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Darling: A Movie that Digs Deep

I was recently invited to attend an online screening of “Darling”, which became the first Pakistani film to win the short film category at the Venice Film Festival 2019. Although the festival has recognised trans-themed movies before, Darling is the first movie with a trans actor to win at the Festival. That in itself says a lot about representation.  But at its heart, Darling is a movie that has little to do with global representation and international acclaim. It is a movie made in Pakistan, for Pakistan and though it’s only 16 minutes long, it’s impression remains long after the movie is over. 

Alina’s character is reflective of the actress Alina Khan and her own experiences as an upcoming transgender actress in Lahore. Saim Sadiq, the movie’s director said something about the visualisation of this experience that stuck with me. He said that Darling is not about the ‘trans experience’ in Pakistan, because there is no unanimous trans experience. It is a personal story following the life of one person, and that life is explored beautifully. That is not to say the movie is not about representation. There are countless factors in the movie that target norms and cultures in our society that many people may have encountered at one point or another. But in honing in on one life, Sadiq adds a personal feel to the story that may never have been possible otherwise.

Khan made her acting debut with Darling - an interesting parallel since the film follows Alina’s attempts to find work in the theatre. Alina is assisted by Shani, a boy who clearly has feelings for her but is constantly having to justify it to his friends because they don’t consider Alina to be a female. It's a battle Alina is shown to face constantly throughout the film. The director of the play refuses to let her audition because iss theatre mein mard aur auraton ke roles hain, aur tum dono nahin ho”. Where most people would balk at such a rejection, Alina perceives the comments in a whole different way and chooses to play the part of a male dancer in the play instead. Sadiq mentioned that this choice also reflects Khan’s own experience who once told him that when she is dancing, it doesn’t matter who she is dressed as because she feels beautiful.  In many ways, the film is a raw depiction of Alina’s journey in self-love. She is so unashamedly herself that having to dress up as a male does little to affect her own sense of identity. It’s not just the play she dresses up for, she also does so in front of her parents and while praying - but as she tells Shani “ lagne se ban thori na jaon gi.” Speaking of Shani, he also plays an interesting role. His feelings for Alina are clear, but so is his concern for public appearances, which comes as a stark contrast to Alina’s own confidence in her identity. Shani’s insecurity comes from the fact that he loves her as a female and so feels uncomfortable when she is dressed up as a man.  Saim explained this in a very intriguing way. He said that in finding Alina beautiful, Shani finds himself questioning his own masculinity and feels confused, which is hard because we often don’t give people the space to be confused.

Much like the reality in Pakistani society, “Darling” shows a blurring of lines between love and sexuality. The over sexualisation of women in Pakistani society is hard to ignore, yet is consistently brushed under the carpet by most as an accepted norm. Darling is a reminder of the personal lives that are affected by this and the experience of one trans woman as she navigates a precarious balance between love, acceptance and questioning whatever ‘normal’ is.

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