"I felt very strongly that the lead actress had to be a trans woman." It's a proclamation that should be the norm when telling the stories of transgender people in 2018 yet, for all the diversity we've seen on screen in spellbinding stories, transgender actors are too often cast aside for top-tier cisgender talent.
While we've seen it in everything from Jeffrey Tambor's Emmy-winning turn on Transparent to the Oscar-winning performance by Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, filmmaker Hammad Rizvi was determined not to continue the trend with Rani. At the big, beating heart of his short film is trans Pakistan actress Kami Sid, who plays the titular transgender Pakistani woman who sells children's toys on the streets of Karachi.
Related | Masks Grapples With Mass Shootings Through a Queer Persian Lens
It's a breath of fresh air both because of Sid's natural grace, but also because of the how Rani is written. For her and the matriarchal trans woman she lives with (played by trans activist Hina Pathani), there are no stereotypes. They are who they are, even as they attempt to figure out how to care for an orphaned child Rani takes in from the street.
We caught up with director Hammad Rizvi as he celebrated his inclusion in the finals of NBC Universal's Short Film Festival alongside the queer Persian drama Masks to talk about bringing the character to life and showcasing our shared humanity.
OUT: Was there any particular person that inspired you to write this story?
Hammad Rizvi: It was more of a moment. I wanted to explore the trans community in Pakistan on one hand. On the other hand, the orphan issue is a big problem. I had these two ideas running simultaneously in my head. There's a scene in the film where both orphans and trans women are on the street begging for money and I felt that it's interesting you see these two parts of society on the street. There's a connection there and that inspired this story about these two parts of society that randomly meet each other and their unlikely bond.
How did you cast Kami Sid in the role of Rani?
In the beginning, we had an open casting call in Karachi, but I felt very strongly that the lead actress had to be a trans woman. It wasn't doing justice to the role [to have a cis actor] and I personally felt that actors coming into the audition were trying too hard to play a stereotype, as opposed to just being a normal person. If you're having coffee, just have coffee. You don't have to have coffee with flair.
That was the mindset going in and how we found Kami Sid was actually pretty interesting. One of my co-producers knew her from a college project and had her come in. She had no real acting experience before but in her audition, her passion killed it. We went with Kami and later, after the film, she did great things and continues to do great things.
She's incredible in it. How hard was it to film the street harassment scene? It's a very intense scene.
It's interesting that you mention that scene because it was by far the most difficult scene to film for two reasons. One, it was a demanding scene. Believe it or not, Kami was able to power through, but it was the two other actors who were worn out after awhile. They were having a hard time staying in character. The second thing was filming on the streets of Karachi. I'm lucky we were able to make that scene work because we had maybe 150 people gathered around us that were curious about the filming and started to become a little unruly. That stress level was something I've never experienced. (Laughs)
Are you from Pakistan?
I am, yeah. Both my mom and dad were raised in Karachi so it was nice to film it there.
I'm sure your parents have seen the film. How did they react to it?
Very positively! They loved it very much and it moved them but, on the other hand, my mom told me she had this connection to a trans woman she's never had before. That was the kind of reaction I've been getting not only from my parents but from my friends' parents, as well.
Have you had a screening of the film in Pakistan?
Not yet. We're working on that and want to do it pretty soon, but we're trying to decide how we want to go about it. We don't want to go public even though the reaction from the arts community has been very, very positive. We're being very careful because discrimination and violence are still a real threat. We want to make sure the people involved aren't threatened.
How did it feel to put this story of a trans person of color on screen?
It's been phenomenal but I was actually a little surprised at the reaction at these awards ceremonies. A lot of people came up to talk and said thank you for sharing this part of the world they hadn't seen. It hit home. The South Asian LGBTQ community is so underrepresented that people are seeing these things for the first time. I didn't realize how important it was until people watched it.
It's really important to have this film come out and show this community. What do you want people to take away from the film after they watch it?
I'm not trying to be heavy-handed or preach or tell people what they should think. My number one thing is that no matter who you are, if you finish watching the film and forget about labels and think of everyone in the film as a human being, that's the biggest step forward.