Saim Sadiq’s Joyland is a labour of many rewrites. Conceived as something for a class project at the Columbia film school, Sadiq began writing the script in 2016, with his classmate Apoorva Charan, who is also the producer of the film.
Initially turned into a short film Darling (2019), Sadiq’s core idea of exploring a married man’s (Haider, played by Ali Junejo) growing proximity to a transwoman (Biba, played by Alina Khan) against the backdrop of an erotic dance theatre in Lahore, got more refined with each draft.
Moving beyond a film about a ‘taboo’ relationship – Joyland examines how the affair irreversibly changes the dynamics within an ordinary Pakistani family – comprising the patriarch Abbaji (Salmaan Peerzada), elder son Saleem (Sameer Sohail), his dutiful wife Nuchhi (Sarwat Gilani), younger son Haider and his quietly enterprising wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq).
The result is a film so graceful that it never tries to overemphasise its ‘importance’ to the audience. Premiering at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, Sadiq’s feature directorial debut was Pakistan’s first film to compete for Caméra d’Or (for first-time feature filmmakers), ending up winning Queer Palm and Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section. Also playing at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2022, among other prestigious festivals, Joyland became Pakistan’s entry for the Oscars.
However, a week before its domestic release in November 2022, Sadiq’s film was banned in its home country. With a widespread social media furore ensuing, and the crew extensively voicing their disappointment, the ban was overturned a week later. The timing might have hurt its Oscar bid. After making the shortlist, Joyland wasn’t a Best International Film nominee.
A few hiccups aside, Sadiq’s film has had a good (some would say ‘charmed’) run. It could become the first Pakistani film to get a theatrical release in India since Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol (2011). It’s also worth noting that The Legend of Maula Jatt (2022) was gearing up for release in India in December last year, but it was abruptly halted and indefinitely postponed.
Recently, Saim Sadiq and Apoorva Charan spoke to The Wire from Los Angeles. They discussed the status of its India release, making films about repressed societies, censorship, and South Asian families as a premise fertile with conflicts.
The excerpts from the interview have been slightly edited for style and clarity.
Apoorva, you said somewhere that you had the privilege of seeing this project evolve from a logline to a feature-length film. Do you remember what the logline was?
Apoorva: I feel like it was close to the logline we have right now. If my memory serves me right, I think it said that this film is about “a man, a woman and a transwoman”.
Saim, could you briefly touch upon how the project evolved?
Saim: I started writing the story in 2016 for a class. Initially, I was writing because I was intrigued by it, not sure if I would end up making it. But the more I wrote it, the more attached I got to the world. At the end of the class, Apoorva came on board and said she wanted to produce it.
After that, I think we had a new draft every six months. It was slightly funny, [because] in those early drafts, one of the things I struggled with was the film’s main character – Haider. I wasn’t able to make him the empathetic, complex character that he is today.
Darling became a pit stop because I had to make a thesis film, and I was deeply interested in this world. [Right before Darling] I moved to Pakistan for research, the casting process began, and we found Alina. She’s one of the most integral factors for Joyland happening, being one of the first actors cast. Even if the core of the film is the same, the draft that came after became a large part of the final film.
Between Darling and Joyland, I thought there was a recognisable assurance in your style. Did you feel that? What did you specifically do?
Saim: Some of the plot points in the early drafts were very different from how it eventually turned out to be. Like in the first draft, the man didn’t know he was falling for a trans girl until very late in the script. It was a secret, then I found films like The Crying Game (1992) that had done something similar, and I personally lost interest in attaching a secrecy to the character. I realised if she’s so emancipated, then this would become uninteresting.
I thought let me try not attaching a ‘twist’ to her sexuality or gender, because more than her [the onus of their mutual attraction] is on him. The characters were all there. They got more refined.
What kind of families did you grow up in? How did that inform the script, if at all?
Saim: I grew up in a standard family set-up. My father was in the army, he retired in 2010. My mother is a housewife and I have a sister, who is married. I think ours is a fairly conservative family. I’ve still not shown my parents the uncensored version. [There’s an unsaid understanding where] they’re like: we know you’ve made something. Show us the part we’ll be proud of, not uncomfortable. They’ve grown to be more understanding, and learned to create space for their children.
Mumtaz and Nuchi are both based on my mother. When people would read the early versions of the script – they would look at these two women as ‘subplots’. I’ve seen the women in my family go unnoticed, and their domestic labour is not only unpaid, but rarely acknowledged. It filled me with sadness that when someone like them dies, people don’t know what to remember them for.
When a man dies – they know he did this and that, but with domestic women it’s so generic how we remember them. “She was a nice woman” – like what does that even mean! It’s as if they aren’t human beings, just sacrificial outlines.
Apoorva: I grew up amid extremes. My nuclear family comprises my parents – they’re some of the ‘woke’ people of their generation. My mother has always been a working woman, and there was always this tension between the extended family and my mother not fully ascribing to her ‘gender role’. The idea that she wouldn’t ask my father for permission about many things, or that she had her own life, was very new to the extended family. I do think she was ‘punished’ a bit, for being independent.
I think South Asian families are a fascinating premise for films. Did you have any other films in mind while writing Joyland?
Saim: Maybe Asghar Farhadi’s films where each character is treated with utmost care and respect, and there’s no puritan notion of a ‘protagonist’. For certain characters I had references like [Satyajit Ray’s] Charulata was a reference for Mumtaz. I even put her in a scene with the binoculars as a hat tip.
It’s intriguing your co-writer Maggie Briggs is American. What did she bring to such a rooted script?
Saim: Maggie brought out many things, but she came on board at the last stage of the [writing] process. I think it was in July 2021. We were scheduled to start filming in September.
I live in Karachi, so I was moving to Lahore for pre-production. She’s a close friend and a brilliant writer, so I sent her a draft of the script before moving to Lahore. We were trying to pave the way for the eventual tragedy while fiddling with the storytelling beats, so we were surprised. But we also registered its inevitability.
We were on a long call, I asked her if she would like to take a crack at it. It was important to have a woman’s perspective, I think it made little bits richer. She’s not from Pakistan, but I’m not a woman. She did these tiny things, which made [the character of] Mumtaz more whole.
I have to talk about Mumtaz’s cacophonous laughter during Abbaji’s birthday…
Saim: (laughs) That’s all Rasti. It’s not something you can instruct an actor to do. This was her first day of shoot, she had never shot for a feature film, and the take that’s in the film is her first-ever take. I remember calling Sana (Jafri, co-producer) and Sarmad (Khoosat, co-producer) to the monitor and showing them what she had done. I asked them: Am I crazy or is this girl brilliant?
In an unexpected way, Joyland brought India and Pakistan together when the theatrical release was briefly stalled. What did that episode teach you?
Apoorva: I think the lesson was to manage perceptions, because the battle was fought on the ground in Pakistan. It was Saim, Sana, our producers, who were speaking to the media every day about the (Pakistani) ban. We rallied as much support as we could. One thing that happened was as soon as the news of the ban was announced, people assumed we weren’t Pakistan’s entry to the Oscars. That was time for damage control – Saim and Co. were taking on the actual ban, while I was trying to get the film released in France to keep our entry qualification for the Oscars, because that would impact the global distribution of the film. So, we learned to rectify the narrative.
Is the road for the India release proving to be smooth?
Apoorva: PVR has bought the film [for India’s distribution]. We expect that in India, there will be a theatrical release. We are undergoing the certification process. It remains to be seen if they will be friendly or they will stifle us. We’re hoping to release the film in its purest iteration possible, hopefully close [to the final cut].
Have you heard from the Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC)?
Apoorva: All we know is it is undergoing the process. It is taking longer than we had expected, so I don’t think we will be able to meet the release date in March like we had initially planned. It will take longer.
Both India and Pakistan have had a long history of oppressive censorship. And it seems to be getting worse.
Saim: Things have been bad in Pakistan for a while now. In India, things have gotten bad recently. Probably because of the politics catching onto our ways, instead of us catching onto your ways. We are more similar today (both laugh).
Maybe before our experience, I might have romanticised this. Like how we suffer as artists, but we overcome. A part of it is true. It cannot be denied that Joyland’s profile – as much as it was raised by TIFF or Cannes – was also elevated by the ban. It suddenly became a film that was talked about.
Would I have wanted the conversation to happen like this? No. But has it benefitted the film? Absolutely. It’s hard to reconcile with the trauma you are benefitting from, but it is also real-life trauma. Going forward, I don’t want to romanticise any of it because there’s no silver lining.
This is such a low level of debate for any artist or filmmaker – if the question becomes “do we tell this story?” In my opinion, we should tell all stories. Even the ugly propaganda films – even they should exist. That should never be a question in 2023.