Joyland (2022), Saim Sadiq’s crushing debut and the first Pakistani film to be shortlisted for the Oscars, is imbued with a crisis of space. There never seems to be enough room. Not in the Rana household, the narrative kernel of the outing, where the intimacy of a married couple is compromised by the presence of a child sleeping with them. Not in the erotic theater, where a transgender dancer struggles to headline her own set. Not even in a close-walled residence, where an expression of female desire is brought to submission by an intrusive pair of eyes.
This paucity is physical and metaphorical; the urge to fit in within this lack is personal and private. Sadiq frames the story around this admixture of dearth and desire, arguing through his film the world’s tendency to amplify the need to belong while designing it as a cautionary tale of belonging.
Written by Sadiq and Maggie Briggs, Joyland focuses on a Lahore-based middle-class family. It is helmed by a wheelchair-addled patriarch and includes his two sons, Saleem (Sohail Sameer) and Haider (Ali Junejo). Each is starkly different than the other. The former is an alpha male, eager to extend his lineage with a son. Haider, shouldering responsibilities at home, is diffident. Even their marriages are contrasting. The relationship between Saleem and Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) brims with inequality, no different from an orthodox union. Haider and Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) are close. She works at a beauty parlor, he is unemployed. Their alliance, largely asexual in nature, comes across as consensual companionship. It’s why when Haider is hired as a background dancer at an erotic theater and his father decides for Mumtaz to quit her job, she looks to him for support. Haider opposes but gives in.
Since its premiere at Cannes in 2022, the film has been making waves for its LGBTQ+ themes, the appeal accentuated by the first-ever inclusion of a transgender actor (Alina Khan) in a major Pakistani feature although the country legally recognized the community in 2009. A detail such as this and the narrative shift which enfolds Haider falling for the character, Biba preempts the transgressive love story to hijack the main plot. Love, after all, has traditionally served as the text for conflict and subtext for approval. The filmmaker’s brilliance lies in bypassing tropes to render a critique of the cornering labels of identity.
Subjected to humiliation, Biba yearns for gender-affirming surgery to approximate her true identity. Joyland acknowledges her desire but also examines the stifling existence of those who already are. Mumtaz becomes the face of oppression. On paper, she’s who Biba wants to be — a woman who enjoys social acceptance. Except, the jagged edges of gender have bruised Mumtaz. Haider is no less wounded from being emasculated for his gentility. Through assured filmmaking and compelling performances, Sadiq highlights the restrictions embedded in the coveted idea of belonging.
During its runtime, Joyland unfolds as a reiteration of patriarchy that necessitates performing gender, and, thus, robs joy of inhabiting it. The film emerges as distinctly South Asian with a universal core, espousing a cogent commentary: When the world is attuned to defining identity in boxes, there will never be enough space. In such a case, Sadiq insists, the desire to belong is fated to remain as a longing to be.
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