By Saffron Maeve
The object impermanence of Saim Sadiq’s Pakistani drama Joyland (2022)—the story of a married young man in Lahore who falls for a trans dancer after taking up work at an erotic theatre—has a number of moving parts. The film premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section in 2022 (the first Pakistani film to do so), where it scooped up the Jury Prize and was also awarded the Queer Palm; Pakistan’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting blocked the theatrical release, citing its “highly objectionable material” and “glamourizing of transgender love affairs”; the ban made the rounds on social media for its unconstitutional erasure, with executive producer Malala Yousafzai releasing a statement; and then a modified (i.e., censored) version of the film was released in Pakistan in November.
It is not particularly difficult to spook Punjab’s censor boards. Sadiq’s depiction of a traditional, middle-class Pakistani family being eroded by an extramarital affair between eldest son Haider (Ali Junejo) and Biba (Alina Khan), a transgender erotic dancer, was immediately considered an attack on the country’s faith. Yousafzai’s statement at one point reads, “Joyland reflects reality for millions of ordinary Pakistanis, people who yearn for freedom and fulfillment, people who create moments of joy every day for those they love.” The film has been continually described as “groundbreaking,” and certainly sets a necessary precedent for 21st-century Pakistani cinema. However, Sadiq undermines his own efforts by, one, withholding the women of the story (who are by and large its most abundant and cinematically generous characters), and, two, assuming a vaguely queer disposition which muddies into insult.
The film’s storm-eye is Haider, a jobless, mild-mannered young man in an arranged marriage to Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), their relationship amiable but stiff and defined by deposed gender norms: Haider is the “housewife,” occupying his days with lentils and chores, while Mumtaz happily works as a salon aesthetician. It’s a subject of ridicule for Haider’s multigenerational household, but, as we eventually discover, this was Mumtaz’s condition for marriage; Haider’s feminized, domestic disposition—conveyed in the film’s first scene with his inability to slaughter a goat, imploring his wife to the killing act—was adjured.
After his brother’s wife delivers their fourth girl, the pressure for Haider to assume his role as breadwinner and eventual patriarch heightens. After a handful of arrhythmic auditions, Haider begs for and obtains a position as a backup dancer at the Erotic Dance Theatre (as far as his family is aware, Haider is a manager there, and the performances are tasteful and lucrative). It is in this space, with its sputtery light fixtures and titillated onlookers, that Haider falls for Biba, the sultry, assured figurehead of his troupe. At once, Mumtaz is forced into household duties and cheated on, while Haider endeavours to place his feelings.
Joyland is at its most enthralling as a story of a haunted house, where each family member is nurturing their oppressive living conditions. There are a few soft, skillful moments with the film’s elders that force us to negotiate our own politics, but we keep defaulting to Haider, who is blankly torpedoing the lives of those around him. The trouble is that the film itself assumes Haider’s addled temperament, and, in so doing, misrepresents the romantic arc that earned the film accolades and censorship in equal measure.
Haider and Biba’s fling is amorphous in reasoning. She is endeared to his awkward, dedicated dancing, and he seems besotted with her onstage persona, but the actors lack the requisite chemistry to sell us a homewrecking. Desire is in effect a wounded animal: it limps along, bearing its teeth at the sight of flesh, not nubile but pathetic and hungry. Passion is altogether different: it’s those sweltering and fickle pyrotechnics behind romance or sex that nourish characters, not simply plot. Joyland wants to find itself at the junction between these two feelings, but only attains a lumbering desire.
For Khan to be the first transgender person to have a lead role in a major Pakistani film is its own small miracle, and well overdue, but the contention remains that her role is not a leading one, as Biba wanes into obsolescence as soon as she confirms her suspicion that Haider is, in fact, gay. One cannot begin to untangle the transphobic undertones here, but it is worrying that a film heralded for its queer constitution is, in its own way, peddling hurtful myths. Haider’s sexuality is not disclosed to us, and though it certainly does not have to be, the linkage of his softness or perceived “femininity” to queerness and submission, and his romantic interest in a trans woman, calcifies Sadiq’s misrepresentation.
A significant through line in Joyland is a sizable cardboard cutout of Biba fashioned for the theatre, which Haider carefully transports home on a motorbike and up his narrow, winding staircase to the rooftop. The act is emblematic of his affection for her, but causes a stir with a family friend who urges them to take it down at the risk of offending neighbouring properties. But it may also be reflective of the film’s more two-dimensional approach to womanhood, as a struggle outlined from afar.
And so we return to Mumtaz, forgotten and forcibly out of commission, at one point caught masturbating by Haider as if to level out his infidelity. She is perhaps done the biggest disservice by Joyland, flattened into a gender-essentialist nightmare in an attempt to signal rudimentary cultural misogyny. She becomes pregnant, to the pleasure of her family and dismay of her independence, and through a cruel, swift match cut, she, too, withdraws herself from the story. But Farooq plays her with precision and vigilance, not depicting her as succumbing to anything but rather being subtly manipulated by her environment. In one great moment, to everyone’s confusion she sprints around the courtyard at her niece’s birthday party, arms fluttering and belly jutting out. It’s a brief return to girlhood and arouses a nervous suspicion that Mumtaz might strain herself and miscarry. But she knows it wouldn’t be so easy.
Ultimately, Sadiq is spinning far too many plates: queerness, Eastern norms, transmisogyny, conservatism, childbearing, mental illness. The intent is admirable, but the result is a noncommittal interrogation of each idea. It’s evident that Sadiq is conceiving a mosaic of Pakistani culture, one which audiences may very well melt into or see themselves in, but the director assumes a responsibility to his characters in their conception that he abandons, twice over, for the sake of his ambivalent protagonist.
The message cast over sand and sea floor in the film’s final moments is that the patriarchy is noxious and constrictive, but who better to understand that than the women absent from the coda? If Joyland is indeed a film about liberation, one must ask: for whom? As Haider lumbers into the foam-lipped shoreline, toward absolution and far from the women who endured his slow epiphany of self-acceptance, the answer seems impossibly clear.
Pakistan, Saim Sadiq, US