Joyland: a bold, imaginative Pakistani trans drama

Following an uncomfortable brush with the Pakistani censors that led to a number of cuts being imposed on the film in its home country, this remarkable study of gender roles in Pakistan – which won both the Jury Prize at the Queer Palm at Cannes last year – makes it to the UK in full.

23 February 2023

By Philip Concannon

Ali Junejo and Alina Khan as Haider and Biba in Joyland (2022)
Sight and Sound

In Saim Sadiq’s 2019 short film Darling, the transgender actress Alina Khan played an aspiring dancer auditioning for a central role at a mujra theatre, only to be told by the manager, “In this theatre, the men only come to watch real girls.” To appear onstage, Khan’s character ultimately has to present herself as a male backing dancer to a female star. The strictures of gender roles in Pakistani society is a theme that Sadiq pushes further in his debut feature Joyland. Khan again stars as a mujra dancer – this time her character Biba is established as a regular attraction – but Sadiq expands his focus to take in several characters, each of whom is struggling within the bonds of familial and societal expectations.

Chief among these is Haider (Ali Junejo), a perpetually unemployed young man who appears quite content to stay at home and tend to his brother’s young daughters while his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) works. Haider’s father (Salmaan Peerzada) makes no effort to disguise his disappointment at his unmanly offspring, a dynamic established in an early scene, when Haider is tasked with slaughtering a goat for the family’s dinner: holding the blade over the animal’s throat, he finds he simply can’t do it. Mumtaz takes over, putting both the goat and Haider out of their misery, and drawing rancour from the wheelchair-bound but still intimidating patriarch.

When Haider (somewhat implausibly, given his awkwardness) wins a role as a backing dancer for Biba, he must keep the true nature of his new employment a secret from his family, and come to terms with his burgeoning attraction towards his new boss. The hugely charismatic Khan plays Biba with a brash, diva energy (“She uses her tongue like scissors,” one fellow dancer observes), and her confident demeanour, which is essential for her survival in this world, is in stark contrast to the sweetly humble Haider. A familiar narrative threatens to take shape here, with Haider growing in confidence and affirming his sense of his own identity through dance and through this taboo-breaking relationship, but Sadiq isn’t interested in giving us such an uncomplicated, optimistic arc.

Joyland is primarily concerned with the impossibility of following one’s desire in a rigidly patriarchal society. When Haider’s newfound employment forces Mumtaz to give up the makeup job she loves and take on the more accepted female role of staying at home to raise a family, we witness the gradual disintegration of her spirit through Farooq’s quietly devastating performance. Even her more traditional sister-in-law (Sarwat Gilani) feels the intolerable pressure to produce a male heir after giving birth to three daughters. The film is also a portrait of a society stricken by the fear of ‘Log kya kahenge’ (‘What will people say?’), which doesn’t only affect women: Haider’s father and the elderly widow across the street shy away from easing their loneliness and spending time together because of the potential gossip it may spark. The restrictions these characters live under strangle the joy from their lives.

As in Darling, Sadiq favours an Academy ratio, accentuating the sense of these characters being hemmed in by their environments. When Haider is taunted by the other male dancers with questions about what’s under Biba’s dress, the camera slowly moves in to capture his passive anguish, and even when Haider is faced with the wide-open expanse of the ocean, the tight frame around him suggests there’s something inescapable about his circumstances. Lebanese cinematographer Joe Saade displays a real knack for expressive compositions and inventive lighting choices; the use of cheap green disco ball lights spiralling around the walls adds a tenderness to an encounter between Haider and Biba in her bedroom, while a couple of scenes set during the power cuts that intermittently afflict this community are skilfully lit using only mobile phones.

Watching a film as bold and imaginative as Joyland from a young Pakistani filmmaker should be a point of pride for the nation’s film industry, but after being selected as the country’s official Academy Awards entry, it subsequently had its theatrical release cancelled by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which said it contained “highly objectionable material which does not conform with the social values and moral standards of our society”. Joyland was ultimately passed for release, but only after a number of cuts were imposed by the censors; it remains banned in the Punjab region. This impressively honest and empathetic film deserves better than to fall victim to the same draconian moral code that has entrapped its characters.

Joyland is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

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