‘Joyland’ opens a window onto trans realities in contemporary Pakistan
From left, Ali Junejo and Alina Khan

A traditional family in Lahore, Pakistan, is ripped apart when the youngest son becomes infatuated with an ambitious trans starlet in Saim Sadiq’s impressive debut feature which explores sexual fluidity, love, desire, and rebellion within a repressed patriarchal society.

Haider (a phenomenal Ali Junejo) is unemployed and a stay-at-home husband, cooking for the extended family of nine and looking after a handful of small children, while his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) goes out to work at a beauty salon with his blessing.

They live with his wheelchair-bound father Abba (Salmaan Peerzada), his older brother Saleem (Sameer Sohail), and pregnant wife Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani), and their three daughters. A nearby widow Fayyaz (San Saeed) is almost part of the family and has a special affection for Abba, but even their relationship is thwarted by traditional concepts of man-and womanhood.

His dad and alpha male sibling constantly poke fun at Haider’s sensitivity and question his masculinity as Abba pressures Haider to give the family its first male heir.

When he obtains a job as a backup dancer at an erotic burlesque-style theater, he soon grows close to the show’s owner Biba (the mesmerizing Alina Khan), a transgender woman who accepts him as he is. Because he is working now, however secretively—he tells his family he’s the theater manager—Mumtaz is forced to give up her job and become a housewife and mother alongside her sister-in-law in a household which only celebrates the male line and proves suffocating for her.

Starring the first trans person to have a lead role in a major Pakistani film, Sadiq’s stunningly honest yet bittersweet drama examines masculine toxicity in Pakistan’s patriarchal society in which men and women have their strict roles to play, plowing headlong toward its uncompromisingly fateful conclusion.

In Pakistan young trans people are often gathered into a community collective under the aegis of a senior authority figure who will protect and watch over them and direct certain aspects of their lives and careers. The film explores this culture in some depth.

Director Saim Sadiq says this about his film:

“I have lived with the story of Joyland for a very long time. Today when I look back, I realize that this entirely fictional yet emotionally autobiographical story came to my young adult brain like a gift. It became a means of investigating my own place as a young man who was never man enough for a patriarchal society. As I grew up, I found the characters of Joyland growing with me, like the few teenage friends who stick around long after school is over. My struggles with the concepts of desire, tradition, masculinity, family, and freedom became their struggles. When I got too angry, they taught me to be empathetic. When they got too disillusioned, I cracked a joke or took them on a ride in an amusement park. Ultimately, their catharsis became mine.

Joyland is a de-romanticization of a coming-of-age tale and a homage to all the women, men, and trans people who pay the human cost of patriarchy. It is also a celebration of the desire that creates unlikely bonds and the love that immortalizes them. Ultimately, it is but a heartbroken love letter to my homeland.”

Joyland won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize and the Queer Palm at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, as well as Best International Film at the 2023 Film Independent Spirit Awards and numerous other prizes. It is Pakistan’s 2023 Oscar entry, even as it has been edited and banned in Pakistan itself. Running time is 127 minutes, in Urdu and Punjabi, with English subtitles. It is both amusing and instructive to hear the deep infiltration of many English words into the language. Joyland is in U.S. and Canadian movie theaters now.

The trailer can be viewed here. Mohammed Hanif’s insightful comment on the film in The New Yorker can be read here.

Reposted from Morning Star with additional commentary by Eric A. Gordon.

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Maria Duarte
Maria Duarte

London based film reviewer.