In the wake of the smear campaign against Joyland, Pakistan’s official entry to this year’s Oscar’s, it’s integral to consider how historically, South Asian stories have been our strongest connection to self.
Joyland describes itself as a film that “delves deep into the challenging complexities of desire and gender identity through the lens of the Rana family”. It was banned from being released in Pakistan and then unbanned and then banned again, but more on that later.
Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe first spoke of how storytelling helps us through history: “We lack imagination. If we had enough imagination to put ourselves in the shoes of the person we oppress, things would begin to happen. So it is important that we develop the ability to listen to the weak.” And today, this quote is more relevant than ever. We need to be able to empathise in order to grow and for me, the greatest learning device for empathy-building has always been a reliance on storytelling.
To scan one’s own self to find the true meaning of identity is also to observe globalisation and how it leads to the homogenisation of cultural identities. Yes, we live in a multicultural landscape and yet, really understanding the implications of it are lost upon us most of the time. I grew up solely reading fiction from the West and it wasn’t until I was about 15 that I immersed myself in South Asian fiction. Here lies a world where I can connect with the main character. My people — the protagonists. My city — the centre. But I still didn’t quite fathom the extent to which my surroundings impact my identity (however fluid and changeable) and sense of self.
Contemplating the way fiction connects with identity, writer Taha Kehar told Images, “The South Asian identity seems to have become a prisoner to the foreign gaze. Readers often complain that they struggle to find an authentic depiction of South Asian identity in English fiction from the region.”
They’re not referring to stereotypical representations of mangoes, peacocks, terrorism and strife, he said. “Instead, they’re voicing their concerns about the cardboard cutouts who act as unworthy substitutes for realistic, complex characters from South Asia. Most readers want to read about full-blooded people — regardless of whether they’re good or bad — who they are likely to encounter in their surroundings. Writers need to fulfil readers’ expectations and create strong, credible and meaningful characters.”
As a fiction writer myself, I feel the constant need to present my own experiences but past that, I yearn to present the experiences of those we don’t often see as well. The politics of self has been questioned time and time again. The Pakistani self that is usually in conversation with the world’s view of us is one that is rarely seen within society.
Joyland promises a story that humanises, feels and shares. While a big part of the culture we grew up learning about has become increasingly marginalised, I still see it in old pictures and textbooks. In a recent newsletter, Instagram page Brown History breaks down the history of the khawaja sira community and the intervention that came during colonial rule. It’s ironic to observe that a country so hell-bent on preserving its “sanctity” and banning “objectionable” content is still reeling from its colonial hangover in terms of this marginalisation.
Academic Baljit Singh talks about how identity boils down to two factors — sameness and differences — and I often find myself thinking of that. Many find their identity through a commonality; we understand one another, and others thrive upon the idea of otherness. Art is our one binding factor that brings those commonalities and differences to light — it sets a mirror of realism through which we see a reflection of society. Call it verisimilitude, but it has always been the one thing that provides us with access to stories of identity.
To create and spread a smear campaign against a movie that celebrates a relationship between a trans character and a cis-man character is to maim our connection and right to stories. Historically, the khawaja sira community has been integral in the stories of South Asia, dating back at least 2,000 years.
“Being trans and queer is such a big part of my identity and my art practice as a whole, something that has always existed in our culture and in the subcontinent, before colonisation attempted to erase this diversity that our roots represent,” said artist and musician La Mimi on the importance of honouring identity. “I was raised to be ashamed of where I come from, but now as I grow and develop especially as a musician, I’m in awe everyday of the richness our music has to offer. While I may not stick to the exact traditions and rules of eastern classical music, I aspire to incorporate it into my practice and honour it in whatever ways I can.”
Moreover, it’s important to note, especially during #TransAwarenessWeek that the trans erasure within the country is rising at a rapid and horrifying speed. While the federal government has decided to reverse the ban (and the Punjab government decided to reinstate it), let’s not forget that we still live in a society that is determined to erase identities. It’s rare for us to see stories that rely on human emotion on the big screen — too often our movies take the route of violent over-telling as opposed to the pure beauty of art that is human connection.
For younger Pakistani artists, the artscape is filled with endless opportunities for representation and yet the fear of censorship is constant. I spoke with artists that deal with different mediums to unpack this further. “To censor art is to intentionally erase who we are and what we believe in,” said artist and designer Misha Japanwala.
“If this level of censorship continues in Pakistan, we’re going to wake up one day and find that we have no true historical documentation of our stories and our lives. We have a vast and incredible community of creative minds — incidents like the attempted banning of Joyland send the message to all of us that if a select few men in power don’t agree with the art we’re creating, we need to think twice about making it. It removes the honesty, integrity and urgency of creating the work. Art without those things isn’t the kind of art our people deserve.”
To allow a few men to hold power over the content we, as individual artists, put out there is to create an inescapable echo chamber within society. We then see the stories that the “masses” already understand, more stories of damsels in distress, more violence and more men constantly reinforcing their twisted versions of the truth.
Method Actor Ahmed Majeed said, “In film and visual storytelling, you create a world with its own rules and all the characters follow a certain structure within that fantasy world — as a nation, majority of our viewership belongs to television and what we have shown on television for years is definitely not our identity. We don’t have a set identity; both as a country or in terms of art — I think rather than thinking about ‘preserving’ we should be more active in finding out what our identity is instead of trying to shine too bright too soon.”
And maybe that fantasy world can take root within our stories if the greater society makes space for it. According to aspiring filmmaker Ayla Khan, “censorship of our emotional truths fundamentally denies us our need for expression in a country at the precipice of survival,” and its a clear barrier with what we, as Pakistanis, really need versus what those in power want us to see.
Stories are our way of preserving history, it boils down to a chain of storytelling that is passed from generation to generation; this is how communities build awareness, how they shape their identities and ultimately, this is how we portray our very existence and experiences.
We need to put the art out there so people begin to question. Art sheds light on the complexities of life, it creates room to question, reflect and maybe even connect on our shared differences. To further shed light on the importance of looking at the black and white in storytelling, I spoke with a mental health counsellor, Sophia-Layla Afsar, who said that “when these stories don’t get told, we are telling people that any doubt in your abilities, faith and morals is shameful and not to be tolerated. If we didn’t have complexities we wouldn’t have art.”
For her, erasing complexities is hurting a lot of people. “There’s a rise in anti-intellectualism in Pakistan where we’re told not to learn more. Discussing complexity is how we heal our mental health. Pretending weakness, doubt or fallibility doesn’t exist leads to seeking our unhealthy coping mechanisms.”
There’s a clear battle within our sense of self and identity that rejects this struggle, it’s normalised to reject struggle in order to be accepted into society and this movie’s ban is a perfect representation of that rejection. “It plays into a religious narrative of haram versus halal. Even an iota of doubt means you’re shameful. It reduces everyone’s struggles to one of behavioural compliance — thinking is wrong. We’re being told you can’t have a conflict and everything is black and white,” she said.
Ultimately, there is no understanding of identity, no contemplation of self, no true commentary of life without stories. And while the decision has been reversed, the one thing I can hope for is that we continue to come together as Pakistanis for the art that matters — the art that shakes us; the art that is home.