The first Pakistani film to be presented on that stage, Saim Sadiq’s directorial debut ‘Joyland’ emerged as the hidden gem of Cannes. It has since earned prestigious awards and critical acclaim on an international level. But more importantly, ‘Joyland’ has put previously unseen stories on the world stage.
‘Joyland’ is a deceiving film beyond its title (there is no joy here, folks). It starts off by establishing the tensions of a joint family, with conversations about familial expectations, the assigned roles of each relationship, and constant involvement in each other’s personal lives. But visually – filled with static close-ups and intimate frames – the film is a lot more interested in focusing on the individuals than the group. The whole world of ‘Joyland’ is built only through the perspectives of these characters. They don’t live in the Lahore we objectively know, they live in a quieter, slower, more suffocating Lahore that they perceive.
The main character out of all these individuals seems to be Haider (Ali Junejo). Haider is the youngest son of a strict, honorable father, married to a career-driven Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), and living with his older brother Saleem (Sohail Sameer), sister-in-law Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) and their four daughters. But, again, the story is not about Haider. He is the catalyst, sure, but this isn’t about him. This isn’t about any of the men, despite the aggressive reminders of their patriarchal authority. It’s about the women. Women like Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) and Biba (Alina Khan), who are stubborn enough to preserve their individuality in a culture that constantly discourages it. And women like Fayyaz (Sania Saeed) and Mumtaz, who struggle to be as persistent.
Desperate for work, Haider ends up taking a job at a theatre as a background dancer for Biba, who happens to be trans. In Biba’s taboo world, Haider begins to realize that there is a life beyond societal norms and expectations. The burden of Biba’s gender is never put on her, it is Haider’s to internally confront and process.
They fall passionately in love, it is mezmerizing, electric, breath-taking. Khan and Junejo elevate each other’s performances, balancing Biba’s self-assured, audacious personality with Haider’s timid, tender, unsure demeanor. But just as you are fully engrossed in the romance, there’s a sudden realization. This love story is not the heart of film, it’s the lead up to the main tragedy of ‘Joyland’. As Haider explores more of his freedom, Mumtaz’s life keeps becoming confined by the walls of expectations.
The film is made up of multiple threads weaving into one narrative. Sometimes they seamlessly blend, other times they messily knot into each other. The execution isn’t perfect, but the way Sadiq presents the complex emotions of each perspective is commendable. The performances by the actors are so earnest and complete. It is evident that they are portraying these people in a way that goes beyond what is written on paper.
As admirable as ‘Joyland’ is, this film is not made for the people it is about. The visual language, the pacing, the approach taken with the subject matter, all cater to an international audience, or affluent Pakistanis. It is unfair to bash Sadiq for choosing to make the film he wanted, instead of the film that would pass the censor board, but the sad truth is that the Bibas, Haiders and Mumtazes of Pakistan will never be able to watch the ‘Joyland’ that has won international acclaim. At best, they might be able to see a severely edited version at an expensive multiplex, or a bootleg copy downloaded from a shady website. But in all cases, the people who should be watching this may not have the access they should have. And this reality makes me sadder than any story Sadiq could have told on the screen.