Film Review: “Joyland” — A Drama of Trans Prejudice in Pakistan

By Steve Erickson

There is little doubt that Joyland‘s subject matter is what drew international attention.

Joyland, written and directed by Saim Sadiq. Screening at Coolidge Corner Theatre starting May 26.

A scene from Saim Sadiq’s Joyland.

Set in Lahore, Pakistan, Joyland features a protagonist, Haider (Ali Junejo), who suffers from daddy issues. His family lives and dines together, in cramped spaces, to the point that they look as if they are trapped. (The film was shot in Academy ratio.) His elderly father (Salmaan Peerzada) expects a reluctant Haider to carry on a very traditional form of masculinity. He struggles to slit the throat of a goat but is disturbed by the animal’s squirming and crying. He can’t go through with the killing — his wife Mumtaz (Rati Faraq) has to finish the deed.

The rest of the family is also dysfunctional. Haider’s father’s mastery over the family is crumbling in the face of age. Her uses a wheelchair and is struggling to control his own body. Unable to make it to the bathroom on time, he urinates on himself, continually needing to call on women for help.

Haider has yet to begin a mature life. To use a current term, he’s struggling with “adulting.” He is married but has been unemployed for years. Mumtaz is the couple’s wage-earner. Although his brother has fathered three children, with one more on the way, Haider and Mumtaz remain childless. He finally lands a job at a nightclub, though he lies to his family about what he does. Haider tells them that he’s the theater’s manager, but he’s really a dancer employed in the troupe led by a trans woman, Biba (Alina Khan). He has an affair with her, but Haider’s anxieties about his sexuality make it hard for the two to be happy together.

The most powerful elements of Joyland are pictorial. Director Sadiq has a great eye for framing. His characters are strikingly posed in alleys, doorways, and other spaces within spaces. When Haider and Biba argue, the left half of her body is barely given enough room to remain onscreen. Sadiq and cinematographer Joe Saade’s use of color is also effective. The film creates a nocturnal world that pulses with life, a vitality that emanates in city streets, fairgrounds (from which it got its name) and nightclubs. In addition, the film takes great care to insure that even the darkest scenes remain legible. Color plays a powerfully dramatic role. Before their argument, Haider and Biba are bathed in intense red light; afterwards, they’re separated by a curtain of yellow.

Unfortunately, Sadiq isn’t quite as gifted a dramatist. The homosocial world of the men working at the nightclub is full of tension, but his screenplay falls back on old clichés, suggesting that Haider may be attracted to Biba because he’s gay. Haider and Biba’s final breakup comes when he lies down and expects her to penetrate him; in response, she calls him a homophobic slur and throws him out. The notion that Haider’s attraction to a trans woman codes him as feminine runs through Joyland in a way that could use far more examination.

Joyland understands all too well why its central trio of characters sometimes behave so badly. They are all trapped in lives that they cope with rather than enjoy. Both Haider and his wife are unhappy living in a patriarchal culture that expects them to take roles opposite to what they feel and think. The nightclub performances satirically play out this reversal of standard gender roles: Biba aggressively sings about her sexual desire while women are hoisted upon beds by men. It’s showbiz, but it’s also the one place where there’s public recognition of how little the cultural/political ideas of women as passive objects and man as macho go-getters conforms to reality. Still, the fact that Haider’s job calls for him to help spotlight Biba’s star power unnerves him.

Describing Joyland as a story about a cis man in love with a trans woman isn’t entirely accurate; Mumtaz’s life occupies much of the final third. The film eventually evens out its share of attention to its three protagonists, though the shift to Mumtaz is structurally awkward. Khan, who is trans herself, gives a scrupulously careful performance, balancing the empowerment of her role with the casual transphobia she experiences as soon as she steps offstage. Dancing is one of the few jobs available to out trans women in Pakistan. To the film’s credit, she’s never presented as a simple victim or transformed into an icon. In the end, Mumtaz and Haider come off as more painfully confined than Biba; the latter’s trans identity demands that she lead a life that offers a greater range of options. Meanwhile, Mumtaz is hemmed in by expectations around her pregnancy.

There is little doubt that Joyland‘s subject matter is what drew international attention. It became the first Pakistani film to play Cannes last spring and the only one I can recall receiving a real American arthouse release. It also didn’t hurt that the film was briefly banned by Pakistan after it was chosen to be the country’s official nominee for the Best International Film Oscar. (Malala Yousefzai and Riz Ahmed are among its executive producers.) South Asia has a lengthy history of thinking about gender far differently than current Western norms. In a 2022 article in The Guardian, Pakistani activist Hina Baloch claimed that “we were a part of the mainstream society before the British criminalized our existence through laws such as the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. Transphobia is a colonial legacy.” This mottled history may lurk somewhere behind Joyland, but it’s not brought to the forefront. In truth, the film feels like it was made for an international audience, down to the ambiguity of the final scene. Still, this exploration of prejudice has its political value: trans people have become the targets of brutal laws in state governments across the U.S. Americans who aren’t transphobic will no doubt recognize the same signs of bias on the march.

Steve Erickson writes about film and music for Gay City News, Slant Magazine, the Nashville Scene, Trouser Press, and other outlets. He also produces electronic music under the tag callinamagician. His latest album, The Bloodshot Eye of Horus, was released in November 2022, and is available to stream here.

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