On the representation of transgender characters on television
oyland, a film directed by Saim Sadiq, gives us the story of Biba, a transwoman who performs for a living. Biba, played by Alina Khan, is one of the very few characters that appear on the screen and disrupt gender roles – and that too with aplomb.
Biba is a dancer who falls in love and compels the audience to fall in love too. She is a powerful character and Khan leaves no rocks unturned in her portrayal of her.
It is clear that Alina Khan, who earlier starred in another film directed by Saim called “Darling,” in which she also played the role of a transwoman, comes from a place of empathy. She too has had her share of struggles as a transgender actress.
Perhaps Alina Khan can relate to Biba. The actress’s own family rejected her. Alina attributes this to the prejudice and discrimination that transgender people suffer from routinely. While Khan has established herself as a wonderful actress, the path leading up to her success was fraught with challenges.
The actress has given many interviews about her gruelling journey to Joyland. It required tremendous grit and perseverance because she was working in a highly cis-male-dominated industry.
Not a journey for the faint-hearted, she had to battle against discrimination and transphobic misconceptions to emerge as an actress who gained global recognition on the international stage.
Joyland is Pakistan’s official entry for the Oscars and has won numerous awards, attracting attention and praise from artists across the borders as well. It has most definitely broken barriers and given us a glimpse of what the film world would look like if diversity was celebrated.
Another thing the film has done is posit questions and initiate discourse. For a drama aficionado, this means wondering if the path that the filmmakers are taking would have any bearing on television show character development too.
With the popularity of “Joyland,” we hope to see more and more TV actors experimenting with different roles. We also hope to see a drama industry that is more inclusive so we can benefit from a multiplicity of perspectives.
This would be a lot more wholesome compared to what we are consuming currently; no-effort characters that adhere to the tee with gender roles, predictable scripts and recycled plotlines.
For one, there is talk of a mainstream actor Muneeb Butt playing a transgender Assistant Commissioner in an ARY serial that also stars Saba Qamar. Let’s hope this one is devoid of the misleading stereotypes that are perpetuated about transgender people in our drama productions on the rare occasion that transgender characters do appear on our TV screens.
In the past
The television industry has already dabbled in this genre but transgender people remain grossly underrepresented. A majority of our productions seem to be written, directed and shot from a male perspective.
For a drama aficionado, this means wondering if the path that the filmmakers are taking would have any bearing on television show character development too. With the popularity of “Joyland,” we hope to see more and more TV actors experimenting with different roles.
So even when we do see transgender characters, they are not depicted with honesty and are sometimes even misrepresented.
In the past, however, a few productions have shone through. Not all of these plays were centred around transgender characters but they attempted to capture the lives, choices and struggles of people who face oppression because of their gender identity.
The play Veena starring Fahad Mustafa in the role of a eunuch was aired in 2009 on ARY Digital. It was directed by Syed Atif Hussain. Mustafa’s performance in the series was met with critical acclaim and is marked as his first breakthrough. The series received two nominations at the 9th Lux Style Awards, including Best TV Actor for Mustafa and Best TV Writer.
In Alif Allah Aur Insan Imran Ashraf who is known for his talent and versatility enacted the role of a transgender person. Imran Ashraf’s repertoire of work includes plays as diverse as Ranjha Ranjha Kardi, Dil Lagi and Raqs-e-Bismil.
Ashraf is one of the very few talented TV stars who refuse to be typecast and is willing to push himself to the limit for his characters. In Ali, Allah aur Insan, Ashraf again plays the role of Shammo, a transwoman and does justice.
Another play starring Ayesha Khan, Syed Jibran and Alyy Khan aired in 2016 on ARY Digital was Khuda Mera Bhi Hai which narrated the story of how a wife was deserted by her husband when she gave birth to an intersex baby.
The woman refused to give up on her child and struggled to help them survive in a highly patriarchal society. In this, she is aided by a teacher and mentor of her child, played by the very versatile and talented Alyy Khan. In one of the episodes, the drama also shows a community of transwomen supporting each other and raising abandoned babies.
Khwaja Siras and transgender folks have always been a part of our society but the community remains vulnerable because of transphobia, violence, economic discrimination and structural oppression.
Although the film Joyland was banned in Punjab due to a tremendous backlash from the far-right, the international circuit was quick to appreciate it. It became a trendsetter since it generated discussion on a topic that is considered taboo.
Rimal Ali, a transgender model shared screen space with Shehrayar Munawar and Mahira Khan in a film called Saat Din Mohabbat In released in 2018.
Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol also comes to mind. The film, released in 2011, featured Amr Kashmiri as Saifi, an intersex child born into a traditional Muslim family.
Some filmmakers seem to be breaking barriers. Here’s to hoping that our TV industry follows suit by telling us poignant stories and giving us a diverse range of characters to appreciate.
The writer is an educationist and can be reached at email@example.com