'Joyland' — queer Pakistani film is transcendent

  • by Joshua Polanski
  • Tuesday May 9, 2023
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Alina Khan and Ali Junejo in 'Joyland'
Alina Khan and Ali Junejo in 'Joyland'

Saim Sadiq delivers a remarkable directorial debut in "Joyland," the first Pakistani film to premiere at Cannes Film Festival. In addition to its Cannes acclaim, Sadiq's film is the country's first-ever Oscar-shortlisted film in the international category and, according to The Guardian, "the first major Pakistani motion picture to feature a trans actor in a lead role."

Whether or not it's the first, I'm too ignorant to say for sure but it's undoubtedly the most prominent and impactful movie ever released centered on the Pakistani transgender community, who were enshrined with civil if not social rights in 2018. (See "Poshida: Hidden LGBT Pakistan" for a documentary on the community.)

Great as these accolades and token claims may be, "Joyland" (Khoosat Films) transcends mere representational interests. As a piece of cinematic art, even with a few mandatory cuts demanded by the Pakistani government, there's not a single frame where the camera is in the wrong place, nor is there a single moment where the streets and characters of Lahore don't feel alive. It might even be impeccable.

The Urdu and Punjabi-language film begins with the birth of a baby girl, continuing the perceived feminine-colored curse for the Rana family patriarch, Rana Amanullah (Salmaan Peerzada). His older son Saleem (Sohail Sameer) and daughter-in-law Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani), to their own regret, have failed to keep the patrilineal name alive with a boy of their own. Interesting as the dynamics of the family are, Saleem's younger brother Haider (Ali Junejo) is the heart of the film.

Haider has a complicated and somewhat cold yet still respectful relationship with Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), his wife. The problem — if that's even the right word — with their marriage has more to do with Amanullah's demand that Mumtaz stop working in order to care for the extended family once Haider finds a job at the local exotic dance theatre. At the theatre, Haider falls in love with Biba (Alina Khan), his transgender dance instructor and the star of the intermission show. Biba and "her boys" only perform at intermission of larger shows with more traditional, i.e. heteronormative, acts.

Despite the situation with Haider's marriage, "Joyland" avoids one very important trope in queer cinema: the destroyer. Too often in movies featuring queer romances, sexual awakenings and relational happiness come at the expense of heterosexual partners. In the most harmful iterations of the trope, queer romance destroys heterosexual marriages and partnerships.

With some clever maneuvering, Sadiq's film avoids all of this. Biba doesn't destroy anything at all; in fact, she somehow ends up clarifying precisely where Haider and Mumtaz's marriage ended up murky. If anything destroys relationships in "Joyland," it's the pre-established gender and sexual norms.

Shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, Joe Saade's cinematography pushes the subjects into the center of the frame and, in almost Bressonian fashion, skips out on medium shots almost entirely and instead shoots characters either in extremely intimate close-ups or alienating full-shots. The characters of Sadiq's Lahore can fall in or out of love with one another at any moment as a result.

Most noticeably, the physically intimate scenes between Haider and Biba are washed with either a beautiful and warm red or a sexy and dangerous neon-green lighting that directly illuminates the enchanted faces. The first such scene takes place in Biba's room, where she uses a green party light system as the primary source of light in her room. With green shapes projected onto their faces, the two faces never touch lips and it's still the steamiest kiss scene I've seen in 2022.

The relationship between Haider and Biba is certainly the film's primary attraction, but it wouldn't be the masterpiece it is without the film's other compelling, boundary-pushing, and occasionally devastating depictions of sexuality and gender performance.

Mumtaz, bored at home after being forced into domesticity while Haider works late nights, flirts with voyeurism and self-pleasure as a means of self-expression in a context in which such sexual taboos merit social death. Any sexual or gender dynamic beyond the ones normalized by society is strictly forbidden.

Even the aging and wheelchair-using patriarch, a widower and unable to care for himself while his children are out and about all night, ends up in a precarious situation with the elderly widowed neighbor who cares for him at night and upsets the Rana family honor in the eyes of the community. The widow and widower had no sexual intentions, but their very way of relating to each other is deemed suspect and dishonorable.

Regardless of intention, reason or passion, the Rana family can't help breaking the socially constructed gender and sexual norms. In Sadiq's Lahore, every kiss, act, or thought that breaks regulated gender performances is somehow revolutionary.

"Joyland" opens May 19 at the Roxie in San Francisco.


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