My family always thought I would bring shame to them: Trans actor Alina Khan

Alina Khan became the first transgender actor from Pakistan to have walked the prestigious Cannes red carpet at the French Riviera last month. The actor, whose recent offering Joyland, bagged two honours at the top film festival became the talk of the town back home and around the world. 

In a recent conversation with Vogue India, Khan speaks about her recent visit to Cannes and her career so far. “I returned to Pakistan from France a week ago and I have already visited my family home thrice— I even spent a night there,” Khan told the publication over a Zoom conversation. “Joyland’s win at Cannes means so much to me because I play a trans dancer in the film—the same identity that I have been shunned for all my life won us this award,” she added.

“My family always thought I would bring shame to them, only Ammi would speak to me for a few minutes while the others cut me off. Now, they are actually proud of my success and that makes me the happiest,” she said, adding that she’s still brutally aware that she is a long way from being accepted. “I never understand this because the same women call us home to bless their children at the time of their birth,” she sighed. 

On her visit home, Khan offered to accompany her sister to the local market and was devastated when she declined for the fear of attracting attention. Yet the actor holds little malice. “In society, people are given taleem (education) but not tarbiyat (bringing up). They need to be taught that we are part of the same community for us to eventually be treated normally,” she said. “Everyone from the team helped with my wardrobe and presentation. I was very relieved when the people at Cannes were unbothered by my gender and only focused on my work,” she commented.

Turning dreams into reality

Khan also spoke to BBC Urdu after returning home from France. “As a child, I would wear a dupatta (scarf) and dance around my house,” Khan recalled, “My father used to say that I would become an actor. Allah turned his words into reality.”

The actor also spoke about how she got into the skin of her character, Biba in Joyland and the steps she took to feel genuinely connected to the character:

“I was very fond of acting since I was a child, but I wasn’t sure that there would be any opportunities available for trans women to work on screen,” she shared. “But when Saim offered me the chance to work on this film, I made sure to leave all of my other commitments behind so I could give this role everything that I have. Saim would give me the script, and I would closely go over every line and study it closely to see what it reveals about Biba’s character.”

Khan added that she hoped her movie would contribute to Pakistanis’ acceptance of transgender people as full citizens, enabling more trans women to live with their families and lead regular lives: “Because I am a trans, I have grown up facing a lot of stigmas, even from my own house. My own brother and sisters would call me the slur, khusra. But through this film, I want people to accept trans women into their families, and show them that just like me, they want to live with their families and just have normal lives.”

“My parents have begun to accept me for who I am and have seen that being a trans woman isn’t only about prostitution or begging, but there are trans women who are working in fields like acting and are making a lot of money and are famous worldwide,” the actor commented.

Big feat

Khan has been over the moon since the Cannes nod. Her Instagram feed comprises moments with her team in France. Sharing a carousel of pictures from the film fest, she penned, “So proud to have a Jury prize at Cannes film fest 2022, this is like a dream come true where I have to be the one responsible person from my entire trans community of Pakistan to go and collect it along with the other team members of Joyland.”

She added, “This was the main motive to be on the roads of Cannes which got me my success and I’m so much thankful to my lord who graced me and the entire cast of Joyland jury award.”

In another post, she shared, “Awards night at Cannes film festival for our film, Joyland, where we won two awards. The jury prize at Un Certain Regard category and the Queer Palme Award. The happiest day of my life.”

Khan on her character in the award-winning film

She auditioned for the role through an NGO, without being a professional actress, for a role in Sadiq’s 2019 short film Darling. She eventually landed the part and continued working with him. 

“My character Biba and I share a similar struggle,” Khan told AFP. “But Biba is angrier than I am.” Khan, who saw Joyland for the first time at the Cannes festival, said she felt proud and emotional during the screening. “I tried to keep it together because I didn’t want to make a mess, but the reception was overwhelming. Some people in the audience started crying and I then I couldn’t help myself, so I cried, too,” she said.

She expects the film to find a receptive audience once released in Pakistan. “It’s an ensemble film that deals with men, women, and gender politics and issues of various kinds that almost everybody can relate to,” she said. “It’s going to be interesting for the audience back home.” Khan said the film’s main takeaway for transgender people was: “People from the trans community can do anything they want to do, just like any man or any woman”.

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