Priyanca Rajput speaks to Joyland producer, Apoorva Charan, about filming the Urdu and Punjabi-language Pakistani drama on location in Lahore, catapulting the country’s first film authority, and the campaign to overturn Pakistan’s controversial theatrical ban.
The feature, directed by Saim Sadiq and written by Maggie Briggs, follows the youngest son in a traditional Pakistani family – who takes a job as a backup dancer in a Bollywood-style burlesque, and quickly becomes infatuated with the strong-willed trans woman who runs the show. It stars Alina Khan (Biba), Ali Junej (Haider) and Rasti Farooq (Mumtaz).
Born in Hyderabad, India, Apoorva Charan is an LA-based producer with over twenty short film credits including: Gulaab - a feature film set in Pakistan which was selected for the Open Doors Hub at Locarno in 2018, Akra - a series set in coastal India, and The Farewell - which won the Audience Award for Best Short Film at AFI Fest 2020.
Not only is Joyland Charan’s first feature-length credit, but one in which she would collaborate with long-term friend and then-latent director Saim Sadiq over a six-year gestation period.
Sadiq planted the seed for the screenplay between 2016 and 2017 whilst studying film Columbia University School of the Arts, in which Charan had a premature sneak peek at the script before deciding she would go on to produce it years later.
“I was very lucky because I got to see this story go from being a logline to like a treatment to the very first draught and the day that he turned in the first draft of the script. I think I found him in the hallways right outside our classroom and was like ‘can I produce this?’, and he was like ‘yeah, okay’”.
“When I think back, it’s so funny because we didn't have anything… we were students, we just knew that we liked the story and we wanted to make it but we didn't have industry contacts or access to financing, and this was all before we made a lot of shorts but there was just something in the story,” explains Charan.
Catapulting a film agency
Once funding was in place - courtesy of American grants (American Equity) - production finally hit floors late September 2021 and shot over 40 days, making it the first Pakistani film to be fully financed by American money. According to Charan, no film agency existed in Pakistan at the time of production and Joyland didn’t get “recognised as an industry” until July 2022.
“When we were shooting, there was no film commission, and our Pakistani producing partners had to work with the army and intelligence agencies to get some of the permissions that we wanted to shoot in certain locations… at the time there were no film incentives.”
While it is early days, Charan believes Pakistan is now currently working to establish a local fixer and introduce film incentives, owing to the international acclaim of Joyland and its positive impact on the local economy.
Leaning on local crew
Apart from Apoorva herself, and Lebanese director of photography, Joe Saade, the entire film crew was local to leverage the authenticity of the film. And while there was an Americanised “knowledge transfer” during pre-production in elements, the crew were adept when physical filming came to the fore. Namely Pakistani producing partners Sarmad Sultan Khoosat and Sana Jafri, who were “huge allies” on the project and who would subsequently serve as co-line producers.
In terms of below-the-line services, it helped that Sadiq grew up in Lahore and worked as an assistant director for Khoosat in his early film career. “We knew that [Khoosat] had already made three features in Pakistan, has an office and company set up there so was very easy to set up a production camp. He knew which caterers to call and which equipment vendors to call.”
From casting the lead (Khan) to casting background actors, producers would lean on local crew because of their existing networks and relationships. “We were also very lucky that our all tastes aligned, so they knew what we were looking for and weren’t sending us people out of left-field.”
Aside from one scene being shot in Karachi, the entire film was shot in Lahore. Not only because the story was set there, but Charan found the production value was lot higher, yielding greater “universality” in the narrative storytelling.
Key filming locations included the family home, the erotic dance theatre, and the streets of Lahore. The latter in which was essentially filmed “guerrilla” to combat the peak times, reveals Charan. “We rigged a van with a camera, had a very skeletal crew… we didn’t have a very big footprint. We weren’t trying to hold up traffic, we went with the traffic and made it work for us.”
The only major challenge in terms of infrastructure was that equipment was very limited, explains the producer. “If we wanted to have a certain type of equipment, there would only be one in Pakistan, and we would have to figure out how to source it on the day we were shooting a certain scene [through a lot of convincing and negotiation]”.
“Different vendors had different pieces of equipment, so it was like a spider web trying to figure it out, so that was probably our biggest production challenge.”
The next challenge would lie in local distribution. In November 2022, the Oscar contender was banned from release Pakistan after the country’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting released a statement saying it had received written complaints that the film “contains highly objectionable material which do not conform with the social values and moral standards of our society.”
Overturning a nationwide ban
Charan’s next hurdle would then be to rally LGTBQ+ advocates and international media in a worldwide campaign to overturn the ban, especially ahead of the Oscars race (of which now has not qualified).
The ban was both “surprising and not surprising,” Charan reveals. “We expected a little bit of pushback but thought we had prepared for it because we had submitted the film to the censor board, done the required cuts, gotten the approval [months in advance] and Saqid had been doing a lot of local press to promote it as an arthouse film,” she explains.
After the director caught wind of the ban circulating on Twitter, the filmmakers soon realised people were using the film as a “political tool” and “create some noise” around the film’s “un-Islamic” ideologies.
It was then up to the Pakistani co-producers to reach out to local media, politicians, and the Prime Minister in a campaign to veto the ban, especially ahead of the Oscars race. But while it ultimately didn’t qualify, Charan regards her first feature film an “amazing” experience and one in which has taught her greater “empathy” for marginalised groups and taught her to forget about the boundaries between India and Pakistan”.