A Pakistani film that challenges regional cultural stereotypes of women and trans-people is to get a local theatrical release following its world premiere at Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Festival.
“Wakhri: One of a Kind” by Los Angeles-based, Pakistan-born writer-director Iram Parveen Bilal, has been passed by government censors in Islamabad and is due to be released in cinemas by Karachi-based distributor Mandviwalla Entertainment on Jan. 5, 2024.
The film — which is inspired by the “brave spirits” of women who have challenged the patriarchy in Pakistan, including social media star Qandeel Baloch, who was murdered by her brother in 2016 for what he deemed bringing dishonor on her family through online posts that would be considered mild by Western standards — features strong performances by its two debut leads, Faryal Mehmood — who plays Noor, a young widow trying to raise funds for a new girls’ school – and Gulshan Majeed, as Gucchi, her cross-dressing best friend.
Noor’s initial attempts to raise $200,000 to buy land for the new school fail — until she adopts a provocatively sexy persona “Wakhri” (which is Punjabi slang for “quirky” or “eccentric”) for her social media posts, creating a sensation in Pakistani society.
Bilal said she and the film’s producers had chosen to debut at the Red Sea festival — now in its third year in a country where cinemas were given permission to open just a few years ago — because she wanted it to be first seen in part of a region where its challenging message would be clearly understood.
“We have to respond to how the world is also responding to film,” she told Variety during an interview in Jeddah.
“The way the programmers at this festival loved and pursued the film convinced us. For a film that is trying to challenge the norms of this region, it is important to be shown at a festival that is also trying to challenge norms.”
Bilal, who settled in the U.S. after meeting her husband while studying at the California Institute of Technology, makes films that draw upon Pakistani cultural themes, and says she still considers herself Pakistani.
“I grew up in Pakistan and my family is still there and I am very comfortable there — in Islambad, where I grew up, or Karachi or Lahore.”
Bilal says she did not want to make a film specifically about the killing of Qandeel Baloch because she wanted the focus to be wider than that specific case.
“Every time a strong woman is taken down, we are all taken down with her,” she said. “When Qandeel Baloch was killed so many other women retreated into the shadows — so this film is for them.”
Bilal and her crew worked with Pakistan’s Gender Interactive Alliance and feminist groups, but the film is as much about the nature of social media fame — and the reactions it causes in society — as it is about counter cultural groups.
“Attitudes to the trans and inter-sex community are very different in Pakistan than in the West,” Bilal said. “Many people just think people are born that way and cross-dressers often come to weddings, for example, to give blessings. It is part of the culture.”
But problems do emerge when people want to gender transition — as shown in fellow Pakistani director Saim Sadiq’s trans-gender drama “Joyland” last year.
“When someone wants to transition then it does become an issue — as in ‘Joyland’ — but in many ways Pakistan is far ahead of India [which legalized trans people a few years ago] and in Pakistan trans people can legally put an ‘X’ in their passport rather than male or female,” Bilal noted, adding: “Like many countries in this region we are a country of contradictions.”
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