want him to be free from this fetishism. Not badly intended, but he views her as a khwaja sira while she wants to be a woman. This collision makes their love story somewhat impossible.
Can you tell us about Pakistan khwaja sira (trans and intersex) community?
There is a misconception that khwaja siras exist in this country because of the Western trans rights movement. But it’s just not true. They had a presence in the Pakistani Mughal courts where they taught princes and princesses royal manners and poetry. They had a prestigious position in our culture before they had visibility in the West. So our movement for khwaja sira’s rights has nothing to do with the west. Honestly, it’s very, very local; it is unique to our culture and land. Calling it simply a Western agenda is also a way to kill critical debate.
What was the significance of casting trans actress Alina Khan as Biba? Was it a deliberate choice on your part?
Alina and I started working together three years ago for my short film, dear, which features a trans girl protagonist. I wanted to cast a trans girl for this film, but the few we liked didn’t get permission from home, so I ended up settling on a young theater actor.
We went to Alina’s house as part of our research for dear. She didn’t audition for us, but I was fascinated by her. I realized that our original choice just couldn’t do what she does. So I learned my lesson. I awkwardly let go of the young actor in her favor.
People who talk about appropriate casting make it sound like charity for trans people, but that should never be the case. The person best suited for the job should get it. There’s no way you can get a man to portray a trans woman and make him feel that truthful. I chose her then so that my film could be better. I knew I wanted her to be cast in Joyland as well.
The discrimination Biba experiences is seen primarily through the lens of regular, everyday human interaction. For example, her co-workers joke about what’s between her legs. What’s the strongest feeling about telling the story this way, as opposed to depicting overt violence?
These microaggressions are more comparable; it is something that many more people have done and experienced than a greater act of violence. If an audience sees a character physically abusing a trans person, many of them would agree that it’s bad, but argue that they wouldn’t act that way. I wanted to describe something that far more people could see themselves being complicit in.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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