MAKING PAKISTAN PROUD ONE ON ONE WITH THE INCREDIBLE TEAM OF ‘JOYLAND’
We had an opportunity to have a conversation face to face with the young, successful director and writer Saim Sadiq of ‘Joyland’, the first Pakistani film to be premiered at Cannes Film Festival in May, along with the main leads: the beautiful Rasti Farooq, most handsome Ali Junejo and the darling Alina Khan. They talked about the incredible experience they had at Cannes Film Festival, how they came to know about Cannes, the challenges they faced and more. Read on…
Saim, what is the inspiration behind ‘Joyland’? And how did you come up with this name?
I was inspired with the ideas of theatres, they were an inspiring, interesting and intriguing thing for me, but I think as a whole what the story talks about and all these characters were kind of inspired by living in Pakistan and observing gender constructs within my family, friends and at workplaces. I think subconsciously my mother inspired a lot of the story and some of the characters. Like ‘Mumtaz’ played by Rasti was originated and inspired by my mother and so many other observational things that I have sort of accumulated over the course of my life so far
‘Joyland’ is kind of controversial and most of our Pakistani audience is not ready to accept this topic yet. Were you scared of getting backlash while you were writing and directing the film?
No, I was not scared at all because I think it might appear to be controversial to some people but I don’t think it is controversial at all. I wouldn’t say it’s a normal story but at the core of it, it is a very regular Pakistani middle-class family that the film is based on. Of course, there is romance in the film and there is a trans character too. Controversies are around things that are not so visible to part of our society and I think trans people are everywhere. In our society they’ve always been for so long and they should. I think there is a space for them in our society as much as in our stories. We haven’t had any backlash so far. And I think if some people might not have an idea of the film, they’ll probably get clarification once if they actually watch it.
In your opinion what could be the reason of Netflix not working with our filmmakers? The projects of our industry are no less than any season/movie on Netflix, I mean ‘Joyland’ premiering at Cannes is something huge.
I think there are bunch of logistical reasons. But I heard there might be a couple of projects. Its about time, it will start eventually. They came to India only five-six years ago because obviously they have a much larger industry. We don’t produce as much TV and films and our TV is not globally known. It might be popular in Pakistan and India but not beyond that so it’s a small market so far, but I think things are looking up and very soon we will have Netflix and Amazon and all of these picking up shows from here or making shows with people from over here.
How did you come to know that you along with your team will be going to Cannes Film Festival in France? What was the excitement level of you and them?
I came to know about Cannes on my birthday 28th March, so I’ll always remember the day. It only had been a couple of days since I applied, I got an email from the head of the festival saying that we will be inviting your film for the official selection and I was very happy, I walked around in my house for like 20 minutes and then I wanted to call all of them and tell them but I didn’t because I thought maybe I should tell them together. I didn’t know Sana had already told Alina, but I wanted to tell all the actors together. We were all in the different places. We didn’t see each other since the shoot ended in November. So, after four-five months, we were in on a Zoom call together with a very good news about the film, so it was very very sweet.
You have a diverse cast with senior actors as well as fresh faces. What is the story behind finding the perfect lead for your film? Or did you already know Alina, Rasti and Ali?
I knew Alina and Rasti, I didn’t know Ali at all. I did ‘Darling’ with Alina, and I knew she would be doing ‘Joyland’ with me too. I never told her that she’ll be 100% doing it but I did say that I’ll keep working with her. So, we became friends, I used to hang out with her. I told her what the basic story is about because she had not done acting except ‘Darling’ so I knew I had to approach her in a different way eg; I’ll tell her about the character, she’ll keep thinking about it and it will become a part of her.
I knew Rasti, we both went to LUMS, she was my junior, we did a little short film together because I wanted to apply for my grad school at Columbia. And then we’ve been in touch on and off. I enjoyed working with her then and she did another short film with Tabish which I also saw, and I thought it was lovely. Rasti was the first person I sent script to, and she was the last person to be casted. I sent her the script when I had no money. I knew I’ve to find people for my film, but I was determined to cast Rasti for ‘Mumtaz’s’ role.
For ‘Haider’, we auditioned 600 boys and were about to almost give up at the end because it was a tough character and for some people it was difficult to understand. There were people I wanted to cast but they were not confident enough on themselves that they can give justice to the character. They all were struggling actors and even they were saying no to me. Luckily, Ali dropped from the sky.
I just wanted to be the guy who could be a good director to all of them because I was aware of the fact that they all work in very different ways. By the time we started shooting, I felt like they were helping me instead of wanting help from me. They made their own versions of the characters. Honestly, making the film and working with my cast was the greatest joy of my life rather than going to any festival.I had more fun on the set of the film than I had at the festival.
Any new projects you’re working on?
I’m working on a script for some producers in LA. It’s an adaptation of a book. It’s an American film so I’m supposed to write the final draft and give it to them. After that I’ll thin about what to do next.
Hi Rasti! Tell us a bit about yourself? Do you want to share about any new projects you’re working on?
Basically, I started out doing theatre; I’ve always been fond of acting so I started doing plays wherever I could find them. Saim was the one who gave me my first oncamera experience when we shot a film back when we were in college and then from there, I met Tabish, I did another shoot with him then I discovered Kanwal Khoosat in Olomopolo. I did two plays with them and then ‘Joyland’ came.
‘Joyland’ was your first feature film and was selected for Cannes, were you on cloud nine when you first heard this news?
Yeah, pretty much, because when we were shooting it, we all knew it was something very special just because of the text we were kind of pouring ourselves into. I didn’t imagine myself walking the red carpet at Cannes, which was really unbelievable. I remember the day when we found out, we were all on a call with Saim, and then he surprised us with the news. He was like ‘Guys we made it to Cannes.’ And there was silence for a couple of seconds and then some people started screaming and exclaiming their excitement but I was like ‘Wait, what? Are you talking about THE CANNES? Like wait … hang on.’ It was unbelievable. I think it was the day when we sat down at the WCA theatre at Cannes to watch our film ‘Joyland’ on a big screen with lots of other people. That was the moment I was like ‘Ohhh okay we are at Cannes.’ It was one of the extraordinary life experiences very few people get to experience, and I feel very lucky to be part of that. And I kicked that off my list so yeah.
While the film was being shot, did you have any idea or sixth sense that ‘Joyland’ is going to be something exceptional?
Yes, and no. Like no in a sense that would it end up in Cannes? I knew Saim always wanted to submit it to festivals abroad, I was hoping that it would get selected, but as actors, you don’t really think about that. We don’t show up on set going like ‘Yeah I’m on a film that’s going to make it to the most prestigious festivals in the world.’ We just focus on the work so I did not think it would end up at Cannes. Yes, part of my answer is that I always knew that it was an exceptional film because of couple of reasons like the text we were working on, it was a beautifully written story unlike anything I read coming out of Pakistan It’s so w o n d e r f u l , t e n d e r, f u n n y, heartbreaking, so intelligently written and there are so many characters you feel so much for.
Did you face any challenge during the journey of ‘Joyland’? Did you feel intimidated among senior artists?
I don’t think intimidated is the right word. When I found out about the cast, I was very excited and thrilled because it had people like Sania Saeed, she’s someone who I’ve grown up watching. She’s been marvellous on screen since the beginning of time. I’ve met her before at Olomopolo where I did plays with Kanwal and sometimes, she used to sit in my rehearsals and it wasn’t intimidating, it was like when do I get to work with her now? So, I had a few scenes with her, and I was very excited about doing that - it was so much fun and then Sarwat was in it too, she had fantastic energy on set and it was very fun to work with her. I also had a lot of scenes with Ali and with him it was like a whole man hunt. I was very happy that I got to work along side people who are this fantastic, so it was more like excitement and thrill than feeling intimidated.
Challenges: it was a difficult script too because there were a lot of complicated people in the script. The relationships between family members are very tense in their own ways, not in the sense like they hate each other but there was some tension that existed among all these people. I wanted to bring my character into authentic and real kind of way. Hours before shoot, we used to visit the Khoosat's office, going over scenes with everybody and breaking scenes down which was really helpful. We worked collectively to bring this on screen.
Any memorable experience or event during the shoot of ‘Joyland’, which is close to your heart?
‘Mumtaz’ works at a parlour; it means she does makeup and hair regularly and she’s very good at it except, in reality I’m the opposite when it comes to makeup. It was my last day on set, we were shooting at a parlour, and I had to dress up a bride. Our makeup artist was also on set. While the lights were being set up, I was like ‘You got 10 minutes, teach me how to do makeup.’ He was there, and he was like ‘blush aise lagate hen. Youn nahi karna, aise karna hai. Brush ke youn swipes hon ge.’ And I’m horrendous at blending anything at my own face.
Then there was a ‘qurbani’ scene that happened, it was a happy occasion and the goat was supposed to be a feisty creature that resists her sacrifice except the goat we got was the most docile creature on the planet and she just laid there like ‘mai taiyaar hon is qurbani ke liye’. And the actors in the scene were supposed to wrestle with the goat except the goat was just lying there so they had to pretend wrestle. I remember laughing my butt off because that goat was the cutest.
Tell us something about yourself, your background?
I have a theatre background, I’ve been doing theatre for many years and I’m from Karachi, born and bred. Currently I’m in Lahore for work. I’ve a theatre background basically so that’s how I got into this whole film and theatre thing.
How did you end up as a lead in ‘Joyland’? What was your expression when you first came to know that you’ll be working among the superstars of Pakistani film industry?
I auditioned. I got a call from Sana who was our casting director and through some people in our theatre community in Karachi; she heard that I should try it out so, I did. I met her and Saim and we went to this four-hour discussion and audition process, which was a lot of fun. After that Sana called me after a week and said if you want do it, let's talk about it. And it was unbelievable, the fact that I read the script of ‘Joyland’ and I had a room to interpret the script and the characters, how they were playing out in my head and I just loved where it was going.
Any new thing you learnt among the diverse cast of ‘Joyland’?
I rediscovered the fun of working with a small, nice tight little family. Because during Covid, not much was happening, at that time we did one theatre festival at the Art Council in Karachi. When we work at theatre in Karachi, it’s always like small groups of very passionate, headstrong and very adventurous people. For the last couple of years, I was cycling and teaching. As soon as ‘Joyland’ happened, I think I rediscovered the fun of working with different people and working like it’s a small family.
What was your reaction when you first heard about Cannes?
Saim messaged me and said I need to talk to you, now when your director says 'I need to talk to you', you’ve done something wrong, you’ve shattered the earth, you’ve somehow brought out the corpse. First, I thought he’s kind of stuck somewhere, something’s going on. I was with my family at Dolmen, and I thought ‘mai jaldi se ghar pohonch jayon ga or bhag ke Saim bechara jahan bhi phasa hai usy pick karon ga, jise marna hai usy maaren ge ja ke, koi tension nae hai’. I was in that headspace. Saim also said I can’t talk on the phone right now and it’s much easier to speak on Zoom. And I was really really worried. When I got the Zoom link and signed on, I was like what is going on because everybody was there. Then Saim said, ‘Now as we all are here, I’ve to give you some straightforward news - we’ve got into Cannes, and we all are going.’ What prepares you for moments like these? Nothing does so I was like what?! like ‘kya mtlb? Ya koi mazak hai karne ka? Is type ka mazak mere sath na karen’. And then everyone was screaming with joy, and I was like no, it is unbelievable. Everybody was celebrating so I felt the urge of excitement and I didn’t know what to do with it.
Will you be taking a break after this super hit? Or you have already signed new projects? Can you share them?
Right after the film wrapped, a month or so later, we started doing a cineplay with Kanwal. It is called ‘Both Sit in Silence For A While’. It is a really fun two-person play. Rasti and I are performing it so it should be a lot of fun. It went up on 15-17th July at Olomopolo. After this, there’s a film in the pipeline that I’m trying to make. So, let’s hope all that works out.
You are an inspiration for all the transgenders all over the world by being so successful at a very young age. Did you face any barriers or hurdles during your journey?
I will thank Allah Almighty that he gave me a lot of respect and my voice could be heard. I’ve always loved to dance and I do makeup. My mom used to stop me and take me to ‘maulvis’ for ‘dum durud’, they thought there might be someone in me who is making me do that. People used to say to my dad in gatherings that your son is different, is he sick? Get him checked up. Why does he do these kinds of things? Get him married. Everything was new to me then. I didn’t know why I was facing all that. In school, I was more comfortable hanging out with girls. My siblings also stopped me so I thought there might be something in me, which I could change if I wanted to. I tried my best to pretend like a boy, got a job too but my gender was something else. I used to feel that I couldn’t pretend to be a boy anymore because that is something I’m not, I have a soul of a girl. Then I thought for how long will I fight? I left my house, left my education, which I think is my biggest weakness, then I started dancing on functions because you need money to survive.
I am sure you guys are pretty busy with interviews now days, but before the film was released, what were your day-to-day activities looked like?
Before the film, I did ‘Darling’, after that I was free, it took almost two years in ‘Joyland’ so I used to do functions because I had to manage the budget of the whole year as I used to live alone and had to support my family too. I'd give two-three hours of my day to dance rehearsals.
How will you define the experience you had at Film Festival starting from when you first came to know that you’ll be visiting France?
Sana ‘jee’ called me for the first time and told me about it. It was an opportunity to visit Cannes and when Sana ‘jee’ told me about that, I couldn’t believe that I’ll be going to Cannes, will I get my passport and visa? Will I reach there? Saim and Urwa ‘jee’ worked hard, Sarmad ‘jee’ also helped me in getting the procedure done. I was worried about my clothes too. I started researching about what to wear and used to look at videos from the red carpet. They welcomed us warmly at Cannes. After spending some days there, I came to know that people don’t care about my gender here and it made me comfortable. I was nervous for the screening because I didn’t see the film and had no idea on how it turned out. We saw it on the big screen and then received a standing ovation. Saim wrote the film very well and how he portrayed trans ‘Biba’ character. It created awareness that we (trans people) can also do something. The night of the ceremony we didn’t know that we would be winning an award. I was so excited for that. I never lost hope, I knew our parents ‘duas’ are with us, and we will never lose. When we got there, Saim received the first award, I was so happy, I screamed out of joy. I didn’t know that we will be going for the second award the same day. E v e r y o n e a p p r e c i a t e d a n d supported me, and we got the second award too. This completed the reason of us going to Cannes.
In a recent interview you talked about having a clash with your family. What was their reaction when they came to know that your film is going to be premiered at Cannes Film Festival?
My family was so happy, they accepted me after ‘Darling’, I had a clash with my elder sister. When I told my family about Cannes, my sister called me and asked you’ve done something again? I said yes. She appreciated me and said whatever you’re doing, you’re not being a cause of disrespect for us and it’s a good thing. When I came back from Cannes, I went straight to my family and stayed with them for a few days. We all want to live with each other, but our society will never accept that, and I don’t want my family to face anything because of me. So, I’m better off alone. And I’m happy that they’re happy with my work and I could have a connection with them again.
What are your future plans in terms of working in an entertainment industry?
I thank Allah that he gave me an opportunity to present myself at a very big platform as a Pakistani trans. And I would want to get more opportunities like this in future. I hope I will make a way and offer o p p o r t u n i t i e s t o m y t r a n s community to help them to be casted in movies, dramas, and plays. And to work more to ease my community so they could also get an opportunity to present themselves in front of their families. I hope when this movie releases in Pakistan, it will create awareness and will give a message to all the viewers. It also shows the struggle of a woman, the problems in the life of a man. It will pave ways for our trans community and people will give us more opportunities to grow.
INTERVIEW: MARYAM ZUBERI
PHOTOS: COURTESY TEAM JOYLAND &