Last week, Lahore-born, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Saad Khan enjoyed the world premiere of his film Showgirls of Pakistan in the IDFA Competition for First Appearance. After the premiere, we spoke about everything from the making of the film and drawing inspiration from Pakistani culture to the fluidity of gender performativity and why mujra dancers deserve to have their story told in their own way.
Showgirls of Pakistan follows three dancers of mujra, a traditional court entertainment and an art form that has been considered vulgar since the British rule introduced Victorian morals to South Asia. Afreen mainly dances in theaters, while Uzma’s manager sends her to perform at private parties in other countries such as Dubai. After a successful career on the stage, Reema, a transgender woman, is finding it increasingly difficult to find work. All three of them are confronted by prejudice, strict censorship, and a deeply misogynistic climate.
Mujra is very much a part of the working class culture in Lahore, and almost all of Punjab. That is where I grew up, and when I was a kid, I would see the patriarchs of my family watch comedy shows. These mujras are packed in the intervals of those comedy shows, like in the Super Bowl when they do the half-time performances. But slowly, what has happened with time is that there's more mujra and less comedy. When I was growing up in the early 2000s, we had new privatized media introduced by a liberal dictator, and we watched these local cable channels that were straight up running DVDs of these mujras that the men around me watched.
We started in 2014. It was always very organic for me. There's less thinking and more just shooting every weekend, which is what we were doing. We started off in Lahore, and then we were kicked out by the theater people because the halls are controlled by the Arts Council. It's a part of the state censorship machinery. There's a lot of politics involved. So we went to shoot in Multan. There is the Arts Council in the theaters there too, and the laws are the same, but the implementation is more relaxed.
Mujra was originally a courtly dance in the Mughal Empire. When the British started colonizing and disintegrating it, the mujra dancers were one of the first groups to be targeted because they were top tax payers to the Mughal nobility. Through legislation, dancers were conflated with sex work. And now, a few nation states later, the common man in Pakistan espouses shapeshifting versions of that same Victorian morality which judges the being of those who don’t fit its restrictive mould.
If a woman is dancing, people think that she's probably doing sex work as well, which is a view not only from Pakistanis, but also from the Western gaze. It's the same old colonial trope: you strip off the artwork and complexity of life of the other and just talk about something that might not even exist. And even if it does exist, it exists in different ways, like patronage or protection. There’s a stratification in the audience: the people sitting in the front rows are rich, and then the people at the back rows are paying less money to come and watch the dancers.
These girls are threatened and attacked by not only the state censorship, but by vengeful rich men and their goons if they ignore their advances. Then one has to choose whose patronage to come under, and a lot of the times they align themselves with those men sitting in the front rows, with status and power, who can protect or at least pretend to protect the dancers from all other threats. It is something we can call "sugar daddy" in the West. But these are two adults. Going into an agreement and reducing it to sex work is an unnuanced kind of simplification.
In Pakistan, gender performance and sexuality can be very fluid. People in male bodies get away with a lot, while femme people and women obviously have to reduce the spread of their existence just to survive. But it is complicated. There is class involved, ethnicity, and the age-old caste system that hides in the psyche of our people. There's so much complex stuff that defines your right to free life and position in a society such as Pakistan.
Reema, the khwaja sira woman, managed to pass as a cis woman for a long time because people never knew her sex or gender identity. And she got away with it until the moment when the police raided her dance performance to arrest her for performing. That's when she announced that she's actually a khwaja sira—not female—and thus ‘not a woman.’ They set her free.
In fact, in the restrictive reign of our second-last dictator, cross-dressing and khwaja sira dancers were sent to perform in DC and New York at cultural events. Khwaja sira were preferred to entertain in public and in private with their art and with their bodies. The only way that they can have a function in society is if they dance for the patriarchy.
It's a complicated situation. She's not khwaja sira but at that point she was dressing as a man because that is the only way Afreen would let her do the job. There is an internal transphobia in place. Afreen didn't want Mano to dress femme because that just attracts more attention to Mano. But then it's also Mano's own decision. Trans people can dress as they want when they're among their people. But when Mano is doing a day job, she's going to do whatever is comfortable for the employer so she can remain employed. Mano might have changed by now. We have to give that nuance to that character. It's someone going through a journey.
Khwaja sira people and many other identities like the mujra dancers have historically been linked to sex work. Are they this or are they that? It's just that a very binary position is always put on them and that is something that the film totally throws out of the window. There are no binaries here, it's all shades and different situations in a certain time and space.
For instance, Reema can be oppressed by her community and the society, and be stripped of her professional career. But then she has an oppressive attitude towards her own chaila [disciple]. And then Afreen is oppressed by the Arts Council or the society, or the state, or the men in general. And she calls Mano a dirty tranny. No one's a saint here and no one's a devil.
It's all Lollywood—Lahore's film industry which has its own journey. A lot of the footage is from the early 2000s. People would think it's from the 1970s or 1960s, because those cameras are so old. Actually when the partition happened, the breaking of India and making of Pakistan, the technology remained in Bombay. Lahore got old cameras that they used for decades.
You know, I never got into a cinema until I was 22. Because the films that were showing when I was younger were not good for polite society: these were the smutty B-movies with a lot of sexual content that were showing around 2002-2009. I used them because it really shows what the girls are talking about. It's like art imitates life, life imitates art. In those films it's all about revenge of women against their rapists, or a dancer on stage killed by a serial killer and the media talking about the women in a certain way.
Even though they're made from a very imperial lens by men, there is truth to those films, as in what was happening in society then, and what are the moral standards for these women who need to be tamed or eventually killed off. Also, there was a lot of crossover between theater and film: mujra dancers who would perform in these films were originally coming from theater only to revert to the stage again and hopefully charge more money.
Poor people in Pakistan record themselves on a regular basis because there is an inherent lack of trust in the justice system. When my father calls anyone, including me, he records it. The recording is your witness. So the biggest fights that Reema has had with her boyfriend and Uzma has had with her manager were recorded. And that co-creation is obviously the backbone of the film.
My partner, who's also the editor with me and the art director, Joey Chriqui—it occurred to us a couple of years ago, why don't we weave it into the story because it's such an important part of that modern working-class social life.
Our team had Anam Abbas, who is my producer-partner in Pakistan. She shot all the backstage stuff for Afreen where only women were allowed. And my friend Husnain-ul-Haq, who went and shot with me everywhere. Anam being a woman could not go.
It's a certain type of story in which easily accessible lower-class people, and especially women and queer people, are victimized to prove one point or the other. These documentaries are commissioned by what you can call the Western documentary industrial complex that essentializes stories from countries like Pakistan. These stories are almost always in line with the foreign policy of the country that I live in, the US.
Those are important stories, but they're not the only stories. For women in our film, their everyday existence is resistance against different layers of oppression—whether it's the producers or the goons or the society or the media. And there is no support from the state or even the non-profit system which vows to save women. They are not ‘respectable’ enough to be saved, so they're just discarded from all different sides and they operate on their own.
When you're drone-bombing a country, you also need to do some sweeping work, whether it's painting slums in colors or funding neo-orientalist culture projects apart from military and financial aid. They are manufacturing certain ideas about that place, and that happens through the media and specifically by documentary films. And these documentaries are watched mostly by Western people backing those foreign policies with their votes and taxes or by westernized, upper-class local people.
People that I was shooting with—they don't know what a documentary is and that's why this documentary is not a documentary in that way. It's done in a specific way. It's like a film. Unlike the documentaries in which we are always the subjects, we are not the viewers of our own stories.