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‘Being’ In Pakistan- An Interview with Hisham Malik

This post was written for and published on Gaysi Family

Inspired by Beyonce’s lemonade and weaving together stories of pain as well as beauty in his new compilation art film, Hisham Mallik didn’t only create ‘Being’ to share his music. The videos he has worked on also share stories that matter to him about the clandestine existence of queer folx in Pakistan, a country culturally and even lawfully similar in the violence towards queer people as their neighbour- India. Three videos, some as short as 4 minutes and some slightly longer, take the viewer from the grassroots of the LGBT existence in Pakistan through the experiences of Trans Women while also quickly being followed by music videos in high fashion- often even coming very close to an homage to Freddie Mercury. Read on for a peek into Hisham’s mind as he navigates the space around him with his queerness in this short interview with Gaysi:

Q. What was the reason for this story to be told as a compilation art film rather than a short film or an animation, for instance?

In all honesty, the project is highly inspired by “Lemonade” by Beyonce Knowles, which takes the approach of depicting a personal story of the artist and relating to it greater and disparate themes. The huge variety of very sensitive themes in lemonade could not be expressed as beautifully if the project did not go beyond the confines set by sticking to a single genre of film. From the very beginning, I understood that I would need to tackle a variety of themes to express the full and truthful context to the feelings I wanted to present in the film. Inspired by lemonade, I felt the best way to accomplish that level of expression was through a compilation art film. Also, I felt that I wanted to make a film that was not overtly preachy or literal with the message that I wanted to portray and choosing a more experimental and complex format would allow that. Through an art film, I was able to rely on my primary strength in fashion and costume and hopefully elevate the way that queer people from Pakistan are often presented, which is often just campy.

Q. What did you intend to speak about when you wrote your songs and eventually your videos?

I wanted to write pop songs that, simply based on music and lyrics, were easily relatable for anyone in my generation. For me, not only are those the best kinds of songs, they would led to a more enjoyable viewing of a project that dealt with challenging themes. In Pakistan, where we screened the movie a couple of times, our audiences was a mix of queer and straight people, and I wanted it to be palatable to audiences who were being introduced to themes of sexuality and gender identity ( a very rare occurrence there). My approach was to have double meaning in the songs; where when the song was accompanied with a video, the song would be more specific to my experience as a queer person in Pakistan.

For the first song “I aint here for that“- I address my own doubts and insecurities personified as an uninvited guest at my party. In accompaniment to the video, the song is about the process of coming out, where one may list countless challenges and reasons not to- but in truth (often but not always) the greatest challenge is one’s own self (or self doubt). I chose to add camp to the song through a reference to Cinderella’s ball and glass slippers, but also allude to the conformist ideals that one gives up /or sheds once an individual comes out. In the video, I wanted to show someone stuck in a spell like loop while trying to reach a party upstairs. Only when he sheds his layers one by one, he is able to reach the party or ball where he is the only attendee. I wanted to express that the only person that comes in the way of our truest self is oneself and the only reason for getting there is also oneself.

In the second song “thirst“- I wanted play with the idea of there being a very fine line between a “sexy” song and a “romantic” song, of which this song is truly neither but implies both. both in the video and song, I wanted to depict a gender queer person, who is also a virgin, truly owning and unabashedly expressing sexuality, something I never saw represented. The song talks about the insecurities and feelings of a virgin being with someone who is far more experienced sexually. As an undertone, the song lyrically talks about being with someone who is only interested in a physical connection whilst the protagonist thirsts emotional fulfillment. Throughout the song, a motif of feeling versus sensing tries to convey the opinion that the fulfillment of any craving relies on an emotional feeling rather than physical sensation, the difference between intimacy and just sex. In the video, I wanted to convey various themes that complicate the sexual and romantic lives of queer people in Pakistan. Primarily, how individuals, more often men, become closed off emotionally as a result of cultural concepts of gender and patriarchy, and how that manifests itself as emotional unavailability in relationships. I also wanted to play with the idea of what is considered attractive, masculine, and feminine with appearances of the characters and what messages pertaining to attractiveness are fed to us in media imagery, conveyed through a feeling of voyeurism throughout the video.

In the final song “echoes“- I wanted to talk about where I come from. The song lyrically is based on a birthday card that I wrote to my mother while she was at the end of her battle with cancer. She had been through several stages and types of treatment, but her illness got progressively worse. Until that point, I had insisted she keep pushing, more selfishly than anything else as it was only causing her to suffer more. I wrote the card to say that it was alright for her to let go because her love would always stay with me and my love would go wherever she goes. She was the first person I ever came out to and, despite so much pressure otherwise, she accepted me. And in some way she let go of a version of me that she had in her head, and I was obliged to let go as well because the truest of love liberates- it does not bind. in the song, I wanted to mirror these emotions that I felt for my mother on to my motherland. I wanted to express how it feels for someone to leave their homeland, particularly due to a part of their identity being unacceptable, as was the case for so many of my friends. Despite everything, where one comes from is ingrained into the very being of an individual despite invalidation through laws and policies. In the video, I chose to use costume imagery inspired by and locations inspired by the earliest civilizations in South Asia as echoes of history of where I come from. Mehrgarh, Indus Valley, and Gandhara, all pre-Islamic cultures with remnants in Pakistan, are just as much a part of Pakistani culture but often denied as a part of Pakistan’s identity. All these cultures had a more egalitarian and open attitude towards gender and sexuality, with Mehrgarh having a more matriarchal society than the patriarchal society of today. I also really wanted show queer people in public spaces other than the parking lots of shopping areas where they often shown begging for money.

I wanted to base the film around the conflict of “self” and “space” and how it is complicated by “others”, so I chose those as the titles for the chapters. Self details the journey one takes to be their most authentic self: how its fraught with challenges and heartbreak but despite that is a journey worth taking. Others is about how relationships or individuals other than yourself can either facilitate or impede that journey. Space talks about identity and how our bond with identity and space goes beyond the superficial or surface level. On the whole, while I wanted to express that spaces should embrace queer individuals and identities, I more importantly wanted to urge queer individuals to push themselves to be as true to who they are by coming out because that is the only way that we can retake space.

Q. Why did you choose to portray the stories of trans-women in your videos, while not being trans yourself?

My hope with the inclusion and portrayal of the trans women was to show them as inspirational, particularly for the gay men of Pakistan. Trans women are often portrayed either with caricature like humor or with pity, and I wanted to show the courage they possess, the bonds that they have, and the sacrifices they have made to be true to who they are. I believe these are things that everyone can admire, learn from, and implement in their lives because south Asian culture so wrongly encourages the suppression of self to keep up appearances. During one of the question and answer sessions after a screening, someone asked why we included trans women in the video as gender identity and sexuality are two separate things and this mixing of the two would endanger the space that exists for trans women because homosexuality is viewed as completely unacceptable in Pakistan. His very next question was why should gay men risk being open about their sexuality because it would bring them so much judgement. I felt that his questions were very indicative of the mindset of so many gay men in Pakistan who feel that trans women have somehow been given space in society without any sacrifice on their part. The women we chose to feature have given up a tremendous deal in their lives and faced rejection to be who they are, such as Mahi ( featured in documentary section in self) who gave up the ability to work in a traditional work environment and faced rejection from her family when she chose to be open about her gender identity. I to use these stories in contrast to those of gay men, to point at their privilege when they are not open about their sexual orientation.

Q. The videos are an interesting mix of the grassroots experiences of queer people and high fashion – why is that?

The overall approach with the project was to be as inter-sectional with storytelling as possible. In the case of costume, I made sure there was a high degree of contrast between the documentary section and music video section to highlight the difference between the reality of lives for so many and the fantasy that we wanted to present. I wanted to subtly imply the direction that I believe that we are headed in will likely include a more open and proud display of queerness and gender nonconformity through the forward thinking and cutting edge quality of fashion that I chose to include in the musical sections. This was also used as a tool to sharpen the contrast between self, or the characters being portrayed in the videos, and the space that surrounds them, a theme central to the project. Despite that, I always made sure to include strong reference to the history and culture of the Indian subcontinent because it was important to highlight that our identities are rooted here and we are proud of those roots. When I saw Lemonade by Beyonce, I was deeply impressed with how avant garde her portrayal of African american women was because we are not used to seeing women of that background with such aesthetics. My hope with this video was to do the same for queer and gender non conforming individuals in south Asia, because mainstream portrayal of us seems to show us through a myopic lens.

Q. Why did you choose archaeological sites/ parks to shoot the video? How much does the video shows you retaking public space?

Throughout my life I’ve felt at odds with the space around me when I’m in public. Even as an effeminate gay man, I regularly get stared at or mocked whenever I’m in a public space. If I were in a more gender non conforming appearance, as I would like to be, it would be even more of an issue. In addition to changing the narrative of the space queer people are portrayed in, I wanted to challenge myself,holding myself accountable to the message I am hoping to portray, in rebelliously having a gender-queer appearance in a public spaces. This did not come without challenges. Despite obtaining permission from the archaeological departments that custodians of the locations that we chose to film in, we were barred from filming several locations and severely threatened when the custodians saw what we were shooting and alerted authorities. We changed locations twice but were able to film scenes in archaeological sites despite all the challenges.

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