I Was Determined to Show My Family I Could Be Someone: ‘Joyland’ Star Alina Khan
The trans actor talks about growing up in Pakistan, and what ‘Joyland’ means for the community
Alina Khan, the star of Joyland, the first-ever film from Pakistan to be screened at the Cannes International Film Festival, was excited and scared when she was told that she would be flying to France for the film’s premiere that took place earlier this week.
During the film’s screening and the standing ovation that followed, Alina wept.
One of 20 films in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section – which celebrates “artistically daring” films and runs parallel to the main competition section – Joyland won the Jury Award on Friday.
It’s been an incredible journey for everyone involved in Joyland, but especially so for Alina Khan, a transgender actress who plays a transgender dancer, Biba, in the film.
Born to a family that didn’t approve of her body and the way it moved, Alina recalls being called a khusra (eunuch) while growing up, her brother, sister and mother beating her up, and running away from home aged around 13 to be able to breathe a little.
Speaking with Suparna Sharma for Rolling Stone India, Alina recalls her journey from being hungry, alone and scared, to acting – first in Saim Sadiq’s 2019 short film Darling, and now in Joyland – and then taking the stage at Cannes.
She says that not much has changed for her between these two films, and yet a lot has.
Alina Khan says she was not inundated with offers for roles or ads, but the gaze that always stalked her changed in many eyes. Earlier when she looked at people, most eyes didn’t make her feel good about herself, but now some do, she says.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
How long have you been acting?
To be honest, I had not done any acting before Darling, which was my first experience. And the second one is the feature film, Joyland. Before that there was nothing.
There is an NGO working with our trans community in Pakistan. I got a call from them saying that a short film called Darling is being made, and they asked if I would like to work in it? I said, “Yes, of course,” because the past life I had was very different. I used to do dance performances at functions in Lahore, where I live alone. So I auditioned for Darling and, luckily, I got selected.
I had no idea about acting… I didn’t even know what they meant by ‘mark,’ where to stand. But Mr Saim guided me. He’d tell me the smallest things related to acting. I had just five days to prepare for Darling, but in those five days, I absorbed everything – acting, dance, dialogue – because I was determined to do something…
My only dream in life has been to see myself on a decent platform and not be like most members of the trans community who are either into prostitution or begging on the streets.
Were there opportunities in the middle, between Darling and Joyland?
In between, I did a couple of projects – some modeling for some makeup brands, some clothing brands… but these were all small projects.
Before Darling and now, in this journey to Joyland, has there been a change in people’s mindset regarding you?
Yes, a lot. Earlier, people didn’t accept me. The area where I live, people did not talk to me nicely. That has changed.
But my biggest [reason for] happiness after Darling was that after almost 10 years, my family called me and asked, “Have you worked in any film?” I said, “Yes.”
Then they asked, “What is the name of the film?” I said, “Darling.”
“What’s your character in that film?” my brother asked me.
I was completely silent… I was thinking, ‘What should I tell them, that I have played a trans character in the film!’ Then they will think the same things they used to say to me… So I didn’t tell them. I just said, “Aap dekhen [watch the film].” I didn’t have the courage to tell them. It was a big deal for me that they had called me after so many years.
So you talked to everyone? Your mother, too?
Yes, when Darling released and it got three to four international awards… After that, I talked to my mother. At that time my sister did not support me. But now, after Joyland, my whole family did – sister, brother, mother… everyone was very happy and supported me, and said, “We are happy that you are doing a good job and not prostitution, which is what we thought you will do when you grow up and humiliate the family, dishonor us.” I heard a lot of such things in my childhood from my parents, “You are this, you are that… We are tolerating this, we are tolerating that.”
People used to make sarcastic remarks and taunt me in the locality – they would shout, “Oye khusre!” My mother knew very well that I am trans. But after hearing this remark, her attitude towards me would be very strange. They were not comfortable talking to me. They would be rude. But after Joyland, I am very happy that they are very happy. The best thing that has happened is that my family has accepted me, and I’ve got respect in society. The people of my locality, where I live, are now happy that I am a part of their society.
Did you go to meet your parents?
Yes, when I got the award, I met my parents, I met my brother. My sister was the eldest and she was a bully; I used to be a little scared of her. I have been beaten up a lot by my brother, my sister, mother in my childhood… Somewhere in my heart, I was a little scared.
Because I am trans and they would tell me to change my gender. They would scold me and say, “What is this strange way of talking? Stop moving your hands. Change your behavior, change your gender.”
But behaving like this was not my habit; this was my soul, it was an expression of what I felt inside. In the course of time, as I grew older, there were more physical changes in me. My family had issues with my behavior/gait, with the way I’d sit and get up. I tried to control myself a lot, started living like boys, getting up like them, and sitting like them, but I knew what my feelings were inside. And even after doing all this, somewhere, at someplace, at some point or the other, I would always be told, “You are a khusra, you are trans.” Even my sisters and brothers would say, “Send her to the khusra community, that’s what she is going to become anyway.”
When I ran away from home, I was determined to show my family that I can do something, be someone. If I am trans, that does not mean that I can only be a prostitute. I can work like a normal woman, a normal man. Gender does not matter, what matters is humanity… I had humanity and that’s why I tried to be like them, but how long can anyone live in such a suffocating environment?
At what age did you leave your home?
I was about 13 or 14 when I left home… I roamed the streets for four to five days. With the money that I had, I could eat just once a day… There was a senior in my trans community, Neeli Ranaji; she is from Lahore. We have a guru-disciple tradition in the Pakistani trans community, so I made her my guru and she introduced me to the trans community.
She told me, “Listen, my child, there is dancing at family functions, there is sex and begging. Now it depends on you what you want to be.” I told her that I am becoming her disciple but I do not want to do sex work or beg on the street. I dance well, I can earn by dancing. In my life there were many tough moments because I used to live alone, I had nothing. I got a house with great difficulty.
Which class did you study until? Did you complete your schooling?
Yes, I did. I was very fond of reading but the stigma was too much. Everywhere I’d hear “Trans, trans, trans, trans.” I had to face it everywhere. I wish I could have studied more.
How did you feel when you were informed that you were coming here, to Cannes? Did you know what this was? What will happen here?
I didn’t know anything. Three months ago, I came to know that my film had been selected for Cannes. I didn’t talk about it with anyone because I myself didn’t know where I was going. I was very confused but also very happy that Allah Mian has given me this honor.
As soon as I arrived here, I had a photocall on the very first day. I was quite nervous. There were so many people, many seniors. I had a lot of support from the Joyland team, my co-stars… So, seeing them, I strengthened myself, said I have to do this, and I am not doing this just for myself; I am doing it for my entire trans community. I am representing my Pakistan.
This was the first [such] experience for me, each and everything was new for me. I think you can understand [what I’m saying]. I was travelling outside Pakistan for the first time. The people here are very nice, there is acceptance here. Gender doesn’t matter here. I am very happy with the way people have received the film. At the premiere, people stood up and clapped. I felt so happy.
In many films, the role of a trans character is done by a woman or a man. But you were chosen for Joyland, and your character Biba is very interesting. She is not shown as oppressed, there is a lot of anger in her…
That was the best part of the film. My character has not been shown as suppressed. Usually, in films, trans people are shown as destitute, poor, and pitiable. But in this film, the way Saimji and Apoorvaji [the film’s producer] wrote the story and presented our gender, they have given us respect. They didn’t make us look lower-class or downtrodden. They showed that we, too, can do something in life.
Do you think it will make any difference?
Sure it will. I don’t think a woman or a man can represent my gender. If a man and a woman can represent my gender, then we can also play women’s roles, we should also get men’s roles. Jiska kaam usi ko saajhe.
Many trans people are very talented, they are educated. They are makeup artists, and stylists. They have engaged themselves in many types of work. The times are changing. It is 2022. The trans community is also understanding what we have to do if we want to live in society [as equals].
Will it make any difference in the film industry? Have you received more such roles?
No such offer has come until now. Joyland is being screened here for the first time… Let’s see what happens next. I hope that Inshallah, the way the trans community is making its way on its own, something better will happen in the near future and the people of the film industry will come to know that we too have skills.
If there is a good opportunity for us, we will definitely do it because the life of a sex worker is very difficult. If you look at the life of a begging trans person, it is very hard. The life of dancers who are trans is also very different. Those who are sex workers, you can only buy their bodies, not their feelings. It is a big deal to spread your hands in front of someone. I don’t think a common man or woman would think about it unhesitatingly. In our trans community, those who do not have opportunities, have to do this work because they have to feed themselves.
Joyland is being screened at the Cannes festival. If this film is released in theatres in Pakistan, have you wondered what it would mean – not just for the trans community, but for others as well?
I think this film will not make any deep, major changes, but somewhere people will understand that we are also a part of society and they can live with us. Just like a man or a woman, there is also a trans person. There is good in every man or woman, and there is also evil. But we don’t hurt anyone. I don’t think any trans person has spoken ill of a man or a woman. So, I hope that after Joyland, people will realize that, yes, there is talent in the trans community too and they can do something with their lives, just like any man or woman.
Do you think this film is important, and why?
Yes, of course, it is important. More such films should be made so that society knows that we too have talent. The more people see us, the more they will come to know us because so far, only fake trans characters have been shown. In dramas on Pakistani channels, a man puts on a wig and horrible makeup, and everyone makes fun of him. People see that and think that they are a joke. If they are shown in a good way, then they will know that there is good in us too.
One last question. There is a lot of anger in your character, Biba, in Joyland. Was that easy for you to do, express that anger?
You have seen me in real [life], you’ve seen how I am [laughs]. But I had to do justice to the character because Biba’s anger was justified. She was trying to make a place for herself. She was normal inside, but she was using her anger to make sure people take her seriously, accept her on her terms, and not think that she is trans and thus she is nothing.
Biba gets angry because she wants to achieve something. She’s a dancer and she wants her cutout outside the theatre. In the film, the producer refuses to pay for the cutout. So, she performs at a function and uses that money to get a cutout of herself. Her anger also fuels her determination to be something, and achieve what she wants to.
Did you find it easy to express rage? Somewhere inside you also have anger…
Yes, anger in real life is inside every human being. Everyone gets angry, and so do I. I, too, have that anger within me.
Biba’s character is a little different from my real life. But before doing those angry scenes, I used to read properly. I’d think, “When all this happened to me, what were my feelings?” At that time, I could not express my feeling, or my anger, because neither does our family support us nor does society. Trans people are often raped, tortured, and murdered in Pakistan. And there is hardly ever any legal action. So, there were many occasions when I could not vent my anger. I had to listen, I had to tolerate. But this was the story, and here Biba had to show that if you get angry, I get angry too.