Oscar-winning actor Riz Ahmed spoke about his decision to take part in the filming of a famous Pakistani film about transgender people Land of joy as executive producer.
A film that breaks boundaries tells the story of Haider (Ali Junejo), a difficult husband who joins an erotic dance company and soon falls in love with transgender starlet Biba (Alina Khan).
Through the lens of this tender but tragic love, the story explores women’s liberation, generational taboos, mental health and the rights of the gender non-conforming community in Pakistan.
It’s been a resounding success, from winning the jury and the Queer Palm at last year’s Cannes Film Festival to being the first of its kind to be shortlisted for the Academy Awards.
However, given its controversial nature, the film had to overcome major hurdles, including fighting a censorship ban in Pakistan and receiving threats from fanatics. Around this time, big Pakistani names began backing the project, including actor Ahmed and Nobel Peace Prize laureate and educationist Malala Yousafzai.
Ahmed announced his role as executive producer in January through his production company Left Handed Films, which aims to platform stories you haven’t heard yet [or] seen before.”
In a post on Instagram, he explained: “This movie breaks our hearts so masterfully. [Director] Saim Sadik’s filmmaking is understated and gut-wrenching. His writing is always unexpected and every scene is so elegantly composed yet still filled with raw performances.”
Despite the controversy surrounding the film, Ahmed spoke Subway that he had no doubts about participating in the project, as “transgender people have been a very established part of South Asian culture for centuries.”
“They can often occupy quite a paradoxical position in culture,” he explained. “They are visible and ordinary. It was like that for hundreds of years.
“And they occupy an almost privileged position culturally and spiritually because they are believed to be able to bless or curse you if you rub them wrong or right.”
Ahmed hopes for similar films Land of joy will promote the rights of a group that also has a history of documented hardship, discrimination and poor representation on screen.
“You can have ‘TG’ or ‘third gender’ or ‘transgender’ or ‘non-binary’ on your ID card in Pakistan and it has been that way for years,” he said.
“There were transgender newsreaders and film stars in Pakistan over the years. Hopefully, the more different kinds of stories we can see from different parts of the world, the more it will open our minds and our hearts to different ways of doing things.”
Even if Land of joy actors and crew campaigned for the lifting of the nationwide ban, Yousafzai wrote a thought-provoking letter Art Diversity explaining the significance of the film.
“When a film like Sadiq elevates working-class or trans characters, and women struggling to assert themselves against harsh and very real social norms, we turn away,” she wrote.
“At the same time, we are giving up the spectacular talent of Pakistani artistes that the film likes Land of joy represents”.
The ban has since been lifted across Pakistan, with the exception of Punjab.
Land of joy opens in UK cinemas on Friday (February 24).
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