Joyland, a Pakistani Oscar-contender about a romance between a trans woman and cis man, has been met with universal praise nearly everwhere but its home country. Although it was scheduled for domestic release on Friday, the film has been banned by the government. Now Alina Khan, the film’s trans lead, is speaking out.
On November 13, Pakistan’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting revoked the film’s distribution license, citing “highly objectionable material which do not conform with the social values and moral standards of our society and is clearly repugnant to the norms of ‘decency and morality.’”
Khan has responded in a recent interview with The Guardian. “I’ve been very sad,” she said. “There’s nothing against Islam and I don’t understand how Islam can get endangered by mere films.”
“The Pakistani trans community was also very upset,” she added.
Joyland follows a family living in Lahore under a patriarch who’s desperate for grandchildren. Their lives are complicated when the younger, married son Haider (Ali Junejo) secretly joins a dance troupe and falls in love with trans dancer Biba (Khan).
Khan was first drawn to the role because the character is not “oppressed, which is the life for most transgenders in Pakistan.” Instead, she says, Biba is “a badass, strong-willed, fiercely independent, dominating, outspoken woman, everything that I am not; I loved the role I played.”
Biba’s story has also resonated with audience members. Joyland, which is the first major Pakistani feature to cast a trans woman in a lead trans role, became the first Pakistani film to be invited to the Cannes festival, where it won two awards. It is now poised to represent Pakistan in the Best International Feature category for the Academy Awards.
Khan recalled the standing ovation Joyland received at Cannes, saying, “Tears were trickling down my face while I continued smiling. I don’t know whether the tears were of joy, were for all the hard work that I put in, or for my struggles since I was a child and that continue. For the first time in my life, I felt my talent preceded my gender, I was given so much respect.”
Despite efforts by Islamic groups to prevent Pakistanis from seeing the film, there is hope that the ban will not stick. Salman Sufi, advisor to Pakistan’s Prime Minister, indicated on Twitter that a government committee will be reassessing the ban. “I personally do not believe in banning films that highlight issues faced by marginalized segments of our society,” he wrote. “People should be trusted to watch & make their own mind.”
Khan, who did not see other trans people growing up, understands the kind of power a film like this can have for the Pakistani trans community. “I would like us to be more visible in showbiz as we are very much part of society, like men, women and children are,” she said. “This film deserves an Oscar … it deserves all the awards out there. I hope I have opened doors for others in our community, to pursue their dreams.”