By Michael Sicinski
Saim Sadiq’s feature debut certainly has a lot on its mind, most of it centred on the problem of masculine stereotypes, and the tendency in traditionally masculinist cultures to equate machismo and authoritarianism with being a real man. Sadiq studied film at Columbia, and this no doubt offered him the chance to clarify some of his simmering dissatisfaction into at least partially theorized positions on gender, identity, and society. But then, developing a counter-ideology can be a lot like learning a new word, in that you suddenly see your ideas reflected back to you everywhere you look. This can simplify as much as it explains.
Joyland is focused on Haider (Ali Junejo), the younger adult son of Abba Rana (veteran actor Salmaan Peerzada), a gruff, disapproving patriarch of the Rana family. His iron hand is mitigated by old age, particularly his confinement to a wheelchair. I use the word “confinement” advisedly, despite its ableist connotations, because in Joyland Abba’s situation is intended as a clear sign of emasculation. In fact, practically every character in the film is defined either by symbolic castration or the inappropriate claim of sexual power. Haider has been unemployed for years, and is a caregiver for his four nieces. Although this helps his older brother Saleem (Sohail Sameer) and his wife Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani), this makes Haider less of a man in their eyes. Sadiq makes this dynamic painfully explicit when Abba orders Haider to slaughter a goat. He can’t do it, and so Haider’s wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) grabs the knife and does it for him.
This is only the most obvious sign of Mumtaz’s “disturbing” masculinity. Unlike Haider, she has a job. She works as a makeup artist and takes her career very seriously. So when Haider finally gets work as a backup dancer for Biba (Alina Khan), a trans woman who performs at an erotic cabaret, Mumtaz is ordered by Abba to quit her job and help Nucchi with the cooking and cleaning. So Mumtaz’s claim of masculine prerogative is revoked, even as Haider’s role as a provider is tainted by the feminine. And once Haider starts falling for Biba, well, Sadiq’s undergraduate Gender Studies paper pretty much writes itself. Like so many naïve artifacts of male feminism, Joyland gets a great deal wrong in its effort to seem enlightened. But it perpetuates a number of dangerous myths, such as the belief that a man who is attracted to a trans woman is actually gay, or that women’s masturbation is a sign of hysteria. None of this would have passed muster in a Western film after the early ’90s, which suggests that festivals have different standards for films from the Muslim world. The culture industry’s blinkered liberalism strikes again.