The first-ever Pakistani entry in a Cannes Film Festival competition has left audiences slack-jawed and admiring its daring portrait of a transgender dancer in the Muslim country.
‘Joyland’ by director Saim Sadiq, a tale of the sexual revolution, tells the story of the youngest son in a patriarchal family who is expected to produce a baby boy with his wife but joins an erotic dance theatre and falls for the troupe’s director, a trans woman.
The Cannes opening night’s audience gave “Joyland” a standing ovation, Variety lauding the movie as “so fresh, we’re continuously surprised”, while Deadline called it “thoughtful, well performed and engrossing”.
Part of the surprise stemmed from the discovery by many at Cannes that Pakistan became one the first nations to give legal protection against discrimination against transgender people.
In 2009, Pakistan legally recognised the third sex, and in 2018, the first transgender passport was issued.
“Pakistan is very schizophrenic, almost bipolar,” director Saim Sadiq told AFP in an interview.
“You get, of course, prejudice and some violence against a particular community on the one hand, but you also get this very progressive law which basically allows everyone to identify their own gender, and also identifies a third gender,” he said.
“Is it implemented entirely? Of course not. But it’s only been four years since the legislative change started happening.”
– ‘Associated with poetry’ –
Before the British established their Indian Empire in the 19th century, trans people were not marginalised, said Sadiq.
“They were associated with art and poetry, they were the ones asked to teach manners to royals, to educate princes and princesses — that was their space in society,” he said.
Today, trans people in Pakistan “don’t live as freely as they would perhaps in France”, he added. “But nor is it like it might be in the imagination of somebody who thinks: ‘Muslim world’. At some level, they are freer than what you might anticipate,” he added.
“Joyland” makes clear that the challenges for the trans community are broadly similar to those faced by cisgender women in Pakistan, where heterosexual men get to explore their desires, unlike everybody else.
“It’s pretty terrible for anybody who is not a straight man,” said Sadiq.
But he quickly added: “It’s the same in the rest of the world, there’s no country in the world where a straight man is not at the top of the pile.”
There is, however, one crucial difference between cisgender and transgender women: “Women are fighting against their domestication and for trans women it’s almost the other way around, they’re fighting for a place at home. They’re fighting to stay with their families, to not have to be on the streets,” Sadiq said.
And while trans women are a familiar sight in streets in Pakistan, “unfortunately they’ll be begging, or whatever”.
– ‘Everybody can relate’ –
The film’s trans dancer character, Biba, is played by Alina Khan who is herself a transgender woman. Through an NGO she auditioned, without being a professional actress, for a role in Sadiq’s 2019 short film “Darling”, got the part, and continued working with him.
“My character Biba and I share a similar struggle,” Khan told AFP. “But Biba is angrier than I am.”
Khan, who saw “Joyland” for the first time at the Cannes festival, said she felt proud and emotional during the screening.
“I tried to keep it together because I didn’t want to make a mess, but the reception was overwhelming. Some people in the audience started crying and I then I couldn’t help myself, so I cried, too,” she said.
She expects the film to find a receptive audience once released in Pakistan.
“It’s an ensemble film that deals with men, women, and gender politics and issues of various kinds that almost everybody can relate to,” she said. “It’s going to be interesting for the audience back home.”
Khan said the film’s main takeaway for transgender people was: “People from the trans community can do anything they want to do, just like any man or any woman”.