Joyland was the official Pakistani entry for Best International Feature at this year's Academy Awards and has won awards like the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. The film was banned in the director’s home country for many months because it was about a married man falling for someone who is transgender. The writer and director of Joyland Saim Sadiq sat down with Borrowing Tape to set the record straight on the story he wants to tell and what he hopes audiences take away from the film once the credits roll.
Joyland is now showing in theaters.
All right, well, then let's just get rocking and rolling here today. I just want to kick things off with just not really a question and just say congratulations on everything going on with Joyland. It's a great film.
Thank you. Thank you so much.
This film feels so personal, so intimate. I just have to ask to kick things off. How did you come to create the premise of this? What was the big light bulb moment, per see?
I think the light bulb moment was really, the first light bulb moment was certainly the triangle, I think, because we're kind of used to seeing triangles a lot, love triangles, I think, in the early 2000s and particularly I come from Pakistan. I've lived here most of my life, and Bollywood makes a lot of those as well. So it was just such a template, but it was an exciting template from you because I was like, I can take that template. But what if it's set in a very patriarchal family, like the ones that we have many of them around in Pakistan, in Lahore?
And then what if one of the three is actually a trans girl? And then the kind of gender and sexual dynamics that come into play, the kind of questions that it raises about desire and patriarchy, those were things that I was actually interested in.
But the hook was something that was dramatically exciting enough for me to be like, okay, if I do this, I think I can hook an audience and then I can talk about all the things that I actually want to talk about, which are more personal for me. So I think that was the light bulb moment in a certain way.
Yeah. Interesting. I read you wrote this while you were in college or going for your Masters or something.
I was doing my master's. I wrote this when I was at Columbia. Yes, I started writing this when I was at Columbia. Yeah. So the first six drafts were all done in school, actually.
Interesting. Yeah. Nice. Nice. Well, look. I thought the overall environment and the setting of the movie and even the city in which you filmed in felt like a character in and of itself. And just a lot of the home where the family lives in feels so lived in. Just talk to me about the production process and where you filmed this and any triumphs or challenges you had while on location.
This is filmed in Lahore, which is my hometown, but it's filmed in old Lahore. So I personally never lived in old Lahore myself, but my mother and my father both come from that area and then their families used to live there when I was a child.
So that was the area that I would sort of go to during summer vacations, et cetera, to visit my aunts and uncles. There's something so specific about Lahore in terms of the way people are, in terms of they hold on to the old and yet sort of let the new seep in a superficial ways. So we'll have the Netflix, and it's a very modernized city in a superficial way. We have a great-looking subway system, which is cleaner and better than the one in New York. At the same time, at the heart. And in terms of the ways people operate, they really hold on to the old ways. And that sort of combination of the older than you was something that we wanted to sort of depict visually and feel as an essence as well of the city.
And so I had a great production designer who came from the city, who also has lived here all her life, Kanwal Khoosat, and I think she was really, really an incredible part of the process in terms of making these spaces feel lived in and making them feel real somehow are real, is actually rather colorful. And it was interesting that you would think that a film like this that kind of has the shape of a tragedy, at least overall, would be a grim-looking film. But it was interesting to be like, actually, no, the houses are colorful here, and then that's the beauty of it.
And so we want to sort of own the color that's actually the realistic way of going about things. I think a big part of just the fact that everything feels lived in is also the actors in a certain way because they had sort of developed these relationships with each other prior to the shoot and during the shoot of the film as well, that each relationship felt lived in.
It felt like they were not awkward around each other. Their bodies really sort of worked to move around each other as if they live together because they had spent quite some time doing the workshops together. And I think that helped instead of giving a lived-in view to the family setting of the film. Yeah, for sure.
That's a perfect transition to my next question because I wanted to talk to you about the casting of this movie, because everybody in this film, all the way down to the children in the house, are just kind of such a well put together team. Just talk to me about the casting process with all these actors.
So my casting director, Sana Jafri, she's an amazing gift that I found many many years ago in Pakistan. I think she was actually the first casting director. And she's so young. She kind of casted for my short films with me before and then this was actually her first feature film. The main ensemble of the film is Rasti and Ali, who are playing Haider and Mumtaz. They're actually theater actors, but they've never done a feature film before, so it was their debut film. Alina (Khan) has never done any sort of screen acting except the one short film that I'd done and never done theater. So, she was technically a non-actor. And all the other actors from the ensemble are rather famous. They're kind of veteran actors from film and television. So we've grown up. I've grown up watching them.
So it was a weird mix of actors that technically shouldn't have worked because we were like, they all would have such different processes and how is it supposed to work out? But they were all somewhere, I think, drawn to the story and what we were trying to do and were gracious enough to kind of bet on the film and on me in a certain way that they really didn't question anything. And so they really came in and kind of the film sort of dictated the process and the film dictated what was required of them and they gave that and more. So it was really quite wonderful. I think the casting of Haider was difficult because no man wanted to play a part where eventually it's a character whose masculinity is under question throughout the film in a certain way, and in particular in Pakistan if you're trying to be a leading man in mainstream movies, nobody wants to do a scene where he's going to bend over.
So that's just like a straight checkoff, like, no, that film I'm not going to do. But Ali was gamed for it and was never really a question for him in a certain way. So I think we lucked out in that way because it was really the trickiest part to cast because the women were far more easy.
Whether it was Alina or Rasti or Sarwat or Sania, all the women were much easier to actually find. And they were pretty much all my first choices for all these parts. But the way they work together, I think, is what really makes the acting ensemble work great.
So this film is about a man and a transgender performer connecting romantically. This film has played now all over the world. Outside of any news that we've already heard about the film, how are audiences reacting to it?
With such a progressive theme? Is it still kind of divisive? Obviously, people are championing it. But are you getting any pushback on anything outside of anything we already heard?
I mean, of course, outside of what you've heard. I think when it reads in Pakistan, of course, apart from the support and then the complete opposition of a film like this, which I guess, two reactions that you're aware of already. But it was interesting how sometimes the South Asian audiences that are more attuned with the culture kind of understand the film. And the reading of the film is much more sometimes not, again, not painting in everybody with a wide brush — sometimes more accepting of what the film is. Whereas sometimes, whether we release the film in the UK or in sometimes I think the Western media would perhaps talk about the film as if they were upset that why is this film not entirely focused on the trans character only? Because a trans character in a Muslim world is such the flashiest thing, I guess, about the film. And they get upset about, like, why is this film not just following her? Why is she not the protagonist? And that's something that a South Asian audience never questions. Because our way of life is very collectivist. Our societies are very collectivist in nature, way more than European or American societies.
It's way more individualistic. And it's not a good or a bad thing. It's just the way things are. And I think in that sense, when I was making a film that was about sexuality and gender but focused on a family in Pakistan, I had to make that film collectivist in order for it to be honest because it couldn't be an individual's journey, of coming of age and you're having a love affair and then how it affects him. And that's that. I wanted to make a film that talked about the collective experience of all these people. Because when one person decides to make a choice or a good or bad decision, it affects everybody around them in a much bigger and deeper way.
In societies which are we still have joint family systems where brothers and sisters and parents still live together. So there's no way that that's not going to affect it. So for me, I think the fact that the film treats the trans character as one of the many characters is something that humanizes her more because it brings her into the film as one of the many characters.
It allows her to have as many shades as the other characters. It's not that. If you're trans, you can only exist in our stories if you're the center of the attention. Otherwise, we don't want to see your story as just one of the many people, I think that's almost like why put that standard onto trans characters when we don't put that standard onto male or female characters?
So for me, I think that was an interesting debate and an interesting discourse that somewhere emerged on in between like Letterbox reviews and stuff like that that I do follow, which is interesting to think about.
One thing I'm always told to ask is, what filmmakers have had an effect on you and did you bring any of those kinds of inspirations and ideas to the crafting of Joyland?
Well, I tried to hat-tip a couple. I think Satyajit Ray is one filmmaker who I think has had a deep impact on me, especially in my twenties. I think of just showing me that there are many ways of making a film and in many ways of moving an audience, I think. And not just the Apu trilogy, but in particular Charulata, I think, is one of my favorite films of all time.
Paul Thomas Anderson, for sure. I think as a director, I just don't know if there's a better one alive right now who can tell that many different kinds of stories with the kind of grace that he has. I think he's just impeccable and has certainly had a deep impact on just the way elegance is a part of every scene, and yet he's able to keep it dramatically exciting, but it's never too in your face or cheap. There are many layers to what's happening in a scene and I think that's something that PTA does extremely well.
I think in particular for Joyland, Wong Kar-wai visually was certainly a reference, at some point. Especially with regard to the romance between Haider and Biba. Wong Kar-wai, Happy Together was something that I was like, okay, it's a reference that makes sense. So these three, I guess.
Last question here, just to kind of wrap things up. I know the film has been released in New York right now and it's played major festivals, but when it gets kind of a major, bigger release in a couple of weeks, What do you want audiences to take away from this movie when the credits roll?
I hope many things, ideally. I don't know if I've ever taken from a film what exactly the filmmaker intended me to take and what the person sitting next to me was taking. And I think that's what, in a way, the beauty of cinema is that different people take different things from a film. And I think in that sense, I think Joyland is one of those films that is particularly of that nature because it's an ensemble film and because it is a film that follows many characters that so far in the reactions I have seen that people just generally take different things from different people. They attach themselves to different characters in a certain way. And I think that's beautiful. But I think overall, I would hope that just a certain sense of empathy for people who may not be like us.
And that doesn't just apply to, if a conservative person is watching this film and they should have empathy for liberal ideas or queer people, et cetera, or have a certain affinity towards feminism, et cetera, I think it applies the other way around as well —that I think if we are liberal, I think approaching conservative ideas, no matter how hard that might be, or conservative people with a certain level of empathy and kindness — is also something that I think we and I include myself as liberals have kind of forgotten to do. And I think just an overall layer of empathy and kindness towards somebody towards people who may not be exactly like you, but they're probably fighting a battle as well. Is something that would be nice to have, I think, as a response to the film.