Joyland: A queer Pakistani dramedy about human fragility

Joyland: A queer Pakistani dramedy about human fragility
5 min read
08 July, 2022

Joyland will be surely remembered as a major breakthrough for the Pakistani film industry.

World-premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival (17-28 May 2022), Saim Sadiq’s directorial debut has been warmly welcomed by a long-standing ovation in a packed Salle Debussy, and later received the gathering’s prestigious Jury Prize and Queer Palm.

Before embarking on the making of this Urdu-language picture, Sadiq worked on Darling, for which he received the prize for Best Short Film in the Orizzonti sidebar of Venice’s Biennale in 2019.

"Farooq masterfully paints the portrait of a woman torn by her role of wife and her ambitions. She is consumed by her desire for independence and the rules imposed by her family’s expectations and Pakistan’s male-dominated society"

The story of Joyland, penned by the helmer himself along with Maggie Briggs, is set in today’s Lahore and revolves around a middle-class family led by Rana Amanullah (veteran thespian Salmaan Peerzada).

The wheelchair-bound, seventy-something patriarch rules over his two sons – Haider (Ali Junejo) and his older brother Kaleem (Sohail Sameer) – and their respective wives – Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) and Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani).

The plot focuses in particular on Haider, a mild-mannered but good-for-nothing man who hasn’t held a job in years, and Mumtaz, who works as a beautician and takes on the role of the breadwinner.

One day, however, Haider does find a job, even though it’s not exactly the type of employment his father would expect. The man is hired as a background dancer for a young transgender performer, called Biba (Alina Khan), at a local nightclub. The pay is fair, though, and this is enough to convince him to keep the job and its secret.

What can go wrong? Haider gradually develops a love interest in Biba, questioning his place in the world, his sexuality and, quite predictably, his relationship with Mumtaz.

Overall, the first part of the feature is characterised by a rather light-hearted atmosphere. It doesn’t lack good puns, brilliant dialogue as well as several funny comedy moments – some of these are linked to Haider’s poor performances as a dancer and his attempts to hide the real nature of his job, including a scene where we see him clumsily hiding a giant silhouette of Biba on his house’s terrace.

Nonetheless, Sadiq makes a brave choice and decides not to make just a traditional feel-good comedy or a crowd-pleaser. Slowly – but inevitably – the director lets his characters explore a much gloomier territory, where there is little to laugh about and much to empathise with.

The three leads – Farooq, Khan and Junejo – imbue their parts with the right dose of human fragility, which is perhaps the real core theme of this picture.

Farooq masterfully paints the portrait of a woman torn by her role of wife and her ambitions. She is consumed by her desire for independence and the rules imposed by her family’s expectations and Pakistan’s male-dominated society.

Still from Joyland [photo credit: Saim Sadiq]
Still from Joyland [photo credit: Saim Sadiq]

Meanwhile, Haider struggles to find his place in the world, victim of his family’s judgement and aware of the fact that he has not achieved much throughout his life. He is perhaps hiding and repressing his true sexual orientation, as we may understand from how the relationship with Biba develops over time.

Khan plays convincingly the role of a performer who is often mistreated by her audience and hopes to undergo sex reassignment surgery. She wishes to start living her existence fully as a woman, and as soon as possible.

At a first glance, she shows the boldness, the irony and the great determination of a diva. As we progress, we realise that she is not indifferent to the pain caused by those who have been discriminating against her. She develops a genuine bond with Haider, and she seems ready to open her heart.

Here, the shift between comedy and drama is also visible through the excellent work crafted by DoP Joe Saade (Mounia Akl’s Costa Brava, Lebanon and Jimmy Keyrouz’s Broken Keys).

Saade delivers a colourful, luminous portrait of contemporary Lahore in the first two-thirds, backed by a vibrant mise-en-scene. In particular, this joyful visual taste emerges through the sequences set in the family home’s courtyard and in the nightclub. As we find out the destiny of our protags, however, the camera work becomes more slow-paced, settings look emptier and colours are paler.

The closing scene is highly evocative. It may be interpreted as a metaphor for freedom, egoism or loss. Viewers will be free to draw their conclusions, as always.

That being said, Sadiq’s first feature is a beautifully crafted queer dramedy, which deserves wide praise, especially considering the troubled socio-cultural context in which it was shot. It prompts important questions about chasing dreams and discovering our true selves, particularly while living in a family and a society that has shaped and influenced our identity for decades.

Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Rome

Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni