Joyland, which would be the very first Pakistani work at the Cannes Film Festival, bears a strong resemblance to Bollywood cuisine, and it’s no surprise. Karachi in Pakistan was the center of Hindi and Urdu cinema before the Indian subcontinent was divided. Saim Sadiq’s feature debut, Joyland, which was part of the 12-day Un Certain Regard event for experimental cinema, has plenty of freshness when it comes to performances and sets. There’s a natural ease with which the actors play their roles, and Lahore’s bourgeois vibe instills a touch of beautiful authenticity. And it’s daring for a Pakistani work that traces a love story between a trans woman and a married man with a few more intimate scenes.
Considered a “sin”, it becomes a path to liberation, which, however, comes with painful grief and tragic death. Examining the underlying tension in a family, which is firmly entrenched in the laws of patriarchy with an elderly father firmly in the saddle of the home of two sons, their wives and children, Sadiq (whose 2019 short, Darling, won a prize in Venice), pushes us towards a storm. The clouds become dark and eerie as the scenes progress.
A bit in Joyland, we see murmurs of protest and even a defiant sequence from the young daughter-in-law, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), who is terribly upset at having to quit her job as a beautician, when her husband Ali Haider de Junejo lands one. In fact, it is his story that the director places at the center to lead us into a few alleys. Her job is to be a background prop for a trans dancer, Biba, tried by Alina Khan with steely courage fighting against a society that is terribly mean to her. But when Haider begins to respect and even love her for who she is, Biba’s tough exterior melts and hope fills her heart.
The film pokes fun at age-old traditions; Haider happily plays stay-at-home husband taking care of his three little nieces and helping his sister-in-law with household chores, including cooking. Sadiq’s screenplay gently navigates through these in a complex plot of lies. What emerges is a compelling human drama in which gender roles and narrow thinking are challenged. The walls of Haider’s house begin to crumble, exposing family secrets that have been buried for years. In stark contrast, the sweet, subtle romance (with chunks of bold passion) between Bibi and Haider captured in the shadows of night or the red glow of backstage lighting through the lens of Joe Saade. A melancholic joy is created with long silences.
Sadiq occasionally distracts us with lighter and truly new moments. When the power goes out while Mumtaz is getting a bride ready at the salon, the girls turn on their cellphone lights to get the job done. The scene would be repeated during Biba’s erotic show when members of the public would hold down the dancers by lighting their telephone torches. There are moments of lyricism as Haider glides through the night on a scooter carrying a giant wooden promotional image of Biba. But beyond that, Joyland is a haunting critique of a punitive social system that refuses to go away.
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