Joyland: Review. By Rudie Obias.
Searching for your true identity is a lifelong journey that depends on openness, introspection, and honesty. And while it’s tough to find who you really are, denying yourself could lead to bigger problems down the road—especially for the loved ones in your life. Pakistani film Joyland examines sexual identity and gender fluidity in a very traditional patriarchal Muslim family in the city of Lahore.
Written and directed by Saim Sadiq, in his debut feature film, Joyland follows Haider (Ali Junejo), the youngest son of the middle-class Rana Family. Although he’s an adult and married to his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), who dreams of air conditioning, the pair live with his elderly wheelchair-bound father (Salmaan Peerzada)—who serves as the patriarch. His older brother Saleem (Sohail Sameer) and his wife Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) also live in the home with their four daughters.
Haider is playful, yet meek, and a somewhat boy-ish man, who struggles to find a job to contribute to the family. He finds a job as a background dancer for Madame Biba’s (Alina Khan), a transgender woman and performer, burlesque-style show, but tells his family that he’s a theater manager instead because he doesn’t want to bring shame to the family. However, throughout rehearsals, Haider and Biba become closer and closer, as Haider starts to struggle to fit in with Pakistani society, his duties as a husband, and a place within his family—all while trying to put together a dazzling stage show for an eager audience.
Joyland is a wonderful film that’s wild, passionate, and bittersweet. Although it’s his first film, Sadiq has such a command of the characters, story, and camerawork—which is often well-framed, artful, and considered. From scene to scene, the story unfolds in a very engaging manner, while he puts a lens on traditional family roles and how harmful masculinity can hamper a person’s life and identity—especially when it comes to queerness.
In some ways, Joyland is a very risqué film that’s meant to push you to question norms, while also humanizing people who are on the outskirts of society. It has moments that feel inspired by French director Claire Denis’ 1999 film Beau Travail, a film about repressed queerness and deconstructing masculinity among soldiers in the French Foreign Legion stationed in Djibouti. Both Joyland and Beau Travail subverts convention, while both are allegorical films about desire. Also, both films feature a bit of razzmatazz and panache with moments of joy through dance.
As a whole, Joyland is a lyrical and reflective film that’s intimate and tender mixed with nuance and poignancy. There’s a line in the film that perfectly sums up its themes and motivations. The character Haider says to Biba, “Sometimes I feel like I have nothing of my own. Everything feels borrowed or stolen from someone else.” It seems almost radical for cinema from Pakistan, a deeply Islamic and conservative country, but then again, the notions of love and empathy are truly universal.
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