Joyland arrives in US theaters surrounded by significant buzz — the film was Pakistan’s nominee for the recent Academy Awards, it won two awards at Cannes in 2022, was briefly banned in Pakistan, and Malala Yousufzai is an Executive Producer who has defended the film against censorship. The film also features Alina Khan, a transwoman, in a lead role.

Set in Lahore, the film focuses on the Rana family—an invalid patriarch (Salman Peer), his two sons Saleem (Sohail Sameer) and Haider (Ali Junejo), the daughters-in-law Nucchi and Mumtaz (Sarwat Gilani and Rasti Farooq) and the family’s claustrophobic lives shaped by spoken and unspoken expectations about who works, who does housework, who has sex with whom, and who produces male heirs.

The film opens with Haider draped in a bedsheet playing with his young nieces when his sister-in-law goes into labor with her fourth child and he takes her to the hospital. Haider is unemployed and happily engages in caregiving for his father, his nieces, and does his share of cooking and cleaning. His wife, Mumtaz, is a make-up artist and brings in a portion of the family income. The patriarch who dominates the household from a wheelchair is unable to accept Haider’s domestic role and criticizes him for not being manly enough (he is unable to ritually slaughter a goat when the butcher fails to come).

Pushed into finding a job, Haider joins an erotic dance group as a back up dancer to Biba (Alina Khan), a transwoman. The dance show which takes place at a venue near Joyland, an amusement park, is seedy and has a mostly male audience. Haider is offered a good salary and the job brings him into a world different from that of his family. During the rehearsals, he falls in love with Biba and begins an affair with her. With Haider employed, the patriarch compels Mumtaz to quit her job and tells her to follow through with her obligation to bear a child, preferably a son. Mumtaz is profoundly unhappy with her changed role and a pregnancy does not improve her mental health. Mumtaz is also sexually unfulfilled and increasingly aware of her husband’s ambivalence about his sexuality and his struggles with living a compulsorily heterosexual life.

The film emphasizes Pakistani society’s repression of individual needs and desires. Biba stands out as one of the few people who flouts social expectations and lives authentically despite the sexual aggression she navigates everyday as an exotic dancer. Haider’s slow awakening to his desires and his struggles with compulsory heterosexuality are moving and Ali Junejo delivers a brilliant performance. Rasti Farooq as Mumtaz, the frustrated woman who has her autonomy and selfhood eroded by patriarchal expectations, is powerful. Sarwat Gilani as Nucchi, the older daughter-in-law, is radiant. She holds the family together and the scenes depicting Mumtaz and Nucchi’s friendship and playfulness stand out. Gilani steals the scene when she confronts the family at the end when they face a stunning crisis.

The film is brilliant in its featuring of an ensemble. Every character is carefully developed and the film evokes audience sympathy for each one of them including the patriarch. Sadiq plays with lights as a symbol — the bright lights of Joyland, the constant power failures, the dim interiors of homes — to evoke larger Pakistani society and locate the film as not just one family’s story.

American audiences might be surprised by how different transgender politics are in Pakistan — there is a long history of transgender presence in public life and a greater social acceptance of trans people. Pakistan also protected trans rights in 2018, and despite social acceptance and legal rights, violence against trans people continues. This film sheds light on the complex intersections of family, gender, sexuality, and individuality in Pakistani society and includes trans experiences in its narrative. The film should be on your watch list.

Joyland opens at SIFF Cinema Uptown on April 21, 2023.     

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