Writer: Saim Sadiq and Maggie Briggs
Director: Saim Sadiq
This striking film from Pakistan, the first film from that country to be presented in Cannes, could easily be mis-sold if the discourse around it were only to concentrate on the affair between a married man and a trans woman. Indeed, in lesser skilled hands than that of director Saim Sadiq there would be no other story. Instead, Joyland is a study of a family where its individual members are trapped within traditional values that still hold fast in Pakistan.
Living with his extended family on the upper floor of a house in Lahore, unemployed Haider looks after his nieces, his pregnant sister-in-law and his elderly and infirm father. Haider’s wife Mumtaz goes out to work. This role of house-husband and nanny feminises Haider, but he’s a natural at it, clearly enjoying his games with the children. However, his father is not happy and doubts Haider’s masculinity.
A goat needs to be slaughtered to celebrate the fact that his brother’s wife has given birth. The family only partially conceal the disappointment that the baby is another girl. Usually the animal would be taken to a butcher, but his father orders that Haider kill it. With his wife helping him, Haider makes a ham-fisted mess of it and blood splatters on both their faces. It’s an omen of sorts.
When a job comes his way, Haider’s eager to take it, but it does little to reassert his masculinity. His job is to be a backing dancer for Biba, herself an erotic dancer at a club on the other side of town. Haider is fascinated by Biba, and the way she is in complete control over her male dancers despite her femininity. Perhaps Biba is attracted to Haider for his softness and passivity, a direct contrast to the men she sometimes dances for when she’s in need of cash. When she dances for these men they throw money at her while waving guns around.
While their affair, tender and tumultuous, too, starts off as the brunt of the story, it is Mumtaz who fills the film’s second half. Suspecting that something is causing her husband to stay late at the erotic dance theatre each night, she is able to do little about it. Her sister-in-law tells her to wear tighter clothing to keep her husband at home. Her father-in-law commands that she surrender her job once Haider starts his. Feeling rejected from every corner, she spies on a male neighbour to fulfil her sexual needs.
That the story by Sadiq and Maggie Briggs takes in so much of the family – there is another strand about the father and an admirer who comes to visit – without any of the film feeling rushed is commendable, and it’s only Haider’s brother, Saleem, who feels under-drawn. As Haider, Ali Junejo puts in a very detailed performance, showing Haider’s strengths and weaknesses with ease. There’s an incredible scene where he and Biba have sex, each trying to gain a certain position. When the tussling ends, Junejo exhibits every facet of Haider’s humiliation.
Alina Khan’s Biba is tough, as she has to be in such a society, but it’s in other moments, such as when she starts laughing on public transport or when she is celebrating her friend’s wedding, when Biba comes alive. However, the film really belongs to Rasti Farooq who plays Mumtaz. We can trace her happy-go-lucky temperament, gleaned from a well-placed flashback, to the desperation she feels when she is stripped of agency. Farooq gives a beautifully considered performance.
Helping the film reach a wider audience is executive producer Extra Curricular, activist Malala Yousafzai’s film company. Yousafzai was also in attendance at the London premiere of the film, explaining how Joyland could be a game changer for the Pakistan movie industry. The film received a five-minute ovation at Cannes earlier this year and is the Pakistan entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Joyland will also be released in cinemas in Pakistan. It’s a brave move especially after another film about tradition and masculinity, Zindagi Tamasha, was pulled from Pakistani cinemas in 2020 for blasphemy.
The film gets its title from an amusement park, which is squeezed in-between some concrete apartment blocks a lot dingier than Margate’s Dreamland. It gives Mumtaz only ephemeral joy. Joyland’s ending is perhaps signalled too soon and too obviously when Haider tells a joke about a mosquito and a chicken, and one of the character’s fate seems never in doubt. But the last scene, with Abdullah Siddiqui’s music swirling like the tide, is incredible, demonstrating that in Pakistan tradition still has the upper hand.
Joyland is screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2022.