Short film Darling is a landmark moment for queer cinema in Pakistan

It is a tenderly crafted romance, as well as a story of the violence and erasure imposed on trans bodies.

Updated Mar 19, 2020 12:00pm


I find it difficult to categorise Saim Sadiq’s Darling.

It is a tenderly crafted romance, as well as a story of violence and erasure, while also a potent coming of age drama — perhaps, most importantly, it is a commentary on our societal penchant for ‘categorisation’ and the bodies that bear its cost.

The landmark short film runs for a total of 15:51 mesmerizing minutes, a small window into the lives of Alina Darling, a trans woman and an aspiring dancer, and her friend Shani, who closets a crush on her.

The film follows the journey of the two friends as they attempt to land Alina the spot of lead dancer for an erotic dance show that Shani is also a part of.

The crux of the story is perhaps best encapsulated in the words of the lead actress, Alina Khan, a trans woman who describes her personal struggle in the industry, “I’ve always wanted to act in movies, since I was a child. But then I’d ask myself, how are they going to cast me? As a man, or a woman?”

A story of everyday violence and erasure imposed on trans bodies

Alina’s personal experiences in a society that erases trans bodies are mirrored in her character’s journey — while the director of the show agrees to audition her, reassures her that she is an excellent dancer, he is unwilling to cast her because he believes that his audiences expect a ‘woman.’

He says this while also referring to Alina as a woman — affirming her gender identity in a personal capacity, but rejecting it for all that goes beyond their personal exchange, in an effort to do right by his own social contracts.

It is this nuance in representation that sets the film apart, there isn’t a traditional ‘villain’ or an antagonistic ‘culprit’, who you can point your finger and your anger at — the commentary built in the film points to structural realities as it explores how marginalised bodies navigate the structures which refuse to acknowledge their very existence.

Darling gets representation politics right. The everyday violence and erasure imposed on trans bodies is not sensationalised or caricaturised, it is brought to the screen with compassion and commitment to accurate representation.

In conversation with the director and writer of the film, Saim Sadiq, I learned that this was made possible by the creative process that fueled this project.

“Five days before the shoot the script looked very different. Then we cast Alina,” he describes, “she was a firecracker. I just wanted to become friends with her.”

That friendship resulted in a collaborative creative process.

Sadiq recounts, “I told her the scenes but never gave her the script. She would say things in her own way, with her own nuances. She came up with most of her dialogue.”

Exploring nuanced sexualities

After Alina Darling isn’t given the spot of the lead dancer due to the director contesting her ‘woman-ness’, she goes back and negotiates a different spot for herself — as one of the back up ‘male’ dancers.

Shani finds it difficult to support this decision and worries about how this may result in everyone thinking of Alina as a boy, to which she laughingly responds with, “But their thinking that won’t turn me into a boy?”

As Shani continues to express his discomfort, Alina lays out the situation for him in monetary terms: it’s work, she’ll get paid for it, and it’s not like she doesn’t have to change her appearance for other societal occasions and interactions such as praying or meeting her parents.

The crux of the story is perhaps best encapsulated in the words of the lead actress, Alina Khan, a trans woman who describes her personal struggle in the industry, “I’ve always wanted to act in movies, since I was a child. But then I’d ask myself, how are they going to cast me? As a man, or a woman?”


This particular exchange between the characters, can also be attributed to Alina Khan’s creative input. Sadiq describes their conversations, “I understood how she could slide in and out of visibly being a girl and a boy. She’s created a system for herself which was all hers. “

As a filmmaker, Sadiq says, he was determined to highlight and explore the unique systems that emerged from the day to day lived experiences of trans bodies in Pakistan, instead of pandering to the mainstream, westernised representations of trans lives.

“I wanted to make a queer film. I wanted to explore sexuality — but not in a very obvious way. While the trans community has a lot of visibility in our society, they also face a lot of problems. So I wanted to explore that with nuance.”

It isn’t only Alina’s gendered existence that is explored with nuance, Shani’s changing understanding of his sexuality is an equally important part of the film.

Sadiq describes, “For me, Shani is as much of a protagonist as she is, Alina is more sorted, but there’s a bigger conflict for him. He went in falling in love with a girl, he came out in love with someone who is also viewed as a boy. What does that mean for him?”

Shani’s personal journey is powerfully captured for the screen. In the scene where Alina and Shani discuss her decision to dance as a ‘male’ back up dancer, the audience has visual access to only Shani, even though the scene is about Alina.

Sadiq gently nudges the audience to follow Shani’s struggle and discomfort with his sexuality, even when he isn’t directly expressing it.

Darling is a lesson in visual storytelling

While the dialogue plays an important role in illustrating dynamics between characters, most of the story in Darling is narrated to us visually.

The camera brings the theatre to life, and as the audience, we’re guided through it, shown where to look and what to look for. One of the most potent scenes of the film comes right after Alina is denied the spot of the lead dancer.

As she walks out of the theatre, she crosses path with these larger than life cutouts of Shabbo, the dancer who’s role she wanted, as they’re being brought into the theatre.

“When she gets rejected I didn’t want to create a melodramatic moment. That is when Alina feels the smallest, and the big cardboard cutouts emphasise that. The theatre is telling her that the stature of a ‘woman’ is bigger.”

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The theatre is arguably a character in its own right within the film, and we constantly see it in conversation with the two leads. In Sadiq’s words: “The theatre is so much bigger than them. And the theatre ends up having its way.”

He goes on to problematise this though, as he talks of the world within the theatre, “these theatres are far more accepting than society itself, there’s no real discomfort that comes from them — but the stage is a business decision.”

It isn’t only Alina’s gendered existence that is explored with nuance, Shani’s changing understanding of his sexuality is an equally important part of the film. Sadiq describes, “For me, Shani is as much of a protagonist as she is, Alina is more sorted, but there’s a bigger conflict for him. He went in falling in love with a girl, he came out in love with someone who is also viewed as a boy. What does that mean for him?”


The stage comes to represent that transactional nature of the theatre, and Alina ends up having to pay the cost. She wraps her hair in a piece of cloth, wipes away the makeup and puts on the clothes of the ‘male’ dancers.

And as she dances gracefully behind Shabbo, we’re left questioning what makes one more of a woman than the other.

A watershed moment for queer cinema in Pakistan

Saim Sadiq’s filmmaking breaks the mold. Where you expect a close up of a character, he removes them from the screen entirely, where you expect over the shoulder shots, he gives you visuals of something that seems at first glance to be entirely unrelated to what is being discussed on the screen.

The film talks to you, and not just at you — it draws you into the world and expects you to engage with it, think through it and not be a lazy viewer.

Sadiq says that he thinks of a Pakistani audience when making films, that he would classify his work as a ‘sensitively done commercial film.’

He has a feature in the works which explores similar themes — if it is at all similar to Darling, its commercial release could do wonders for the ‘revival’ wave in the industry.

And not just because of the way it is shot, but also because of the questions it poses and the nuance with which it poses them.

Movie poster for *Darling*
Movie poster for Darling

Darling is a landmark moment for queer cinema in Pakistan.

For Alina Khan, the film’s influence extends beyond the confines of the industry.

"The gender stigma starts from our homes. I wanted to use this film to show my parents that we can do so much, if given the opportunity. As a community, we are not given opportunities to do the work that we want to do. I always wanted to act in films, to dance, but I could not find a ‘good’ place to do it,’ she describes, ‘even the government does not support us, people see us as different, they don’t see us as human."

"This film is for my entire community. I’ve spoken my truth through the film."


Darling is the winner of the best short film award at the Venice International Film Festival, the first Pakistani Film to win an award at the prestigious film festival. It will be available for online viewing in a few months.