Alhamdulillah (praise be to God). If I stopped this article with that word alone, it would be complete.
I can begin my story with humble beginnings in the suburbs of Houston, TX. I grew up seeing lots of fun and frivolity, but also middle-of-the-night runs to help people, a tag along to my father’s missions. There were few, but I have flashes of these memories, some of which are explained, and some that are still none of my business. The takeaway message for me was:
“If someone comes to you for help, know that Allah put it in their heart to come to you. Don’t let Allah down.”
Like any good brown parent, my dad pushed me to become a doctor. It eventually became my own dream, but my understanding was that medicine would be how I could stop hunger and poverty.
On the authority of Abu Sa’eed al-Khudree (RA) who said:
I heard the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) say, “Whoever sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.”[Book of Saheeh Muslim].
After college, there were more responsibilities and tighter schedules. So I lost my voice and some of my steamrolling conviction in the process. Flash forward to work, marriage and kids. Talk about tighter schedules!
Alhamdulillah. I eventually figured out work, kids, and even marriage. I did more service activities with my kids as they got older, killing multiple birds with one stone in the process. I had planned to go to Greece to help Syrian refugees in the Spring because my youngest was finally old enough for me to leave. I had it all. Most importantly, I had four kids built like tanks who had never had an ear infection.
Then my four-year-old daughter had a seizure. My only daughter. She turned out to be incredibly sick; she couldn’t walk, talk, go to the toilet, or feed herself anymore. It was my next-to-last fear. I was going through the motions, adjusting my mindset so I could care for a special needs child for the rest of her life. People asked me how I was holding it together. I became very clinical, to the point that I didn’t understand when people broke down when they saw her. I had to bury my empathy, my mother’s heart, to cope with her disease. The idea that something like this could happen to me was mind blowing, so I was in shock.
Allah had never let me down, and I was sure He wouldn’t do that now. I was petrified that I had missed something big and He was directing me to fix it in this drastic way.
It was during prayer when the dark absorbed my tears. I couldn’t even say the words, but I knew Allah knew my duaa (supplications). When I found my words to ask, I prayed for her cure so I could leave and help the needy with the skills He gave me. Sure, bargaining with Allah may not be right, but it was my grieving process.
Alhamdulillah. The fact that our child was sick was a blessing. What a perfect trial for two people with backgrounds in healthcare. The disease she had was a gift because it was reversible, as well as a reminder to us of God. There are no accidents.
“Allah is the best of planners” (Surah Anfal verse 8).
He had our backs the entire time.
So with a daughter in rehab, my private practice, and three rambunctious boys at the end of their school year, I had a deal to make good on.
“Allah will not impose blame upon you for what is meaningless in your oaths, but He will impose blame upon you for [breaking] what you intended of oaths…” (Surah Maida 89).
My duaa was sincere, so my oath had to be.
Alhamdulillah. My opportunity came in an email from the Islamic Medical Association of North America. I had very peripherally helped them once and remained on their email list. These emails usually got shifted to my “Trash,” but this one somehow made it to my “Inbox.” There are no accidents.
[Uzma Jafri at a medical camp in Amman, Jordan | Photo Courtesy of Uzma Jafri]
They were taking a medical mission trip to Jordan to help Syrian refugees. After filling out an application and following up on a couple of emails, I was notified that I made the team. At this point, I asked my husband who said, “Yay! You need this.” I hadn’t told him about my deal with Allah. After 10 years, your partner just knows what you need, sometimes more than you do.
Is there a lot of flack for women leaving their families to do anything? Oh yes.
“Why can’t you just write a check?”
“But your son is still breastfeeding!”
“What about the kids?”
“You’re so selfish.”
There are 1,001 reasons not to do something good, but only one to do it. To those asking themselves the same questions, the mirror is your biggest critic. Make your reflection support you and what you want. So often, our personal agendas get lost in fulfilling the wife/mother role, but one is not more important than the other. They can be accomplished simultaneously if you have a supportive spouse and family to help you. Another female physician mom on this trip would be making her THIRD medical mission overseas. Props to the women who know happiness is a choice.
Alhamdulillah, this past May I was able to travel to Amman, Jordan to provide free healthcare to Syrian refugees. Of the 600,000 displaced Syrians refugees in Jordan, 80% of them live in the cities, not in refugee camps. We set up a Basic Health Unit in the first floor of a villa near the Syrian border our first three days of clinic. In addition to several exam rooms, we had one room outfitted as the pharmacy so all patients could leave with their drugs.[Syrian Refugees, Amman, Jordan | Photo Source: IMANA.org]
It was hot and the Syrian refugees would walk to the clinic. A bus from United Muslim Relief, the NGO on the ground, picked people up to bring them to us. Naturally, whole families came together. As one of the three female physicians there, I saw a lot of women. One of the doctors from Ohio had brought a portable ultrasound, so we were thankful to be able to check up on babies in utero, as many of the women came pregnant and didn’t have access to regular prenatal care.
[Syrian Refugees, Amman, Jordan | Photo Source: IMANA.org]
Some of what we saw was new. Many of the children suffer from delayed development due to malnourishment. Intestinal worms are highly common in Jordan and it’s something I had never treated in the US.
The backbones of the family, the women, suffer from anemia with direly low hemoglobins and they don’t take iron or eat red meat because they can’t afford either. They usually have anywhere from four to six kids to care for.
One mom of four had a 2-month-old she couldn’t bring to the clinic. She was 42-years-old and severely anemic, but we didn’t have any iron to give her. She wasn’t worried about herself but asked how to feed her baby who was on formula. She had come because her baby kept throwing up everything. First, we advised her to avoid water. Then we suggested oral hydration solution, and finally, I had a bottle of breastmilk to give her. I pumped on the way to the clinic every day and usually tossed it by the end of the night because there was no refrigerator to store it in our clinic.
[Syrian Refugees, Amman, Jordan | Photo Source: IMANA.org]
Some things I saw touched my core. It’s very common for refugee girls to be married young, an effort to make sure a daughter can have stability and opportunity to eat outside of her overburdened, newly-impoverished parents’ home. This is no different for Syrian refugees.
One day, I counseled a 16-year-old bride who had been married for a year, desperate for a child so her dying mother-in-law, still in Syria, could die knowing she had left a legacy. The mother-in-law wouldn’t leave her home in Aleppo. This girl was so shy, she made me want to cry because she was still just a child, older than a lot of younger brides amongst the Syrian refugees. She wouldn’t make eye contact and kept smiling the smile of a girl who knows a little more than her friends. She will never go to school again, and will gain a different wisdom, but I pray that she sees more success than that, gains more peace than she has. But more than likely, she would be pregnant by the end of the year, trading her dreams for someone else’s.
Another mom proudly displayed her 14-year-old’s pregnant belly to me, and she had another 16-year-old who was just married. Her third daughter, a 17-year-old was newly divorced, and I pulled her aside to urge her to pursue her education, something that would be out of her reach as an “older” refugee.
A different encounter showed me how little I could do with my stethoscope and clinical skills. A pregnant mother with five children complained about her 11-year-old son’s stutter that began a year and a half ago when they left Syria. His teacher hadn’t noticed since he never spoke in class because he was beaten up by a Jordanian kid in the schoolyard his first week there. He also had chronic headaches. At first, I congratulated him on being like Moses (peace be upon him) who was known to also have a stutter — a joke to put the boy at ease. Then I found out his parents had never discussed what happened in Syria with him. I asked him through a translator:
Was there something wrong at home or school? No.
Did someone hurt you at home or school? No.
Do you feel safe? Yes.
Can you take your time talking without feeling rushed? Yes.
Do you miss Syria? Yes.
Is there something that makes you worry or feel upset? Yes. When I hear the boys and girls screaming in the schoolyard, it makes me remember Syria and how they screamed there when the bombs fell.
Even my translator, a Syrian refugee herself, became teary-eyed but held her composure while I went to sob in a bathroom. My sons would never experience anything like this little boy had seen, and I pray they never do. There was nothing I could do to erase the memories of Syria that had been replaced by horrible images in this boy’s mind. We had no counselor or therapist with us. I felt useless and weak.
I walked out of that bathroom and straight into the angel of our operations, Ahmed Ahmer, a Syrian refugee working with United Muslim Relief in Jordan. He reassured me that UMR operated two children’s centers in Amman where three social workers and two therapists worked with the children suffering from PTSD. He went to the mother to sign up her children, including the little boy with the stutter. A bus would go out to pick them up for these services. There are no accidents.
The last three days of our clinic were operated out of a center in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Jordan. It had been a Palestinian refugee camp in 1967, but they replaced their tents with homes over the years and established the neighborhood. All people struggle to make it here.
This is where we met Abdul Malik again. He was a child we saw in the former clinic, two and a half years old, severely dehydrated, developmentally delayed, multiple deformities of his limbs, unable to walk, talk, or toilet. His parents said he got dehydrated a lot and they couldn’t afford to take him to the hospital again. Our resourceful doctors had figured out how to get fluids in him on Tuesday and Ahmed sent a bus to be picked up on Thursday for follow up. It was this day that his parents brought paperwork describing his diagnosis with a rare genetic disease to explain his delay. He needed special formula they couldn’t afford, and because he kept getting the wrong food, he got dehydrated and came close to death frequently. His diet also caused his mental retardation and physical deformities.
On Thursday, Abdul Malik looked a lot better, but his prognosis was poor. The pharmacist told us it would be impossible for them to afford his formula, and he spent the next day searching three pharmacies and Queen Rania’s Children’s Hospital looking for it. He couldn’t find it. We looked it up online and it would be $73 per can and would last only four days. The pharmacist had an epiphany as we drove away from the clinic that day. He mentioned that breast milk was a good substitute for the formula Abdul Malik’s family couldn’t buy. I had a little more than 72 ounces of milk pumped in the hotel’s refrigerator. I was planning a small ceremony to grieve its loss as I poured it down the drain that night. It wouldn’t last the long flight home. We arranged for it to be delivered to Abdul Malik the next day. There are no accidents.
On a bus my last night in Amman, it hit me that Abdul Malik was my son. My daughter’s illness and her prognosis, before I knew what she had, was his daily reality. Her disease prepared me for him, to be his milk mother and his advocate. Alhamdulillah.
We saw 1644 patients in five days. The need is still great and more teams are planning to go in the summer and fall to help the Syrian refugees. Jordan is truly a beautiful nation demonstrating true humanity by taking in those in need. It’s blessed with history and breathtaking countryside. Its people are the kindest I’ve ever met. I pray I’ll be blessed enough to go again and serve. I pray that those of us who went and our families who supported us are forgiven from sins, known and unknown, blessed in our undertakings and saved from every hardship and the Hellfire.
Uzma Jafri is from Texas, currently residing in Arizona. She works part-time as a family/geriatric doctor in a private practice as she raises her 4 kids full-time. She has her parents to thank for her faith and sense of service. Her husband to thank for his unending support and tolerance of her many projects and desires. But the best guidance is from Allah who allowed her to fulfill her dream of going overseas to do this work. While Uzma realizes she can’t cure the ills of the world, she is honored to be able to provide dignity for a few people and looks forward to doing it again.
Dolly Singh is a content creator who is from South Delhi. She earned a bachelor’s in political science from Delhi University. Singh then attended The National Institute of Fashion and Technology. She even had her own blog called “Spill the Sass.” Fashion is a true passion for Singh as she made her outfit of the day debut on Netflix’s Bhaag Beanie Bhaagon. She has even appeared on Modern Love Mumbai Edition! Singh was awarded Cosmopolitan Blogger Award in 2021 and IWM Social Media Star in 2022. Continue to learn more about Dolly Singh’s journey!
What parts of your childhood pushed you into the world of content creation?
I have always been an introverted-extrovert kind of person. During my early teens I wouldn’t speak much at home but in school I was quite the talkative showgirl. When I look back it seems so paradoxical, almost as if I suffer from a split personality. Somehow my earliest childhood memories are of my loving to be on stage. I remember when I was in the 12th grade, I cajoled my teacher to include me in a singing competition since I had never ever sung live on stage and I was persistent in my effort for over 4-5 years and eventually she gave up and she said ‘okay its your last year why don’t you go do it ‘and of course in the process I realized what a bad singer I was. But just the sheer joy of being on stage, performing to a live audience and entertaining people is what stirred me at a deeper level. I think on the other hand my reserved side allows me to study people and their nuances and store all those observations in my memory data bank which helps me create great content. I wouldn’t speak much at home, but you know when I did, it was just 2 punch lines and everybody would either laugh or get awkward. I think I always knew that I was born to entertain, and it was my destiny’s calling. I would always get jealous seeing child actors on newspapers and television and I was like ‘oh my God, I am a child, and I could be an actor, living my dream life but I’m still stuck here’.
Do you feel what you do can inspire and impact the world? Please elaborate.
Of course, I think anybody with a decent following on social media has the potential to positively impact the community. Content creators enjoy a certain reach and it’s so important to handle that responsibility meticulously and the kind of message that you’re putting out needs to be respectful of certain socially expected parameters and mindful of the basic laws of the universe. It’s better to say nothing, then to say something stupid something that is going to just bring out the worst in people or send out misleading signals. I feel like the amount of content that audiences are consuming these days can trigger positive change if it’s done in the right manner. I feel strongly about a lot of topics, and I make sure that my platform is a reflection of that in some way. With content creators as opposed to film stars and celebrities, there is a direct engagement with audiences and a more one-on-one connection and hence content creators stand at a more leveraged position to influence audiences positively. I love body positivity as a topic.
Who were your fashion icons growing up?
Any fashion events that you envisage yourself at in the future to represent the brown renaissance? I think a lot of my inspiration came from the indie pop movement of the 1900s and the 2000’s. I started watching Hollywood movies and a lot of my inspiration started coming from the Bollywood Hollywood section in glossies and I made cutouts of the media, the models, the people. Then came Disney Channel and FTV and I used to watch those when my mom was away at work. I would love to represent India at the Paris, New York and London runways and walk for Indian designers who are using sustainable fabrics and indigenous designs and helping skilled artisans make a living in India. I love Madhu Sapre, Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Cindy Crawford.
As you started a style blog in college, what were some of your favorite pieces of clothing in your early years?
Yeah, it was called Spill The Sass. I love blogging on T-shirts because there are so many ways that you could style a basic white T-shirt. Another blog I enjoyed back in the day was 5 ways to style maxi skirts. If I had to choose two pieces of clothing it would be a T-shirt and jeans!
How has your style evolved over the years?
It’s evolved from minimalistic and pocket friendly to being experimental and qualitative. The more I visited fashion weeks and events, the greater I experimented with outfit ideas that I curated personally. Over the years, I’ve started leaning more towards keeping it classy, chic and comfortable.
Tell us about your favorite online character since you make a bunch of them?
My favorite online character of mine would be Raju Ki Mummy because it’s based on my own mother.
If you could collaborate with anyone in the world, who would it be and why?
I would love to collaborate with Jenna Marbles. I love her to death. I discovered her few years ago and I would love to meet her in person. I mean she’s just a person who if I meet, I will just start sobbing like a child.
Have you faced adversity in your field? How have you risen from it?
Adversities are just an everyday fact of life but I like to believe my dreams and goals are bigger than my fears and setbacks. I know at the end of the day I want to be something; I want to give back and quitting isn’t the solution. Every time I face a creative block, I just tell myself this ‘get up and get to work, there are many who look up to you, you can’t disappoint them’. Also, the support from family, friends is nothing less than therapeutic especially when you’re having that typical bad day. I run towards therapy when I hit rock bottom, which happens quite often. We often feel burnt out, exhausted, tired, and just sad. I’ve been taking therapy for the last two years. It’s been beneficial. I’m not saying all my problems have vanished; that’s not how it works. It’s a continuous journey and a continuous process, but I think therapy is my mantra.
You recently turned into an entrepreneur with your own line of candles. Tell us more on what drove this decision and are there any other lifestyle products you will be launching?
As a creator I think it’s just natural to want to extend your brand trajectory to newer realms and not be stagnant in your growth path. It’s hard to gauge the shelf life of any creator considering there is stiff competition and there will be a sense of redundancy that seeps into the algorithm at some point. It’s always beneficial to expand your forte and explore multiple revenue streams is what I’ve gathered from so many interactions I’ve had with my industry peers over the past few years. There were many opportunities where people wanted to create merchandise of mine or partner on a fashion and accessory line but I wasn’t very mentally ready given my hectic schedules. I was a customer of Rad Living and after the pandemic I went into this zone of binge buying so much self-care stuff and you know candles was one of them. So when this came about I think I was ready to experiment and expand and was looking for an avenue to invest my energies on something enjoyable. I had already made a content piece on candles before this offer came my way so I had a list of quirky candle names, taglines for fragrances, matching the fragrance notes with the names. I think with this inning the whole ‘Creator’ part to me really came to use here as well and that’s what was exciting about this and it was funny because it was such ‘a life comes to a full circle’ moment for me. My mom was into candle making because Nainital at that point was known for its candles and she used to make such variety of candles, 100s of types of candles and all my life I mean the first 16-17 years of my life I’ve just seen my mom make candles at home and our house were full of wax and everything was just candles. My father used to sell candles and it was my family business. Let’s just say that I’m taking forward the family legacy and I’m very excited to go home and to my father’s shop in Nainital and put my candles there and sell them!
Will there be any lifestyle products you’ll be launching?
I was so nervous about this candle launch as I never wanted to mislead my audiences and have them indulge in something that’s mediocre. I really invested my heart and soul in this venture, and thankfully the response has been beyond phenomenal. Courtesy all the good word of mouth publicity, I’m thinking of maybe launching my own beauty and fashion line in about 2 years!
What have been your favorite content pieces that have you worked on this far?
I love most of my content pieces as I’m very particular about each one of them so it’s hard to pick a favorite. One of them is a mini film called Aunty Prem Hai and it’s about an orthodox lady finding out that her nephew is queer from his ex-boyfriend, and this is a first time reveal since the nephew has never come out of the closet. There’s also this series called How Aunties Talk About Sex, and I’ve given a twist to how old-timer desi Indians broach the topic of sex based on how I’ve seen my mother interact with her friends, post dinner conversations amongst relatives, and how it’s more like a taboo.
What are your favorite social media trends?
Anything that emits positivity and gratitude. It’s important that social media trends invoke a sense of intellectual enhancement. Anything that kind of teaches you something that enriches your existence or makes you want to live life more wholesomely. I also enjoy throwback trends, something to do with special memories and nostalgia, because I feel old school is always timeless.
Do you feel people are so trapped in social media that they forget about the world around them outside of their laptops, phones, and tablets?
Yes. Personally it’s been a task for me to get detached from technology and balance the real and the reel. In the last couple of years, I have consciously cut down on my screen time, even though it’s all work and no play for me. Social media is so omnipresent and it’s sometimes scary to see this crazy social media obsession where people forget there’s a real world out there with real people and you need to forge real connections that are deeply rooted in authentic exchanges. It’s scarier to see how social media trends have now become rules to live by for a more meaningful existence for many when on the contrary that shouldn’t be the case.
It’s a word that invokes a sense of pride in me because for me it’s all about being innovative, authentic and self-made. Influencer on the other hand is something that doesn’t resonate with me because there’s no real job description. I’ve always maintained my stand of not being an influencer as I create content and make a living out of being creative and curating an audience for myself over the years.
As you’ve worked with Priyanka Chopra, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Aayushmann Khurrana, and others do you hope to be more involved in Bollywood? Tell us about your acting projects.
Of course, I would love to be more involved in the film industry not just in India but globally too. I think there is so much scope for the South Asian community to make a mark in world cinema and it’s time we pick up more Oscars and Grammy’s in the coming times. Anyone who is a creator is also a film star at heart. 90% of creators who make sketches and skits are facing the camera 24×7, making original content, improvising on scripts and all of that stems from that innate ability to be great performers who can keep an audience engaged. I would love to someday have my own podcast where I interview film personalities and get into their skin. I love the dance and song sequences in Bollywood films, and I think I’d be great doing that as well! I’d love to see how I can get out of my comfort zone and do something that doesn’t directly relate to my online alias in the future. I got a lot of offers during the lockdown and shot for a film in 2022 which sees me in a leading role and I’m excited for it to launch later this year. I’m working on some writing projects as I would love to script a documentary or a short film.
Lastly, what do you hope to take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
I think the questions have been great. The questions have been answered in a way that I feel so confident about myself right now, and I feel so proud about myself and that says a lot. I would like to thank Brown Girl Magazine for taking time out to interview me. I hope this inspires the brown community across the world!
From singing and acting to drawing immaculate figurines, Saheli Khan, 11, has made her debut in the North American Broadway tour as young Anna in Disney’s musical “Frozen.” As a first-generation Indo Caribbean, with roots in India and Pakistan, she continues to pave the way for young people with similar backgrounds.
Khan has always enjoyed entertaining those around her and she continues to have the motivation to pursue her passions. In school, she always sought to lead her class in songs and she was encouraged by her parents and teachers to enroll in music and acting classes, even at a young age. These ventures fueled her passions even more.
Continue reading to learn more about her journey!
What do you like about acting the most?
I like to portray different characters. Specifically, I like playing characters who have strong personalities and those who portray a sense of bravery, especially during problematic occurrences.
As a first generation Indo Caribbean actress, how do you feel about your journey as a young Disney princess? Do you feel that you are paving the way for other Caribbean and South Asians who want to pursue similar paths?
Diversity has always been important to me, but in today’s society, I feel that most people would like to be accepted and encouraged. As a Disney Princess, I am simply helping to broaden the field for all young people to see that skin color should not matter.
What do you like about your character, Anna? Is there anything that you may dislike?
Young Anna is a ball of sunshine! She is happy, funny, and a delight to be around. Despite having a troubled childhood, she grows up to be just as joyous, but she is also courageous as she goes on a journey to find her sister. I love everything about young Anna and she truly embodies who I am as a person.
Who is your inspiration and why?
My parents are my inspiration. My mom is beautiful, loving, and she works hard without ever giving up. No matter the task, she finds a solution and keeps on going with a smile on her face. She always tells me, “Whenever you feel overwhelmed, remember whose daughter you are and straighten your crown.” And my dad is my best friend. He’s insanely funny, caring and knows all the best places to eat! My parents are exactly how I want to be when I grow up.
If you had a magic wand, what show would you do next?
I would love to be Annie on Broadway or play the lead in a series or movie.
What is the one last thing that you do before you step out on stage and the curtain goes up?
There are many things I do before I step on stage. I do fun and silly things quietly with my “Frozen” sister, Mackenzie Mercer, and play with my Anna pigtails for good luck.
What are your other passions?
I love to sing, act, and spend time with my younger cousin, Ayla. I also love to draw and color since it makes me feel relaxed. I was told I have a great ability to draw and make figurines ever since I was a child. And I love exploring new cities and eating at great restaurants with my family.
What advice do you have for young people who are just starting their careers, specifically within the field of musical theater?
To have a positive mindset, practice diligently, and enjoy every moment within the journey. I have learned that there may be some occurrences that may not take place the way that you want them to, but there’s always an opportunity to learn from them.
Aside from your career, how do you balance your schoolwork and acting?
I attend school virtually, which is essential when I am on tour. Each day I have scheduled school hours that allow me to focus and complete all school assignments. Once that is done, I have most of the day to work on extracurricular activities, go on outings, and hang out with my friends. Though performing takes a large chunk out of my day, it helps that I enjoy it, so it doesn’t feel like work.
What types of roles do you see yourself playing?
I love to play humorous characters such as young Anna from “Frozen.” I truly enjoyed this role as it captures who I truly am.
Khan’s debut marks the start of a budding career. With her array of talents and future goals, we are bound to see more of the young actress in the future and more representation of Indo Caribbeans in mainstream media. If you would like to purchase tickets for Disney’s “Frozen,” click here.
Haider wades his way through Karachi’s expansive beach, climbing and tumbling over rocks, in Mumtaz’s memory. The vast landscape is perfectly encapsulated in the 4:3 aspect ratio — an unconventional yet welcoming choice. He vanishes into the sea, leaving his storyline open-ended. The screen fades to black. The film comes to a close. The gentle humming and lapping of the waves disappear. However, I stay put. Stumped, and unable to comprehend the masterpiece that Saim Sadiq, director of “Joyland”, has blessed Pakistanis with.
“It’s so important to narrate these stories in today’s world, where we’re often divided and seldom united,” says producer Apoorva Charan during an exclusive chat with Brown Girl Magazine.
It’s her feature film debut as a producer, and she’s justifiably beaming with pride.
Joyland is such a win for South Asia, but particularly, Pakistani storytelling. Every person I met, I felt like there was some characteristic or quirk about them that mirrored our characters in the film.
Set in the depths of androon Lahore, “Joyland” primarily revolves around Haider (Ali Junejo) — a meek, unemployed house husband in a borderline, passionless marriage. He’s happily helping Saleem bhai (Sohail Sameer) and Nucci bhabi (Sarwat Gilani) raise three kids, while the fourth one breaks Nucci’s water in the opening scene. Another girl is born, despite the ultrasound’s previous declaration of a baby boy.
“If I were to receive an award based on my character in “Joyland”, it’d definitely be for “best at single-handedly increasing the population of Pakistan,” says Gillani, as we howl with laughter during our spoiler-riddled chat with the cast of the film. “I think that, combined with the ‘coolest bhabi’ — those two will have my name on them.”
But Nucci’s wasn’t just a bhabi who pumped out a new baby every year. Sarwat’s character was given some level of agency — a woman who reminisced about a career in interior design before marriage and kids while smoking a cigarette in secrecy.
I think my philanthropic work plays a part in how I started saying no to bechari roles. How can I be a role model to these women I’m trying to help, while playing the same characters? The change came about with “Churails” and I vehemently stuck to it. My characters need to have a voice; a backbone.
On the other hand, Haider’s wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), works as a beautician at the local salon, busy dolling up brides in Lahore’s unpredictable load-shedding.
Both Haider and Mumtaz seem to have a relatively stable marriage based equally on societal expectations and gender-flipped roles. While Haider stays home, helps in the kitchen, and attempts at searching for a traditional job, Mumtaz carves autonomy and independence for herself. This is in spite of an oppressive family life characterised and dictated by Haider’s overly conservative, traditionalist father and patriarch, Rana (Salmaan Peerzada), who wishes for the couple to procreate a cricket team of just boys.
But Rana, known as Abba Jee, is also layered with his own 50 shades of grey, struggling with loneliness and a lack of intimacy, mirrored in his relationship with next-door neighbour Fayyaz (Sania Saeed). His emotional desires are symbolised by his physical impediments — the former handicapped with “what will people say”, and the latter with a wheelchair. The rules that he has for his children are the same that his children have for him, bound by tradition, norms, and society. They are not allowed to stray from what is considered “normal”.
The film’s women are strong which is pretty much a reflection of the women in Sadiq’s life. While Abba Jee shuns the love and companionship that Fayyaz offers, she stands her ground until firmly asked to leave. The complexity of each person’s emotions versus expectations is what makes “Joyland” relatable on a human level.
Alternatively, Mumtaz’s relationship with Haider is based on convenience and habit, where two people share the same bed but sleep facing away (partially because one of Saleem and Nucci’s young daughters crashes with them every night, illustrating the confined space both Haider and Mumtaz are allowed to be themselves in). The dynamics of their marriage drastically evolve once Haider’s eye catches Biba (Alina Khan), covered in blood as she walks numbingly into the hospital where Nucci gave birth. The introductory scene mirrored the brutal reality of violence inflicted upon Pakistan’s trans community; one of “Joyland’s” most haunting moments.
Mumtaz is asked to quit her job once Haider lands a gig as a “theatre manager” — a cover-up for his job as a background dancer at the nightclub Biba coincidentally performs at. The film portrays the traditional Pakistani marital social dynamic; men must work, and women must housekeep. Even when some level of independence is allowed to a married woman, she must forego her right to a career later in life. Understandably, it leaves Mumtaz devastated.
“It’s so strange how that’s just an acceptable act in our society,” Farooq chimes in, voicing Mumtaz’s thoughts. “Even if a woman is good at a 100 things, ultimately, she’s expected to quit her job to be a homemaker because that’s ‘her job’.”
With time, Haider falls into a routine and rhythm of working at the theatre and spending more time with Biba, allowing him an insight into the widespread transphobia she’s regularly faced with. Biba confides her innermost desire to be what she termed as “a complete woman” in order to land the same dancing opportunities as her counterparts.
Haider’s daring closeness to Biba leaves Mumtaz — who at this point is reliant on him as a best friend more than the physical intimacy he fitfully provides her — alone, isolated, and depressed. For Haider, it is liberating to leave problems at home and escape into a secret world centred around his deepest desires. He doesn’t want to be a bad person. He doesn’t wish to hurt or leave his wife. But his happiness now seemingly lies in dancing and exchanging stolen kisses with Biba. Farooq agrees:
I think Mumtaz and Haider were best friends at this point. They had an unspoken love for each other, which stemmed from the sanctity of their relationship. They might not be in love but they did love each other. In the eyes of our society and otherwise, they were married, but they’d drifted so far apart. There was love but it wasn’t possible to return from how distant they were.
This point of no return brings Haider to a crossroads — one where he is torn between his loyalty to Mumtaz and his love for Biba. Ultimately and ironically, in a particularly passionate moment, it is his curiosity pertaining to Biba’s sexuality that drives her to throw him out of her life. Defeated and guilt-ridden, he comes face-to-face with a pregnant and non-confrontational Mumtaz, who, by now, is aware of what Haider has been up to but doesn’t have the mental capacity to verbally digest his infidelity alongside a child she doesn’t want.
Her apprehensions about bearing and raising children are indicated throughout the early days of her pregnancy. The clutching of her stomach, the tightening of the rollercoaster belt during a visit to Joyland park, and her unease during the ultrasound are just a few examples of Mumtaz’s angst.
Abba Jee’s 70th birthday was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Mumtaz, surrounded by family and friends and feeling emptier than ever, takes her own life. A tragic full circle where one life ends as the other begins. Her suicide is harbingered by Rana’s birthday speech as he recalls a palmist once saying his bloodline would end with Haider.
“Joyland” is replete with polarity. There is a seamless hand-in-hand flow of happiness and devastation, longing and antipathy, birth and death. Pakistani society’s struggles with misogynistic gender roles are depicted in the most gentle, sensitive, and nuanced ways. The struggle is also ironic, considering Pakistan has one of the most progressive transgender legislations in the world. Trans people have the right to self-identify their gender in Pakistan – a right still denied to the trans community in many progressive countries, such as the UK.
A deeply reflective film with memorable and emotional characters doing justice to their performances. It’s currently running in cinemas here in the UK, and we highly recommend watching this poignant piece of art.