In search of Joyland: Pakistani cinema at a crossroads

In search of Joyland
6 min read
06 December, 2022

American-Pakistani painter Salman Toor's distinctive, intimate artworks of queer brown men living in Pakistan and New York may have largely been glossed over by the general public, but for art aficionados, Salman's works were a revelation. 

In his first major museum show held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2020 titled How Will I Know – named after the Houston song of the same name – Salman remarked, “We took this title because not only was it a song that I really like dancing to, but it also had a deeper resonance, thinking about the future.”

In so many ways Salman's statement reflects on art and realities centred around queer life in Pakistan, unknowingly becoming a statement of quivering pushed-back stories of marginal lives, a question mark on queer existence.

"Joyland is full-bodied cinema, sensitively crafted, touching lives of everyone in the playbook that has been impacted by the impositions of patriarchy. It’s a film about cropped dreams, sexuality and unexpected solidarity"

The recent tumult around the ban and its overturning of Pakistan’s multi-award-winning film Joyland brings back the question to the fore. Ironically Joyland had been the reason for pride and cheer of the country as it went on to win the prestigious, Un Certain Regard Jury Award and Queer Palm d’ Or at Cannes. This was the first time a Pakistani film had ever won the prize, factually it was also the first-ever screening of a Pakistani film at the famed film festival.

The country was, at last, having its international film moment.

Everyone celebrated the film with much enthusiasm and for those few days at Cannes Joyland was representative of South Asian cinema. Many critics did feel that this was truly a turnaround for Pakistani cinema; transitioning into unhindered storytelling.

Once the film festival was over the biggest question looming large was its release in Pakistan, a country that outlaws same-sex relationships and stigmatises transgender.

As fate would have it Pakistan was soon forced to prioritise its attention towards a humongous climate crisis, with record rainfall resulting in one of the most devastating floods that Asia has ever witnessed. Imperative that all matters of cinema would take a back seat.

Joyland returned to the discussion earlier this month when its release got delayed on home turf even despite being the official entry for the Best International Film category, at the upcoming Academy Awards.

The delay of the film’s release was a no-brainer to sense that a storm was brewing over Joyland.

The conversation about the film soon drifted into a controversy, if the film reflected well on the country, which was burdened with the tag of poverty, underdevelopment, and Islamic extremism.

The narrative in the public realm moved far from the film’s excellent storytelling, the creative read directorial and performative ability to deal with a sensitive and ‘shoved away’ subject of familial patriarchy to a homophobic argument of whether the film had an ulterior LGBTQIA agenda and poses a negative impression of Pakistan.

And as always the state’s response to ‘defiant’ cinema like in former Soviet Russia with Andrei Tarkovsky’s works or in Iran with its feminist cinema and closer in South Asia Satyajit Ray being accused of puncturing India’s image with poverty in his debut masterful The Song Of The Road (Pather Panchali, 1955) Saim Sadiq and his film Joyland brought upon themselves a flack.

At that point Sadiq must have uttered the same words as Toor’s exhibition title How Will I Know – the ‘unknown’ here is beyond the literal release or fate of the film cascading into the question of queer lives depicted onscreen and or as a lived-in reality for Pakistan’s transgender community.

Live Story

Pakistan – the precarity of being a transgender off or onscreen

Joyland weaves a story of desire and affection between a cisgender man and a trans woman facing a caged life that a patriarchal society has to offer. The story situates itself in the Gawalmandi neighbourhood of Lahore and depicts a middle-class life of complicated stifling norms.

Relevant, four years ago in 2018, Pakistan had ‘boldly’ situated itself allying for transgender rights, passing a bill in its parliament that would protect the rights of transgender people, raising the possibility of lesser discrimination and reduced violence that the community have been always facing.

Considered a revolutionary step up in realigning with LGBTQIA legislation and rights, worldwide, Pakistan’s law was drafted to guard transgender in institutions and public spaces, guaranteeing them a choice of gender on official documents. All in all, the country had a legislative intent to recalibrate matters related to queer lives – assumptions about the transgender community.

Outside the rule book, the reality was different. The law could not safeguard the transgender community nor did it effectively bring about any changes in the prevalent notion.

Transgender people are continuously targeted and shunned by society, facing violent attacks and surviving minus any safety net.

In April, a month before Joyland swooned the world audience that gathered at Cannes, a 60-year-old transgender was shot at, in Karachi, Pakistan, which by no means was a one-off incident.

And thus, the ban on Joyland is reflective of this harsh reality. But the counterargument stands too – why was it overturned then?

Interestingly the answer partly is the same for both. Creative expressions in South Asian countries have often been considered practices in public relations. It’s about the impression that art may give out to the world. Banning and counter-banning are therefore two sides of the same coin.

Live Story

However, Joyland had no reason to be slandered as ‘objectionable’ calling for a ban. Neither it is a ‘cinema of activism’ that would really worry the authorities. It does not deliver an action-oriented message.

Joyland is full-bodied cinema, sensitively crafted, touching the lives of everyone in the playbook that has been impacted by the impositions of patriarchy. It’s a film about cropped dreams, sexuality and unexpected solidarity.  

While the film remains banned in Punjab province, Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital has had theatres running the film for a few weeks now.

How Joyland fares on home turf and if it creates noise at the Oscars is to be watched but perhaps what would be more critical to notice is if other Pakistani filmmakers would willfully take up subjects related to queer existence in Pakistan, producing films unhindered.

Meanwhile, there are considerations to amend the landmark legislation of 2018 reaffirming the complex and deep intertwining between the real and cinema – both of which are governed by the need for freedom, and individuality (unfettered expressions of life), existential elements that are way beyond one ban and its repeal.

Nilosree Biswas is a filmmaker, author, and columnist