The real joy of Alina Khan — Biba of ‘Joyland’. Image Source: IANS News
New Delhi, Sep 8 : A few weeks back, when she and her friends stopped at a soft drink shop in Lahore, the shopkeeper refused to take money despite their repeated insistence. Finally, he whispered, “I have not seen ‘Joyland’, but know that the movie is being shown across the world. You have done the country proud.”
Walking home, she could not help but smile. She also remembered the time when she and her companions were pulled out of the car and beaten with sticks — their only crime — they belonged to the trans community. Not to mention, the several instances of sexual abuse.
Alina Khan, who played the character of ‘Biba’ in ‘Joyland’, Pakistan’s official entry to the 95th Academy Awards and the first film from the country to premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and win the Jury Prize of the Un Certain Regard section, is just back from a long day before speaking to IANS from Lahore.
“Yes, life has changed after that film. What gives me happiness is not just the fact that people recognise me, but are looking at me as a trans person who has achieved something through her hard work, focus, and commitment. It may sound cliched, but one of us achieved something with her sheer grit and talent,” she says.
Though it would be unfair to label ‘Joyland’ as a film that focusses on the trans issue, considering it brings forth multiple ripples in the fractured mindscape of a conservative Pakistani family shaped by different societal, with reality at its most profound; its driving force is the relationship between Biba, a self-assured and ambitious trans dancer and Haider, the youngest man in the family (played by Ali Junejo) who becomes a part of her dance troupe. While it was released after some cuts in Pakistan but remains banned in the Punjab province.
“This is the first thing that struck me about my character — she is so much like me, she does not beg — she demands from society. Biba is assertive, she is in your face. And no matter what, she would not back down — just like I won’t,” Khan laughs.
At the age of 11, she realised that despite being assigned male at birth, it was the opposite gender’s identity she related to most. When the constant harassment by neighbours, peers, and parents became unbearable, Khan ran away from home at the age of 16 and joined the transgender community.
“It was not an easy journey. On one side, one had to constantly save herself, on the other, keep alive the energy to dream. The latter being tougher… I would dance at weddings — something I was passionate about from the very beginning. In many ways, it was something that made me glad to be alive,” she says.
While dancing may be a thing of the past now, it was during a performance at a mall in Pakistan that Sadiq’s casting assistant spotted her. She worked with him for his Short ‘Darling’, which won the Orizzonti Award for Best Short Film at the 76th Venice International Film Festival, becoming the first film from the country to be screened and win an award at the festival.
“Many people told me not to do the movie, as I would lose my business at weddings. I am glad to have said yes to Sadiq, who eventually considered me for his feature debut.”
While she is in talks with a Norwegian film director for a television series and working with different brands, it is not that the doors of Pakistani films have opened wide for her.
“Let’s not forget, ‘Joyland’ is still banned in Punjab. Directors are still apprehensive when it comes to working with a trans woman and offering her a substantial role. But thanks to the film, I now have a louder voice to take up issues related to the trans community.”
But then, that is not what she is focussing on. The film’s success opened her family’s doors for her.
“I have already visited them several times and even stayed there. My mother cried and said she knew the kind of struggle I had to go through. That she wished, she understood and helped me.”
Remembering her time at Cannes and other festivals, she says, “Strangers would stop to congratulate me. No one was bothered by my gender… It was just about my performance. Every time that happened, I was shocked…”
There is a pause.
She repeats she misses dancing. Immediately adds, “But I would never for people in weddings. Only myself.”
(Sukant Deepak can be reached at email@example.com)