Charting Sarwat Gilani’s evolution in the industry shows her shift from playing solid characters in Pakistani dramas such as Saiqa, Dil-e-Muztar and Aahista Aahista to a new Gilani who is very conscious about her script choices.
Establishing a bigger onscreen persona following the release of her feature film debut Jawani Phir Nahi Ani, she decided to distance herself from mainstream cinema. After 18 years in the drama industry, Gilani decided she has had enough of the recycled, monotonous content that continues to grip the screens of an average Pakistani household. Her decision to take a step back helped her establish a new identity in Pakistan’s entertainment industry.
Gilani’s recent choice of roles sets her apart from her contemporaries. In 2020, she ventured into web television with Churails, an unconventional tale of four women who run an agency that tracks down unfaithful husbands. Unlike mainstream Pakistani television, Churails offered a fresh take on women empowerment that Pakistanis never saw coming. Churails season two is currently under development. “Everything’s going well (for the new season) and you will find out more when you see it,” Gilani told Images.
The actor explained her reasons for only approving projects that speak to her. “When you come into the industry, you get to do roles that are very much prevalent and part of existing narratives on television and cinema. Everyone goes through that process. When I was at that point, I thought that the ring is too small for me, so I felt that I should explore other areas of storytelling as well.” What appeals to Gilani in today’s scripts are nuanced characters that she has not portrayed before. For her, a script can be simple, but it has to be challenging.
Gilani’s recent projects, including Churails and Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam, are built on feminism but the actor does not call herself a feminist. Addressing the discrepancy between her personal beliefs and choice of roles, Gilani remarked, “If I wasn’t a feminist, I wouldn’t have supported women’s equal rights on so many platforms. I’m an actor and I work as per the script dictates. I’ve done a lot of crying scenes as well. Do you think I’m the sort of person who cries all the time?”
This year, Gilani landed a prominent role in Joyland, a film helmed by novice filmmaker Saim Sadiq. Impressed by his short film Darling, Gilani instantly approved the script and was cast as Nucchi in Sadiq’s feature film debut. The project emerged as a critical success abroad, but received vehement backlash in Pakistan because of the story line.
Joyland centers on Haider (Ali Junejo), the youngest son of the Rana family, who falls in love with a transgender dancer (played by Alina Khan). Much of the backlash was attributed to the unconventional love story that defied societal and cultural norms of Pakistan. “I think our audience as well as the press are not used to movies being made on different subjects, so when they see something unique on screen, their reaction can be different. There’s not much to it, really,” said Gilani.
Pakistanis, at large, are accustomed to repetitive rom-coms and dramas that victimise women. Backlash is inevitable when an actor decides to evolve and bring untold stories to life through independent projects. That is what Gilani accomplished in the recent past. While Churails was a unique web series, Joyland was equally different and offered the local audience a perspective that never transpired on the big screen — until now.
“Transgenders are very much part of our culture and society since the olden times. I will refrain from commenting on religion as I’m not an authority on the subject. I think the controversy was raised by only a few people with vested interests to create narrative-seeking attention,” the actor added.
Joyland emerged as the first Pakistani film to be shortlisted for the Academy Awards under Best International Feature Film. The movie has already bagged accolades at the Cannes Film Festival under Queer Palm and Uncertain Regard Jury Prize categories. Joyland also received an honorable mention at the London Film Festival and has been nominated for Best International Feature Film at the 2023 Independent Spirit Awards. Commenting on the critical success of Joyland and its recognition by the Academy, Gilani added, “The whole team including myself are ecstatic to represent Pakistan on the platform! It’s a dream come true for us, and our country.”
Looking forward, the actor refrained from divulging about her upcoming projects, but commented, “I really don’t like to hype my projects but I will make sure that your readers are the first to know when I am ready to announce.”