Joyland’s writer-director Saim Sadiq on his evolution as a filmmaker, social taboos as his choice of subjects, and the kind of movies that speak to him
Fresh from Festival de Cannes, with two prestigious trophies in hand and loads of pride and joy for his fellow Pakistanis in tow, 31-year-old filmmaker Saim Sadiq appears far too unaffected (read unfazed) to be true. As he sits cross legged before his laptop screen, for this interview over Zoom, sporting a faded black tee shirt and striped pajamas, his hair almost uncombed (not that they need a lot of management, considering they are well cropped), there isn’t a trace of vanity in the way he talks about his recent win and his past laurels. Trust him to even dismiss himself as the ‘flavour of the season’: “Every month there’s one person who’s getting a lot of limelight, for different reasons… This past month it was me,” he says.
A Columbia University graduate, born and raised in Lahore, Sadiq isn’t new to festival attention. Long before his debut feature, Joyland, picked the Jury Prize and Queer Palm at Cannes this year, his MFA thesis short film Darling (2019) had famously clinched honours at the 76th Venice Film Festival, another first for Pakistan, as well as the SXSW 2020. His other short film, Nice Talking to You, had earlier made it to Palm Springs 2019, BAFTA’s Shortlist for Best Student Film and was awarded Vimeo’s Best Director at a CU film festival.
Though a lot of his work is not in public domain, Sadiq’s filmography could broadly be defined as a fearless, albeit sensitive, exposé of the contradictions that are central to a deeply patriarchal society. His subjects are often individuals who exist on the fringes — their predicament is apparently due to the fact that they don’t conform to societal norms. This may be attributed to their hamartia (or tragic flaw), but in reality it has to do with the society’s double standards. In dealing with those, Sadiq makes sure he’s stepping on the right toes. He has a way with topics popularly considered taboo — gender binaries, the need for self-gratification, religious fundamentalism et al. And, he doesn’t offer neat conclusions.
In Stepmotherland (2014), a documentary short, Sadiq goes behind 2013’s harrowing incident when a ferocious mob stormed into the Christian-dominated Joseph Colony in Lahore and burnt down scores of houses after a local was (wrongly) accused of blasphemy. The documentary was featured in BBC’s Free Speech Stories.
Sadiq also had a shot at more mainstream media — he assisted Sarmad Sultan Khoosat on Geo TV’s fantasy drama, Mor Mahal (2016). Later, the two came together on a host of projects including Joyland, which is co-produced by Khoosat, and Kamli, which Sadiq has edited.
In an exclusive chat with The News On Sunday, the writer-director explains how Joyland is a turning point in his life. He also comes clean on his guilty pleasures, his gig as a movie critic, the urge to wander away to “happier” stories, and why he didn’t attend the recently concluded Sydney Film Festival (SFF) in Australia.
Excerpts from the interview follow:
he News on Sunday: Are you in Sydney right now, for the film festival?
Saim Sadiq: No, I am in Lahore. I didn’t go, but the film did. In fact, no one from the team could make it [to SYFF] because we had just arrived back from Cannes and didn’t have the energy for it.
TNS: At Joyland’s screening at Cannes, you said that your life could be viewed as “a pre-Joyland phase, and a post-Joyland phase.” Tell us what you meant by that?
SS: I’ve always wanted to make films. And I had been trying to make this particular film for a very long time. Just the fact that I am able to make a film at the age of 31 in Pakistan where there aren’t many films being made, especially of the kind which is unlike Bollywood or our TV drama, and the fact that it got made, and it got this kind of attention, is overwhelming. So, there’s this sense of gratefulness. Certainly, this is the most important film in my life.
“I can’t commit myself to a project based on a reason other than that I like the story a lot and I want to tell that story, and I have something to say or explore. That’s been my reason for Joyland, and I think that’ll be my reason for my future films.”
TNS: For someone who’s been feted and honoured at such a young age, how do you process it all? Do you have to make a conscious effort to not let it go to your head?
SS: I think I do. Not because it would go to my head, but because I don’t think I have a very high opinion of myself in general. But when you’ve been surrounded for two weeks by people who keep telling you your film is amazing and you are amazing, you almost feel like you are the centre of the world, when that is not the case. It is not the case during those two weeks; and it is not the case in general in life.
Besides, in this day and age, every month there’s one person who’s getting a lot of limelight for different reasons. This past month it was me. So, I do understand that there’s a lot of luck involved in this.
TNS: When you move on to your next project, how do you not let the massive expectations to affect your choices?
SS: I guess, because Joyland hasn’t released here theatrically, there’s a lot of things that have yet to happen. When it releases in cinemas in Pakistan and elsewhere, and people go to watch it, and it makes decent amounts of money… those kinds of tests are yet to be taken. The eventual purpose for the film is to be seen, awards or no awards.
I’ve never made a film with the expectation that anything will happen. Filmmaking is such a long process and it demands commitment. I can’t commit to a project based on any a reason other than that I like that story enough to tell it, and I have something to say and explore. That’s been my reason for Joyland, and that’ll be my reason for my future films. If I tried to make a film for money, success or awards, I’d probably give up soon.
TNS: Why, because that’s insincere?
SS: That’s insincere, and also that’s not fun. If I am not excited about the story or the characters, then I won’t have fun.
TNS: A few years ago, you published movie reviews in an English language daily. Do you think being a movie critic makes the filmmaker in you more tolerant or accepting of criticism?
SS: I don’t think I was a film critic. I was in first year in my undergrad, way back in 2010, and I loved going to movies. I’d go watch stupid films and come back home and spend an hour writing something and being paid for it too.
Does it make me more tolerant? I guess so. But we’ll find out. There are things that can make you feel bad. Having said that, I can engage in an intelligent critique of my films but the stupid stuff that people say in YouTube videos etc, I can only watch for fun.
TNS: Tell us a bit about your evolution as a filmmaker, your childhood, your family and other influences.
SS: My father was in the army; he’s retired now. My mom is a housewife. I have a sister. We are a very standard Pakistani middle class turned upper middle class family. In my childhood, every other weekend, we’d bring home VHS cassettes [of movies]. I and my cousins would repeatedly watch Andaz Apna Apna and Dilwalay Dulhaniya Lay Jayenge whenever we got together.
But no one in my family ever considered films as a real profession. They still don’t understand it entirely. That’s a bit of a struggle sometimes. So, growing up, my family wasn’t an influence because they aren’t very artistically inclined, but I’ve always had friends who are obsessed with movies. In my late teens, when I had more access to the internet, I found my own movie influences. Any free time that I’d get was spent watching movies, or reading about movies or anything to do with movies.
TNS: What kind of movies appeal to you now?
SS: To watch or to make?
TNS: To watch.
SS: I’m pretty open. The last movie I watched was RRR, and I loved it. Though, I thought some parts of it make no sense. So, I can watch that kind of movies and have fun. I also have a day when I can watch a Kieślowski film, especially his trilogy of colours. I can watch Bleu again and again; it’s probably the most amazing film I’ve seen.
Earlier, I enjoyed Hollywood films too, like I’ve seen all of Paul Thomas Anderson movies. I was thinking of watching Phantom Thread again. So, I have a broad taste in films but somehow I do not gravitate towards comedies or horror genre, or a typical action movie.
TNS: Only one of your films, Darling, is available on YouTube. Where can one watch the rest of your work?
SS: I have tried to release my short films on Vimeo, and somehow something happens every time. My other thesis film, Nice Talking to You, will hopefully be up online at some point this year. Joyland may end up releasing before that too.
TNS: In theatres, right?
TNS: Like Darling, Joyland is set in the backdrop of an exotic dance theatre. Would you say there’s a thematic unity in these films?
SS: There is. In the case of Darling, the whole film is set in the theatre, but in Joyland the theatre is only a part of the movie. So, thematically, Joyland is more expansive. A big part of it is about gender and sexuality as well, but it approaches these topics with a different perspective. Besides, Joyland is character-driven whereas Darling is more space-oriented. Darling’s experience was instrumental in allowing me to understand what I wanted my feature film to be about.
TNS: Another element common to Darling and Joyland is the transgender actor Alina Khan. Why her?
SS: Because we worked together extremely well. I am very fond of her, she’s like my sister.
Initially, I felt that she wouldn’t be able to deliver, because she wasn’t a trained actor. She didn’t even know how to look good on camera. All that had to be taught to her on the set. But with Joyland, I knew that if we built the character together and had enough time to workshop, she’d get it right. I think she did.
Darling doesn’t say anything about Alina’s talent, but when you watch Joyland, I think she is spectacular. She’s like a very solid actor, playing a part which is unlike her.
TNS: For a film school thesis project, Darling looks too well shot. Also, you got a professional cinematographer, Mo Azmi, to work on it. How did you convince him to become part of a student film?
SS: Darling was pretty big for a short film as well as for a school thesis film. I had won a grant for it, which was a decent amount of money, so I could spend that. Because for a short film you can choose or afford to not pay people very well, as all of you are students and young, the whole grant money goes into the film. I knew of Mo [Azmi], so while hunting for a DoP, I reached out to him. I sent him the script, and he liked it. I told him I could pay him very little, but he was very forthcoming. In fact, he came with a very student mindset; he wasn’t The Mo Azmi who’s done feature films like Cake and web series like Churails!
TNS: Is there a specific reason why you shot Darling in 4:3 aspect ratio?
SS: There is. By the way, Joyland is also 4:3. I like the frame. I find it more elegant than the 16:9, in the way that it retains your attention through the vertical lines. The olden films were all 4:3, up until the 1940s and ’50s, and then as technology advanced, 4:3 became a thing of the past. It evokes nostalgia.
TNS: Your mini biography on Imdb says that you are “developing your first feature, Gulaab.” Did that movie ever get made?
SS: That information is about four years old. No, the movie never got made.
TNS: Talking to an Indian journalist at Cannes, you said that Pakistan “is a very beautiful and fun, contradictory country in many, many ways, and for me this was the contradiction that was the most exciting.” Is it just the contradictions that excite you to make a film?
SS: I think I’m done with contradictions; Joyland had a lot of them. I’d rather make something happier and more positive now.
I don’t know what I will be making next, but I am not worried because there is always fresh material for storytellers in Pakistan. So, I never run out of stories here. It’s a constantly inspiring space.
TNS: Do you agree that contradictions make interesting topics for festivals?
SS: I do. But that does not mean that you will always get your films into festivals if you talk about things like gender or religion. A lot of films in the other competitions at Cannes weren’t topical; they were comedies. There’s an artistic endeavour behind those that is visible, a vision or a filmmaking voice which is interesting and which is not a copy of fifty thousand films that you’ve seen already.
TNS: What is filmmaking for you about?
SS: It’s a way to process my existence in the world. It helps me make sense of the world.
TNS: Do you believe that digital streamers like Netflix and Disney+ reflect the traditional independent cinema model?
SS: Not all of them. Big ones certainly don’t, anymore. They are pretty much like Hum TV or Marvel Studios. Of course, they acquire some small, indie films, but they don’t make them anymore.
In some ways, Zee5 is taking independent filmmakers from Pakistan, like Asim Abbasi, and promoting them, and letting them make what they want to make.
TNS: Finally, have you moved on to your next project?
SS: Not yet!
The interviewer is an editor at TNS