Starring: Ali Junejo, Alina Khan, Rasti Farooq, Salmaan Peerzada
Director: Saim Sadiq
The publicity surrounding the release of Joyland has, like Rafiki several years ago, almost distracted from the film itself. After taking the Cannes Film Festival by storm, where it won the Queer Palm and Un Certain Regard Jury Prize, it went on to be banned in its native Pakistan. Its censorship was met by the viral #ReleaseJoyland campaign, which finally led to a Pakistani cinema-run – albeit with several scenes censored – in November of last year. And then it became Pakistan’s first short-listed movie at the Academy Awards. Now, finally, it is out on wide release in the UK too.
In Lahore, Haider (Junejo) lives in a large family home with his wife, Mumtaz (Farooq), children, father (Peerzada) and his brother’s family. He has been unemployed for two years, but when he begins to get creative with the avenues he explores for work, he finds himself with a job as a back-up dancer at the local erotic theatre. Without any training, experience or talent, he is taken under the wing of Biba (Khan), a trans dancer to whom he finds himself enamoured. But as he lies about his new life to his family, it is only a matter of time before they find out about his career and love affair.
The romance between Haider and Biba sits at the heart of the narrative and is why the film has received such attention in its home country. The slow blossoming of their relationship is measured, sensual and nuanced, and while Biba’s gender identity is a huge issue in the society around them, it’s not even acknowledged by Haider. There are plenty of heavy trans issues that rear their heads – abuse on the metro, public discussions of genitals, the murder of a friend – but the romantic element is perfectly simple; Haider and Biba love each other. The problems are everyone else’s.
However, this is Mumtaz’s film as much as Haider’s. Her storyline runs counterpoint, forced to give up her job once her husband starts work, she loses her independence, only to realise that she’s losing her husband too. The first act focuses on Haider, while the second shifts more toward Biba; but the final act fractures across the Mumtaz, who’s left to pick up the shards of her marriage. It would have been easy for Sadiq (who was also screenwriter) to focus entirely on the lovers, but this late reminder that we’re still watching infidelity makes the story all the richer, as the joy popping up in one place is causing only pain in another.
A slow but atmospheric film, the director does much to create a rich world for these characters to inhabit. It might not be a postcard for Lahore, but we do see much of it, with their lives captured in the streets, at the theatre and at nearby theme park, Joyland.
A tender story that feels like a novel in its minute detail, this is a film about self-discovery in a place where self-discovery can be dangerous. The Rana family is big, reticent and typical, so the rebirth of Haider within this makes for exceedingly compelling viewing. An arresting debut from Sadiq, this is a subtle, nuanced and rich drama that will live with you long after the credits roll.
UK Release: Out now on VOD and DVD, released by Studio Soho