Riz Ahmed: ‘Trans love film Joyland is less controversial in Pakistan’

Riz Ahmed says Joyland is ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘crowd-pleasing’ (Picture: Getty)

Actor Riz Ahmed, 40, on producing a transgender love story set in Pakistan, secrets of the Oscar nominations, and a pink Prada kurta he wore on the red carpet.

You’re a big Hollywood star now, so when’s the last time you picked up a Metro?

I get it on the bus and the Tube all the time! Most days.

What’s your new film, Joyland, about?

Joyland is the most unexpected love story you’ve ever seen. It’s a love story between a transgender dance-hall star and an unhappily married man in Lahore in Pakistan. But it also takes a look at how our sense of duty and tradition and our fears stand in the way of our joy and love.

It’s a groundbreaking film and achieved all these firsts [the first Pakistani feature film to be shortlisted for an Academy Award and the first film by a Pakistani director to win at the Cannes Film Festival]. But it’s really an emotional, crowd-pleasing movie.

You’re not in the film but you produced it.

The whole kind of ethos of Left Handed Films is pretty simple: to go left. So, if it’s a story you haven’t heard before, and if it’s told in a way that you haven’t seen before, that’s what we’re all about.

Anything involving trans people is a sensitive issue. Did you have concerns about getting involved?

Well, the interesting thing is, transgender people have been a very established part of South Asian culture for centuries and centuries. And they can often hold a quite paradoxical position in the culture. They are visible and commonplace. It’s been like that for hundreds of years. And they almost occupy a privileged position, culturally and spiritually speaking, in that they’re thought to be able to kind of bless you or curse you, if you rub them up the wrong or right way.

Trans activists in Karachi, Pakistan, last year (Picture: Getty)

Go on…

You can have ‘TG’ or ‘third gender’ or ‘transgender’ or ‘non-binary’ on your ID card in Pakistan, and that’s been the case for many years. There have been transgender newsreaders and film stars in Pakistan for many years. Hopefully, the more different kinds of stories we can see from different parts of the world, the more it will open our minds and our hearts to different ways of doing things.

You’ve spoken a lot about representation. As a teenager, what film made you feel ‘seen’?

If you mean culturally speaking, Goodness Gracious Me was just a huge moment for me. It was a game-changing piece of art, social commentary and satire. But I think the amazing thing about stories is that you can feel really ‘seen’ and understood, even by watching characters who don’t look anything like you and aren’t from anywhere similar to where you’re from. I certainly felt that in a massive way watching Martin Scorsese’s films. Watching Goodfellas. Just something about their sense of duty and family honour taking such a pride of place in those films is something that resonated. That’s the magic thing about films. Underneath the differences that seemingly separate us, they can excavate a common well of emotion that all share.

Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal, Nina Wadia and Kulvinder Ghir in Goodness Gracious Me (Picture: BBC)

You announced the Oscar nominations this year. Do you get to open the envelopes in advance? Be honest…

Umm… you kind of find out moments beforehand, just so you can practise saying some of the names to ensure that you don’t screw them up too much.

Riz and Allison Williams announcing the Oscar nominations last month (Picture: Getty)

You’re a natty dresser. Would you ever wear a dress on the red carpet?

I haven’t worn a dress yet, but I wore a pink [Prada] kurta at the premiere of Encounter and I think it’s quite interesting that something that’s considered men’s attire in one part of the world is considered a dress in another part of the world. That’s true in Asia. It’s true in Scotland. Do you know what I mean? It’s all just labels we put on pieces of cloth, isn’t it? I think fashion should be an expression of just how you’re feeling in that moment.

Riz rocking the pink Prada kurta at the premiere of Encounter in December 2021 (Picture: Getty)

You’ve now turned 40. Did that freak you out?

Um, how does 40 feel? I guess I feel lucky. I feel lucky to be in a place in my life where I’m just so excited about what I get to do and so excited about what lies ahead. And I think it’s just a really exciting time, isn’t it?

In the realm of culture and storytelling, and who you get to be and who gets to tell stories and what kind of stories we’re interested in and how you can access them – it just feels good. It just feels like things are more open than they’ve ever been, where films like Joyland are able to be made and are finding global audiences. I feel lucky.

Riz Ahmed and Fatima Farheen Mirza

Riz and his wife, novelist Fatima Farheen Mirza, at the Oscars in March 2022 (Picture: Getty)

What hobby do you wish you had more time for?

Reading for pleasure. I mean, my wife [Fatima Farheen Mirza] is a novelist, so I always feel embarrassingly under-read and kind of illiterate around her.

Tea or coffee?

I can’t touch coffee, gives me the shakes. It freaks me out. Tea only. Tea all day.

Joyland is out in cinemas on Friday

British Independent Film Awards 2021: Riz Ahmed honoured for outstanding contribution as After Love triumphs

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