Recently, I watched Joyland online after much buzz and enthusiasm around Pakistani director Saim Sadiq’s new film. The movie unravels the entangled lives of the protagonists and their hostages to patriarchy in Lahore. The story unfolds multiple themes, from patriarchy, identity, masculinity, and queerness.
Despite receiving significant praise abroad, including a shortlist for the Oscars, the movie was briefly banned in Pakistan. After significant cuts in the so-called “highly objectionable” movie, it was later released in Pakistan.
Undoubtedly, Joyland is a sum of finely tuned, interwoven stories which unapologetically make an important contribution to South Asian Cinema.
The movie takes you through the life of its lead protagonist, Haider (Ali Junejo), the younger son of a disabled father, and his love interest Biba (Alina Khan), a trans-woman. It begins with a story-telling of a middle-class Pakistani household: Haider is married to a make-up artist Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq).
While Mumtaz takes care of the household by paying bills, Haider, her soft-centred jobless husband, takes care of the household. They share their home with Haider’s patriarch father (Salmaan Peerzada), Haider’s elder brother, Saleem (Sohail Sameer) and his entrapped sister-in-law Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani).
Disappointments surround the household. There is a constant disappointment over failing to give birth to a son and Haider’s unemployment in the initial part of the movie.
Then, finally, Haider lands himself a job: as a background dancer for the risqué dance troupe of Biba. After Haider begins his job, Mumtaz is forced to handle the household.
Mumtaz loved her job, and she didn’t enjoy playing the role of a caregiver. Despite that, she is forced to stay back and take care of the household along with Nucchi. Mumtaz was one of my favourite characters in the movie.
The portrayal of Biba’s character is empowering. There is a constant defiance of the existing norms in the face of a conservative religious society, where her existence is oft-censored.
There is a scene in the movie where Biba tackles a bully, a transphobic cis-male who wants to know what is between Biba’s legs (referring to her genitals), which portrays how Biba stands up for herself.
Despite being married to Mumtaz, Haider falls in love with Biba. In one scene, Haider expresses their love in an anecdote of a mosquito and a chicken. “Fate of love is death”, Haider tells Biba—which may have encompassed their love in a society so deeply entrenched in patriarchy. There is also something quite puzzling about the role reversals.
Are specific gender roles and gender behaviour ascribed to their sexual preferences and sexual interests? Or are there multiple fluidities in genders? These questions are evident when there are intimate scenes in the film when there is a discussion around Haider’s reservations about her desire for surgery.
“Becoming a girl costs money”, tells Biba to Haider. Throughout the movie, every character is trying to live up to the expectations set by society—and often failing to do so. Every frame in his heartfelt film makes you want more of what you have seen.
The portrayal of women is the highlight of the movie. For instance, each woman—around us—is living a life similar to the ones on screen. Most of the time, they are in the background doing chores society has ascribed to them.
An emotionally neglected older neighbour, a loving in-law duo of Nucchi and Mumtaz, and an emphatic Biba living in the background—without anyone noticing them, caring for their wishes and desires, and allowing them their freedoms.
The movie ends with a tragedy—but not in the sense of tragedy you usually see in Queer movies. It causes you heartbreak, often wanting to challenge if we have any agency in what we do in our lives.
Despite its title, Joyland, the storyline is about the search for Joyland, rather than the Joyland as a place where its protagonists already live. There is no villain. There is just society and its ascribed norms, which must be lived through.
Finally, will we ever find our Joyland? This film ends with a Haider going to the beach—alone. The movie is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, framed as a square box.
Specifically, this frame ratio may be used to portray a sense of void in its characters as they live through another’s lives. The cinematography in the film was brilliant. The colours in the movie were joyous. There was a sense of soothing and love throughout.
It is truly a cinematic masterpiece. Moreover, the acting in the movie was top-notch, and each character lived up to their role. The screenplay was engaging from the start. This story, for me, asked an important question: are we all cogs in the machine?
If you haven’t watched the movie already, do check it out 😊
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