Joyland Review

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The ability of a country like Pakistan to produce such a film as Joyland is indeed quite remarkable. The movie’s plot – about an unusual extramarital affair between a married man and a trans woman – created a huge uproar in the nation of its birth, where conservative religious values prevail and LGBTQ+ rights lag far behind; it was consequently banned from release by the right-wing government last year, but later unbanned (albeit with certain scenes censored) following the intervention of voices as loud as Amnesty International and Malala Yousafzai.

Nevertheless, those who expect something controversial or provocative may be taken aback when they watch this film: it is actually an extremely thoughtful, nuanced and sensitive story about queer love, and an astute exploration into how contemporary concepts of gender identity and sexual orientation conflict with traditional societies that still support arranged marriages for instance, men should be family providers while women should be housewives.

Above all else, it is an insightful fanatically performed character study which gets expertly portrayed by its cast ensemble. The most remarkable part is Alina Khan playing Biba who has agency over herself despite the culture that she lives among treating her as less than human. Boasting a tough attitude at times– glimpsing Lahore’s khawaja sara (“third gender”) community being there for her–as well as some presence for her flaws yet vulnerable aspect to herself too; Khan is simply stunning having made her debut (like so many others on the cast list) in this feature.

No wonder then Haider Ali Junejo falls under Biba’s spell before long. Being pressured by his father into meeting some societal expectations (get employed, give birth to a son), Haider takes up a job opportunity performing erotic dance shows sometimes only to prove people wrong about him initially. He is kind-hearted person possibly somewhere along the queer spectrum (he’d played Juliet in Romeo And Juliet at school)–but the extramarital affair he has with her does not come out in a sensationalist manner. As well, he is caring and supportive towards Biba and yet struggling to understand his sexual as well as emotional feelings fully.

Shot on location using natural light and also featuring stylishly vibrant cinematography, the film’s director Saim Sadiq (who co-wrote the script with American filmmaker Maggie Briggs) treats almost every character in this way. For instance, Mumtaz – someone who might have been merely an archetypal “wronged woman” in a different, more melodramatic film – is given depth: she is trapped by a patriarchal system that suffocates her own desires.

The final act however sees a shift of focus onto Mumtaz changing things so much that even the title of the Joyland movie feels misleading, after such subtlety displayed earlier on, it becomes too much of a melo-drama. However, it still has an overall effect. It is truly a remarkable piece of work that deserves to be seen widely across Pakistan and beyond its borders.

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