The Plot: Lahore, Pakistan. Haider (Ali Junejo) is married to Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) and lives with his extended family in a modest apartment. He’s been out of work for some time, but now he’s secured a job as a theatre manager at Joyland. That’s what he tells his family anyway. The real truth is that he’s training to be a backing dancer for an erotic dance group run by the diva Biba (Alina Khan), who also happens to be trans and proud. As Haider loosens his repressions in the conservative city, he becomes drawn to Biba and opens his mind to the possibilities. However, actions have consequences…
The Verdict: Although it wasn’t ultimately nominated, Joyland is Pakistan’s official entry to this year’s Oscar race. In another year, it might have made the final list but that doesn’t lessen its impact in any way. That should tell you something about this quietly powerful stunner from first-time feature director Saim Sadiq. It’s set among Lahore’s Muslim community as the youngest son in the Rana family comes to terms with his sexuality in a way that he didn’t think was previously possible. Although married, he identifies with the bossy, strong-willed trans character who runs the theatre group he works at. They form a tender connection which transcends any prejudice, even showing solidarity on the train together when a nosy woman tells Biba to move to the men’s section of the carriage. There is Haider’s home life too, surrounded by his nephews and nieces but he and his wife are still childless for now. He yearns for some sort of escape from reality, but reality is all that he really has.
Co-written by Sadiq and Maggie Briggs, Joyland is not as salacious as it might sound. It’s far more chaste actually than, say, Magic Mike’s Last Dance (and that was not particularly sizzling either). Biba’s dance group is fast and lively and this is where Haider comes to find a new community closer to his heart. He accepts Biba for who she is from their first meeting. There’s a wonderfully subtle contrast of characters here. The modest Haider, inching out of the closet cautiously, is a bundle of repressed desire just waiting to be tapped into. Biba has no doubts about who she is and has no regrets either. Take her or leave her, that’s her approach. And yet she also shows some vulnerability to Haider as they start a tender romance – to the detriment of Haider’s home life. As Haider admits to Biba at one point, the fate of love is death. No love lasts forever, but it’s still worth fighting for. People can hurt and be hurt though.
Sadiq describes Joyland as a de-romanticisation of a coming-of-age tale and a homage to all the women, men and trans people who pay the human cost of patriarchy. That’s an admirable approach to take in a conservative society and he backs it up with a rebellious spirit that gently pushes at the boundaries of moral acceptance. Initially banned in Pakistan, it’s a sign of progression and acceptance of other lifestyles that things are moving forward there. Sadiq’s directing style is unobtrusive, allowing his talented troupe of actors (particularly the strong presence of Alina Khan) to control the narrative arc and transmit their feelings with a glance, a touch of the hand, a tender embrace. The way that Sadiq deals with Haider’s awakening is so subtle and yet so expressive that it comes across as the work of a more established and mature filmmaker. He captures the colour and liveliness of Lahore, the small but important details of daily family life, the power of human connection without losing focus on what makes a good story work. Joyland is a promising debut from Sadiq and a striking step forward for Pakistan’s burgeoning cinema industry. Seek it out.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In short: A quiet stunner
Directed by Saim Sadiq. Starring Ali Junejo, Rasti Farooq, Alina Khan, Sarwat Gilani.