Brave and sensitive study of gender and sexuality in modern Pakistan
- Joyland review by PD
That a country like Pakistan could produce a film like Joyland is, in itself, pretty remarkable. The centre of the film’s story — of an unorthodox, extra-marital relationship between a married man and trans woman — unpredictably caused a huge stir in its country of origin, where conservative religious values hold sway and LGBTQ rights remain woefully backwards: the film ended up being banned by the government there, only to be unbanned (with some scenes censored) after voices as loud as Amnesty International and Malala Yousafzai spoke up.
From an 'objective' point of view, the film is a thoughtful, nuanced and sensitive story, and a deeply considered exploration of how modern ideas of gender and sexuality sit awkwardly in a rigidly traditional society that still expects marriages to be arranged and men to be breadwinners, women to be homemakers. It is, above anything else, a well - pitched character study, told with a formidable ensemble of actors, and a script that treats each role with respect and consideration. Most impressive by far is Alina Khan as Biba, depicted as a transgender woman with real agency and power, in a culture that can treat her like a second-class citizen. She is tough and sharp-tongued — we get brief glimpses of Lahore’s khwaja sira (“third gender”) community that supports and sustains her — but vulnerable and flawed, too. Khan is an amazing find: making her feature debut here (like many on the cast list), her screen presence is very powerful indeed, and means that we can easily see how Haider (Ali Junejo) soon falls under Biba’s spell. Under pressure from his father to meet certain societal expectations (get a job, provide a son), Haider accepts a gig at an erotic dance show, initially, it seems, just to prove he’s not a washout. He is a gentle soul and, it’s implied, somewhere on the gay spectrum — but his extra-marital affair with Biba is played out without sensationalism. He is tenderly protective of Biba, while also grappling with a sexual and romantic desire he doesn’t fully comprehend. In another, more 'soapy' film, Haider’s wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq, also very good, and another feature first-timer) might have been little more than a ‘wronged-woman’ caricature, but she gets layers to her, too: trapped by the patriarchal system that suffocates her own desires.
However, Mumtaz becomes the unexpected focus of the film’s final act, and therein lies the film's major problem, for it takes an unexpectedly tragic turn with the result that, after all the subtlety of what came before, the film’s conclusion is unduly melodramatic and thus of course significantly undermines its power. Nevertheless, a brave and impressive work.
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