Director: Saim Sadiq
Stars: Rasti Farooq, Ali Junejo, Alina Khan
While it’s neighbour India is renowned for its thriving film industry, Pakistan’s efforts remain relatively well-hidden on the world stage, making even the limited release of a film like Joyland pique interest. The danger in viewing such an opportunity as a novelty is that it weighs the film with certain requirements. The idea that it is representative of a place, or needs to contain it. Joyland is a valuable window, but it is also a narrative film and a director’s vision of a story.
This notion of looking and the risks of exoticising exist within the film itself, which presents something even more valuable; an insight into Pakistan’s changing generational politics, especially in approaches to queerness and the patriarchy.
The youngest son in an oppressive and conservative family, Haider (Ali Junejo) already flouts convention. His wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) is the one who works; he is a relatively meek and physically small househusband; and this is something he is happy with. It befits his temperament. In an effort to curry favour with his disapproving 70-year old father, however, Haider acquires work at, of all places, an erotic dance club. He tells the old man he is to be the theatre manager – even this risks bringing the family shame – in actuality he is rehearsing to be a backing dancer for hopeful trans star Biba (Alina Khan). Much of Joyland charts the growing relationship between Haider and Biba in the face of a broadly disapproving populous.
Out of necessity Biba is a strong woman; bold and combative in public places, disciplined and talented on stage. Still yearning to fully transition, she keeps her masculine qualities to wield as weapons, making her cinematic kin to Tangerine’s Sin-Dee Rella. Her command of a sexualised all-male cadre of backing dancers is an artistic subversion of the Pakistani status quo, and her rival artistes at the club feel appropriately threatened. Biba’s largess is given comic literalism. Joyland isn’t abundantly funny, but a memorable sequence sees Haider trying to find space for a larger-than-life cut-out of Biba. Her visage dwarfs him. She can’t quite be contained, and she draws unwanted attention when Haider leaves her out on the roof like a beacon.
Handsomely shot in a boxy square frame, Joyland is at its most delirious and generous when it bathes its potential lovers in unnatural light; the warm, safe, artificial glows in Biba’s room. All golds and teals. And yet this isn’t an isolated tale of two people finding one another. It isn’t quite so narrow. All supporting players – and there are many – are granted shading and consequence. Director Saim Sadiq has other concerns in mind, and they vie for supremacy and space in the narrative.
At home pressures abound for a baby boy to continue the family line. The film opens with Haider’s sister-in-law Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) going into labor for the fourth time, expecting a son but receiving a daughter. A sense of failure is felt already. Later, in spite of the unspoken strains on their relationship, Mumtaz learns she herself has fallen pregnant, and this germinates in her a new unrest that slowly subsumes the narrative flow of the film. Joyland thwarts expectations in a sense. The inevitable tragedy that one assumes will form the backbone of it’s story isn’t there. Or, more accurately, isn’t the one you think it’s going to be.
These unspoken tensions eventually will out, and the handling of this inevitably explosive scene tips Joyland out of its comfort zone. It’s among the least sure-footed moments in a film that by-and-large remains sincere, warm and intimate. All players bring a wealth of humanity to their roles. Junejo and Khan particularly are magnetic as the potential partnership at the film’s centre, puckishly playing their roles as a cracked mirror image of Pakistani tradition.
What is notable is the timidity of the resistance that Biba encounters. Little more than disapproving looks on the subway and the disloyal mockery of her employees. These things of course can feel like death by a thousand cuts, but Joyland doesn’t itemise her victimisation. Doesn’t paint a portrait of Pakistani society as overtly hostile. Haider speaks once of feeling like his life may be on the line, but this isn’t really felt externally. Like recent British queer drama Blue Jean, societal misgivings are kept to a marginal malaise, suggestive of an optimism in Sadiq that attitudes are incrementally changing for the better as new generations take hold.