Joyland became the first Pakistani film to be shortlisted for the Best International Feature Oscar at this year’s upcoming Academy Awards. One watch proves how deserving it was of this honour. This is a chilling film whose affection for its characters is as plentiful as the punches it pulls are none. A solemn, heartfelt film with much to say on the state of societal affairs.
Set in Lahore, Haider (Ali Junejo) is the black sheep of a deeply patriarchal family. While his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) works as a hairdresser, Haider, who is in between work, is a stay at home husband, something which displeases his traditional father (Salmaan Peerzada). He wants Haider to take the lead in his marriage by finding work, being the breadwinner, and ultimately give him a grandson, regardless of Mumtaz’s enjoyment of work and reluctance to be reduced to solely a maternal figure.
Haider eventually finds work in an erotic theatre, where he serves as a background dancer to the proud, rambunctious Biba (Alina Khan). Biba is a transgender woman who is struggling to progress beyond serving as an intermission act due to society’s dismissal of her being transgender. When Haider finds himself falling in love with her, his newfound desire threatens to undo his marriage, his work relationships and even himself.
The title Joyland comes from a theme park that the characters occasionally visit, and the choice to name the film after this seemingly trivial location is thematically fitting. The rides brim with flashing colours and loud noise to distract from the fact that they are simply machines underneath. Joyland follows similar logic, using its romantic setup as a veil for the harsh societal commentary lurking underneath. This is a film about complicity and how patriarchy slowly breaks even good people down into the worst versions of themselves.
Director Saim Sadiq makes excellent use of melodrama and cinematography in order to convey his scathing critiques. With much of the Middle East built on ideas of patriarchy, the concept is often far reaching in its influence within this region. Joe Saade’s cinematography conveys the strength and weight of patriarchy. Long, wide shots that are often empty – such as when Haider looks over the body of a goat that has just been slain by his wife – convey how wide patriarchy spans and how this width creates hollowness in those caught in its grasp. Meanwhile, the intense closeups and steadicam used when Haider and Biba’s relationship begins to blossom into something more have a liberating nature to them that feels sensical when compared to the traditional yet all-consuming nature of patriarchy. This is smart, creative imagery used to portray external worlds through internal feeling. Just as the characters are navigating stormy waters, so too is the film portraying them.
Junejo and Khan give terrific lead performances, Junejo especially. Supported by a sharp, character driven script by Sadiq and Maggie Briggs, there is a real tragedy to Haider. He is a meek, even pathetic character who desperately wants to be taken seriously amongst his toxic patriarchal peers. This makes him selfish, and thus himself a product of the toxicity that he is surrounded by. Seeing him find some form of freedom in Biba is satisfying, but his need to fulfil the gendered roles of patriarchy makes him willing to overlook the struggles of others who have it worse than him – namely Mumtaz and Biba.
The film takes sympathy on Haider while not excusing him either. He may not be aggressive like his brother or father, but he is complicit in allowing prejudice to persist. While he recognises just how difficult both Mumtaz and Biba have it under a society that treats them as second class for not being straight cis men, he does little to try and better the odds for either of them, whether due to pride, cowardice or both. Joyland is so much more than just a takedown of the patriarchal structure of Pakistani society. It is a scathing commentary on how patriarchy’s grip can make otherwise good natured people into their worst selves by repressing identity and longing for the sake of the wider societal machine. Even a small scene featuring Mumtaz dismissing Biba as “not a real woman” highlights the ways in which even those who suffer the most under patriarchy can subconsciously play their parts in ensuring its survival.
As refreshing as it is to see a new film with LGBTQ+ themes, especially in a Middle Eastern context, those who are looking for a film that puts LGBTQ+ characters front and centre may have to look elsewhere. Biba is a fascinating character and Khan’s performance is excellent in its emotional layers, but this is very much Haider’s story. It’s a choice that makes sense given the narrative’s theme of complicity, but those who are seeking a purely trans perspective on the issues the film addresses may find themselves understandably frustrated. Joyland is occasionally prone to meandering too, particularly when Haider and Biba truly start connecting in the second act. This can disrupt otherwise kinetic pacing. Yet when the thematic strength of a film is this brilliant, such a thing is easily forgiven.
Add it up and you have an excellent example of powerful melodrama on your hands. Joyland takes no prisoners yet maintains an empathetic mindset throughout. Wonderfully acted and delicately filmed, the stories of its, albeit brief, banning in Pakistan is unsurprising yet nonetheless disappointing as its sole crime seems to be portraying the fact that non straight and non cis relationships exist. While it could perhaps do more at championing the LGBTQ+ themes that make up its story, it is still a thought provoking story rich with atmosphere and feeling – one that will hopefully play its part in bettering the odds for equality even within the most patriarchal of societies.
Drama | Pakistan, 2022 | 15 | Cinema | 24th February 2023 (UK) | Studio Soho | Dir.Saim Sadiq | Ali Junejo, Alina Khan, Rasti Farooq, Sarwat Gilani, Sohail Sameer, Salman Peerzada, Sania Saeed