‘Rani’ is a unique story about a transgender Pakistani woman who sets out to take care of an abandoned baby. Set in the heart of Karachi, Pakistan she faces many challenges, yet is determined to do the right thing.
The film has won the Outstanding Writer Award at the NBCUniversal Short Film Festival, the Fox Inclusion Award at Outfest LA, an Ursula genderbender award for Best Short Film at Lesbisch Schwule Filmtage Hamburg | International Queer Film Festival, and has screened at numerous international festivals including Newport Beach Film Festival, Rhode Island Film Festival, New York Asian American Film Festival, Seattle Tasveer, CAAMFEST, and many more.
The film premiered in Pakistan on 3rd March 2019, at the 10th Karachi Literature Festival, and is the first Pakistani film to be featured on internet streaming giant Hulu. It has also screened on 10th March at the Dorab Patel Auditorium of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, hosted by Lahore Biennale Foundation, and at select universities, colleges, and cultural centres across Pakistan.
The film has been written and produced by Hammad Rizvi who holds an MFA from UT-Austin and stars LGBTQ activist Kami Sid. Other cast members include Hina Pathani & Maaz Khan. The film has been produced by Akbar Allana and Sara Siddiqui and is a co-production between Rizvilla Productions, USA and Grayscale, Pakistan.
ArtNow sits down with Akbar Allana- co-producer and CEO of GrayScale- for an in depth discussion on the making of such a crucial film.
AN: Where and how did the idea for ‘Rani’ come about?
AA: The idea, and story, for Rani was entirely Hammad Rizvi’s. Being a Pakistani American, he regularly visited Karachi growing up and was struck by the twin images of transgender adults and street children begging at streetlights. This image stayed with him, and I think he knew he wanted to make a film on these two marginalised communities for quite some time.
AN: How did you meet writer and director, Hammad Rizvi and what was it that convinced you to work with him? How did his experience as a Pakistani-American impact the creation of this movie?
AA: I was first contacted, funnily enough, by Hammad’s father back in 2010, when Hammad was still in film school and dreamt of filming in Pakistan. So our association really goes back to then. As for Rani, we were in talks about it since early 2016 – when Hammad first ran the idea past me. As much of the work that GrayScale does focuses on creating content that empowers marginalised communities, the story appealed to us from the start. However, Hammad’s initial script was in English, and written with a primarily Western sensibility. Our team re-wrote parts of the script, transliterated the dialogues, and added a more realist, local flavour. We were also lucky enough to get Kami Sid and Hina Pathani on board, who helped us get the nuances of the Khawaja Sira community in Karachi, and their mannerisms and dialogues, correct. So, eventually it became a completely collaborative process – and each member of the team brought in his or her own sensibilities and vision to the project. One of the great things about working with Hammad was, he let each member contribute and take ownership for the film. In essence, it became our film as opposed to just his, and I believe this just makes our story that much more powerful.
AN: Kami Sid has been soaring in public media since this movie. Please elaborate on how and why she was cast for this role and how her unique perspective affected the final outcome of this film?
AA: Strangely, when Hammad first ran the idea for Rani past me, we were already developing a story on the Khwaja Sira community with Kami. Some production associates working at GrayScale had previously worked with Kami on a student project, and on their own initiative had done a test shoot of her. It was during my talks with Hammad that I saw this footage, and it just made sense to cast Kami for the role. We sent some screen tests of Kami to Hammad in the USA, and he also felt she was the right person to cast. Of course, the biggest hurdle was convincing Kami to play the part, as she had never acted before. Once she was convinced, it opened up so many doors for us. Firstly, and most importantly, the access to the Khwaja Sira community and the accuracy we needed to tell our story properly. Through Kami, we also cast a second transgender person – Hina Pathani. In retrospect, it makes so much sense to have cast genuine transgender persons in our film, particularly since it is in essence a story about inclusivity. Whilst in the last year “diversity” and “inclusion” have become buzz words, in 2016 it was still a pretty radical thing to do – even by our standards.
AN: It has been the recipient for several international awards. How has the response been from an international audience? Do you feel like it has altered the perception of our local community on an international scale?
AA: The reception we have gotten to our film internationally has been fantastic. I think Western audiences are so used to a stereotypical image of Pakistan being a country full of terrorists and bombs, that it was refreshing for them to see we have a thriving transgender community. At the NBC Universal Short Film Festival, Hammad won the Outstanding Writer Award, but Kami got the standing ovation. A significant part of our film focuses on the adoption centres run by Mrs. Bilquis Edhi, so this was also something Western audiences were interested in learning about – that we have such an abundance of charitable institutions and people in Pakistan.
AN: It was shown at a few venues in Karachi, including premiering at KLF and then later in Lahore at LBF. How was the local response to the movie? Did it differ from the international audience?
AA: Again, we have had a fantastic response in Pakistan. In fact, this has been far more heartening than the response we got internationally. What was great about the Karachi Literature Festival was, we had people from all walks of life and social backgrounds attend our screening and talk, and they all had positive things to say afterward. Some of the audience confessed to have travelled from cities like Quetta and Larkana just to watch our film. We also had a huge representation of the transgender community, which was great. It almost felt like it was their moment, and the applause was as much for them as it was for the film.
The screening for Lahore Biennale Foundation was a smaller, more select audience – but equally receptive. Again, there was a significant transgender representation. We have also been screening at some schools and colleges. Perhaps the best one was a screening for The Lyceum – we showed the film to their entire student body of 650 students and those kids were amazing. The kinds of questions and thoughts those children had was truly inspiring.
AN: Our transgender community have long been mistreated. How do you feel this movie helps pave the road to a more progressive and accepting Pakistani society?
AA: What we have done is we have created a film that could help generate much needed dialogue on certain social ills that plague our society. What we need to work towards is ensuring as many people see the film as possible, and to start as much dialogue around these topics as we can. I think the fact that we have had such a positive reception shows the appetite for acceptance is there, however we need to push the narrative for a more inclusive society much harder – and for that we need more socially conscious films and content. Unfortunately, our cinematic and media industries are yet to mature to a level where we can expect them to be catalysts for social change. Hopefully, the response to this film will inspire more filmmakers to tell meaningful stories, which can help build a more inclusive and tolerant society.
AN: How have the transgender community responded to this movie?
AA: Like I mentioned earlier, both the KLF and LBF screenings had a significant transgender representation, and at both screenings they absolutely loved our film. Some of them were even crying, and saying they wished somebody had made this film when they were younger so they might have had more of an acceptance and perhaps had a different life. Other than this, we have also had private screenings for the wider LGBTQ+ communities. Again, these were persons from several walks of life and social classes, and they all loved what we had created. I think our film could be about any marginalised community, that faces hardship and discrimination, which it just appealed to a wide cross section of persons.
AN: Are there any thoughts of bringing such an important film to the majority of the public through means of public screenings in lower-class neighbourhoods?
AA: Yes, we want our film to be seen as far and wide as possible and, in particular, those communities amongst whom Khwaja Sira persons live. We also want to screen our film at Government schools and colleges, community centres, and perhaps even at Madrassas. We are currently in talks with several people to see how we could go about this. Eventually, of course, we will put the film online so anybody can access and watch it.
AN: What does the future bring for ‘Rani’ and is your team thinking of likeminded projects for the future?
AA: Right now the future for Rani looks bright, both locally and internationally. We have several more festival screenings coming up. This year we’re focusing more on Europe and Asia. We are in talks with some exciting curators, and over the next couple of years plan to take it as far and wide globally as we can. Meanwhile, we are working on more local screenings and distribution, and are in talks with some potential partners to see where and how we can go about this.
We are working on several other projects too. We are developing, in-house at GrayScale, a number of scripts for short films like Rani. These are all in various stages of development, but we aim to start filming at least one of them by the end of this year.
We are also working with some external scriptwriters and consultants, to develop more powerful stories and write longer form scripts. Several independent producers and directors have expressed interest in working with us, on short form and feature length projects, so we’re looking at a nice, even mix of in-house and collaborative projects over the next couple of years. We have also been approached by a couple of independent production companies, based in the US and UK, that want to collaborate on some projects. It’s still too early to disclose any more on this, but if they come through we could be filming these in the summer of this year.
Hammad has been working on a couple of new stories, one of which is feature length and the other is a web series. Both are based in Pakistan and, hopefully, at least one of these will go into production next year. Kami has also recently been working on a script of her own, which she plans to direct herself. It will be interesting to see how all of these stories turn out, and what further narratives we can push forward.