Ali Junejo and Rasti Farooq talk about their new play, Joyland and more
Rasti Farooq and Ali Junejo are two actors from Saim Sadiq’s Joyland, a film that brought much recognition and honor to the country in 2022 after its historic double victory at the Cannes Film Festival. The film received a long standing ovation when it premiered at the festival. It also won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize as well as the Cannes Queer Palm Award for Best LGBT, “queer” or feminist-themed film.
Ali Junejo is a theater actor who has worked for over two decades and has written and directed plays. Rasti Farooq is a writer, actor and producer at Puffball, a Lahore-based animation studio with award-winning films like Shehr-e-Tabassum and Slide. As actors who have walked the Cannes red carpet to represent the country, they are overwhelmed with joy, but until the film hits local theaters, the two have teamed up for another honest story.
In collaboration with OLOMOPOLO Media, Rasti and Ali performed The two sit in silence for a while successfully in Lahore and Karachi so far and garnered rave reviews. This is an original black comedy inspired by absurd writings. Written and directed by Ali Junejo and performed by Ali and Rasti together.
During a recent face to face with something highAli and Rasti spoke at length about their experiences as theater actors and storytellers, their new play and much more.
Tell us about your background as an actor?
A J: I have been doing theater for a very long time. I auditioned for a play; it was like a murder mystery and then I got hooked. I spent some time out of the country, then came back in 2012, then continued to do theatre. I was writing, directing and acting and I worked a lot with NAPA.
RF: I remember being very young, I always wanted to be on stage. I used to participate in debates and skits at school. Most people got very nervous on stage, but I loved it. Then I focused on my studies because I thought acting was a career (laughs). But I loved the stage so I did theater in Lahore too and met Saim Sadiq. He was doing a short film when we were in college and I did. I met more directors and filmmakers like Tabish Habib and Kanwal Khoosat, and I was doing more shorts and film plays until joyland came with.
How important is validation for stakeholders? And is it possible for a theater actor to be recognized, since it’s not a very popular medium like TV and movies in Pakistan?
A J: There’s a type of actor who has a lot of fun in rehearsals when no one’s watching and there’s magic that happens when you’re trying to unpack a scene or fighting with your director for motivation for your character. I’m addicted to this place and I’m sure Rasti is like that too. The sense of validation that actors get from their peers is what most actors live for. It’s when the stage starts to turn into something and on stage if it goes somewhere beyond that.
It doesn’t matter how much applause you get, the audience saw this hour-long performance and they have no idea the 3 months of rehearsal it took. There’s an element of audience love, but that balance between audience validation and rehearsal time comes together at a point I call storytelling.
RF: The validation changes with the type of support you are in. The realization of something organic and real happening between the actors and at that point you seek validation from your director. I also always come across those private moments during rehearsals where I look up at my director to see if I’ve done well.
As creatives who have worked as a writer, director or producer in this field, are you happy with the kind of stories we are telling today?
RF: I think it’s sort of a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answer for me. I was very fortunate and blessed to have been picky from the start and chose to do work that I would add value to. So, I ended up not doing a lot of work. But I’ve worked with amazing people who are curious to talk about uncomfortable situations and unpleasant people. They think about storytelling in a unique way. Pockets of these storytellers do exist in Pakistan, but they are few and I wish there were more so I could be spoiled for choice. A feature film like joyland will only come once a decade. The web series medium has really taken off, but looking at the kind of stories being told through web series, I’m not sure I’m that excited. We don’t think enough about the kind of characters we write. As I am for women’s stories in front but very quickly it loses its charm because what is the point of repeatedly showing deviant and rebellious women who murder their ex-partners. Sure, it’s fun and exciting once but two shows about it. I think there is so much more to explore about human kind.
Read: In conversation with Saim Sadiq: The making of Joyland
A J: We tend to put the characters in the position of victims of something. This is how we justify their actions. That’s fine, but I think the questions can go deeper than that, the characters can be well thought out, their arcs can be even more introspective. There is so much more about us, from this part of the world, that makes us so much more complicated/important than just victims.
A word about their new play ‘Both Sit In Silence For A While’ which is dark humor.
RF: That’s why I love The two sit in silence for a while because here we have two people in a relationship for a while and now they are kind of colliding. You will find that the two are very unpleasant towards each other, extremely indifferent to each other’s pain, they are short and sharp with each other. At no time does the play show that this person is like that because they have experienced this horrible thing. You can sympathize with them and you can also dislike either of the characters that are just the human experience. I don’t think storytellers have much responsibility to their audience, but the work shouldn’t be just a cynical examination of something.
A J: After years of compromising in relationships, people get resentful. So you would be arguing right now about something, but you have the last 20 years of your life in mind. I find that really interesting. If you can’t laugh at your most horrible experiences, you’ll never heal.
In a country where a segment of society won’t let a transgender (i.e. Mehrub Moiz Awaz) speak in a forum, do they think there will be acceptance for a film like joyland who has a trans woman in it?
A J: joyland is a movie that features a cast of characters and there just so happens to be a trans woman in the movie. The film begins as a love story and ends as a love story. There are men, women, a married couple, dancers, even a goat; there are so many things in it. So when I’m confronted with this image that joyland is a trans film. Well…yes and no. Saim writes so well that he tells you everyone’s stories and the journey of a transgender person is part of that story as well. It’s shown like that, but it’s a collection of all kinds of stories.
In times like today, what is required is honest storytelling by women, men, trans people, and anyone else across the spectrum of humanity. It is unfortunate that what happened did not happen.
RF: We are often asked this question at film festivals: “Do you think joyland change things for Pakistan? It’s silly to assume that a movie is going to change decades and decades of history. But I think that can and will change, it’s when audiences watch it in cinemas that they will realize that trans people have existed in the world since the dawn of time. You (within your limited social circle) may not interact with people in the trans community, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, work, or thrive. I think what this movie is about is that trans people around us have the same human struggles as everyone else. Visibility is the big step towards acceptance and what better than just showing people the way they are in their daily lives.
*The interview will continue in the second part which will be updated soon.