joyland review

Joyland review | Groundbreaking Pakistani trans movie challenges tradition

★★★★☆ In Saim Sadiq's debut feature film Joyland, Pakistani society is in a state of transition, and its characters struggle with their identities and desires. 


In Saim Sadiq’s debut feature film, Pakistani society is in a state of transition, and its characters struggle with their identities and desires. Read our Joyland review.

Joyland’s protagonist, Haider, played by Ali Junejo, is a scrappy younger son in a hard-up, fractious, but close-knit family in central Lahore. Haider has taken a wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), but cannot fulfil any expectations of his highly conservative father. He contentedly plays homemaker while Mumtaz assumes the breadwinner role, and when he eventually finds employment, it’s not the traditionally respectable kind.

Haider is hired as a backing dancer for trans female performer Biba (Alina Khan) at a local nightclub. While his job is not eyebrow-raising by western standards, it is sufficiently scandalous in Pakistani society. Haider lies to his family about his new job, claiming he’s just a stage boss. However, Haider’s bond with Biba is not just professional; as things turn intimate, his naive preconceptions about sexuality come gauchely between them.

The movie was initially banned from national distribution by the Pakistan Ministry of Information & Broadcasting in November last year due to complaints about its subject matter. Alina Khan expressed her sadness at the ban, stating there is “nothing against Islam” in the story. Fortunately for Alina and the rest of the filmmakers, the ban was later reversed, clearing the way for domestic film screenings.

joyland review

I can see why the ban was reversed. Joyland is nuanced, humane filmmaking, more concerned with its own intimate story than with broader social commentary (even if, as a tale of transgender desire in a Muslim country, its very premise breaks boundaries).

Sadiq’s excellent script treats Haider and Biba’s relationship as a litmus test for all that this caring, but bewildered young man is yet to learn about himself and others. Biba is treated as a wholesome, careworn character, revealing the variously layered defence mechanisms required to survive as a trans woman in a largely unaccepting, sternly patriarchal, and religiously bound society.

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As the first Pakistani production ever in the Cannes official selection, Joyland entered the festival as something of a landmark but proved an instant crowd-pleaser on its own merits, landing the runner-up Grand Prix in Un Certain Regard and besting Lukas Dhont’s breakout Close to the Queer Palme award.

Extensive arthouse cinema distribution is guaranteed, and Joyland could make big strides on the festival circuit, not just in the LGBTQ+ bracket. At a time when transgender lives are very much in the public discourse, the film’s fresh, sympathetic cultural perspective on the subject gives it universal appeal.

The film’s cinematography, by up-and-coming DP Joe Saade, manages to light up drab domestic scenes, marked by gleaming jewel tones and shimmering light-play, a visual suggestion of the richer lives sought by everyone in this yearning drama.

Rascally funny and profoundly sad in equal measure, Joyland is a gently observed, honestly felt family story, not out to speak for any demographic as a whole but benefiting considerably from the warm, slightly dishevelled charm of screen novice Ali Junejo in the lead. This film portrays the struggles and intricacies of Pakistani society through its characters’ experiences and lusts, breaking new ground in a nation where these types of stories are seldom conveyed on screen.

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