FannBoy Friday with Shahjehan Khan: Filmmaker Khaula Malik

FannBoy Friday with Shahjehan Khan: Filmmaker Khaula Malik

Welcome to FannBoy Fridays with Shahjehan Khan! In this weekly column, I’ll be chatting with Muslim creators about their work, life, and everything in between.

I’m a Boston-based voice-over artist, actor, and musician. I host Rifelion’s award-winning “King of the World” podcast exploring my life as a Pakistani American Muslim in the 20 years since 9/11, and I’ve got a couple cool movies and TV stuff happening during 2023 which I can’t talk about just yet!

This week, I spoke with Khaula Malik, a Pakistani American filmmaker whose  work has been featured in The New York Times, Sight & Sound, Brown Girl Magazine, and PBS. Her films have won numerous awards (like AFI Docs and Sharjah Film Platform), and she’s been awarded prestigious grants and residencies (like through the Tribeca CHANEL Through Her Lens program, the Cine Qua Non Revisions Lab, the Hot Springs Emerging Filmmaker program, and the Governor’s Island artist-in-residence program). (Adapted from khmalik.com)

Khaula and I first met in a Zoom audition room for Saleem Nasir Gondal’s “Post Term.” We were both up for the lead characters, and while neither of us booked those particular roles, we ended up becoming good friends as well as creative collaborators. She directed a really fun virtual play called “The Wrong Bashir” about an Ismaili Muslim community crisis where I played the father of a kid going through, among other things, an identity crisis in a hilarious and heartwarming way in front of his family and community.

We talk pretty regularly, so she was one of the first people I wanted to interview in this series.

(Khaula’s interview has been edited for length and clarity)


Shahjehan: What is your main project for this year?

Khaula: It’s a feature documentary about a group of trans women in Pakistan, specifically the Khwaja Sira community [called “The Noble Half.”] It’s a film I started in 2016 … and now … I’m in the phase of continuing the edit process, but also trying to fundraise at the same time.

Shahjehan: What inspired you to pursue this particular documentary?

Khaula: I was born in Pakistan. I grew up in the US but we would go back a lot and there was a couple members of this community that would work with my family, for my aunt. And so I just remember I was watching this TV show at my cousin’s place, and it was called “Late Night with Beghum Nawazish Ali.” It’s a show hosted by this guy Ali Saleem, but he dresses up as this widow of a army colonel, and she interviews all these people. And my cousins were like, “Oh, there’s a Khwaja Sira on TV.” And I’m like, “She’s not a Khwaja Sira. She’s doing drag, right? This is a guy doing drag.” Like he’s not a member of this community. And so I was just really interested in the historical and cultural context with which this community exists in our part of the world and how they’ve been a part of the social fabric of the region for centuries. And when did the shift happen in our current climate of how they went from people who were employed by the mogul emperors, to people who are existing on the margin and on the fringe of society? 

Shahjehan: What is one major hardship or challenge that you’ve overcome or lesson that you’ve learned from this experience?

Khaula: I think as a Pakistani, there is an expectation of, when you see stories from our part of the world, what they should be doing or saying. I have seen a lot of films, especially documentaries [where] there’s just a lot of positioning the poverty and the trauma front and center. And I’ve always had an issue with that because it’s making me feel like people have nothing else going for them and like life just sucks. And so it’s been really important for me to try and decenter that in the story. The expectation might be that ”Oh, it’s a story about trans women in Pakistan. Oh my God. Their lives must suck.” And our instinct to want to just think about the plight but then ignoring the humanity of everything. [I’m] always kind of thinking about what is the image that I’m portraying doing? I feel like the hardest part is just sticking to what I think I want the film to be and not letting anything else kind of get in the way and really making [it] a conversation between myself and the women in the film.

Shahjehan: Is there an example of a film that does this well?

Khaula: I would say not exactly, but I love “Hale County This Morning This Evening” by RaMell Ross. It’s like a portrait of Black America, this poetic imagery of this community. And I feel like when I saw that, I was like, this is kind of what I wanna achieve, where the people …  speak for [themselves] as opposed to placing some kind of interpretation on [them] or having an agenda. It’s allowing people to exist within the frame—and just letting them exist, right? It’s a beautiful portrait of that, where you see someone on screen and you’re not immediately projecting what you think their life is like or feeding into that desire for an audience to want to know. I’m hoping to also try and do that as well.

Shahjehan: What are you doing to take care of yourself while you finish this film?

Khaula: Uh, exercise!

Allowing myself to shift focus to something else if I’m not feeling this project at a certain point in time. And I think because I allowed myself to do that, I’ve sort of come back around with a new sense of purpose. I’ve realized I’m someone who gets really sucked into editing. Maybe I have to put on a timer because once [I] get started I feel like “Oh man, I’m like five hours into this, I should just keep going because otherwise I’m gonna feel guilty that I didn’t give it the whole day.” [But] no, like nothing is gonna happen. You can step away and it’s okay to step away. 

Watch the trailer for Khaula’s upcoming short film “There Was Nobody Here We Know” (2021):

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