Joyland (2022)

This ‘Un Certain Regard’ Jury Prize winner at Cannes Film Festival from Pakistan tackles boldly the theme of transgender love and its consequences when some ambitions and desires are proscribed in a patriarchal society

12/4/20235 min read

Ali Junejo and Alina khan in 'Joyland'
Ali Junejo and Alina khan in 'Joyland'

Urdu, Punjabi, 128 mins, 2022

Director: Saim Sadiq

Cast: Ali Junejo, Alina Khan, Rasti Farooq, Sohail Sameer, Sarwat Gilani, Salman Peerzada

Awards: Winner, Jury Prize, Un Certain Regard and Winner Queer Palm along with Nominee, Golden Camera and Uncertain Regard Award, Cannes Film Festival, 2022; Winner, Best International Film, Film Independent Spirit Awards, 2023; Winner Sutherland Award-Honorable mention, London Film Festival, 2022;Winner FIPRESCI Prize, Best Actor (Ali Junejo) and ‘Directors to Watch’, Palm Springs International Film Festival, 2023.

Haider (Ali Junejo) is perpetually unemployed and hence he is looking after kids, running errands and managing household with his elder brother Salim’s (Sohail Sameer) wife Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani). Hyder’s wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) works as a beautician at a local beauty parlour and loves her work. The head of this family is Amanullah Rana (Salman Peerzada), Saleem’s and Haider’s father who is on wheelchair so he too needs help at times.

After few days, Haider’s friend Qaiser offers him a job of a background dancer in erotic theatre. Erotic theatres are theatres which show erotic suggestive dances in Pakistan. The lead dancer of his group is Biba (Alina Khan), a transgender. On seeing her he remembers her seeing at the hospital few days back when he had accompanied Nucchi for her fourth delivery. Biba’s clothes were blood soaked and she seemed in shock. Assuming the resistance at home about the acceptability of the kind of job he was joining, he tells everybody that he is hired as a manager. Now as he has got the job, it is decreed by Amanullah, the patriarch of the family, that Mumtaz need not work since someone needs to help Nucchi at home with household chores. Mumtaz protests but it is ignored.

At work, Haider is in awe of Biba. He gets close to her. Biba places an order of her big standee to be displayed at the theatre. The standee is picked up by Haider at night, when Biba is in an event, but the standee cannot be placed in theatre because the premises are locked. So Haider has to get the standee home. He and Mumtaz hide it on terrace. Here Haider tells Mumtaz, his real profession. Mumtaz recognizes her as a transgender and encourages Haider to keep practicing the dance. Next day, an old lady Faiyyaz ( Sania Saeed) notices the standee and complains to Amanullah. Haider tells everybody that he is manager for Biba and hence the standee is here.

As days pass, Haider gets closer to Biba and Mumtaz is embroiled more in daily house-work. Once after a dance performance, Haider goes to Biba’s home where she discloses to Haider about her appearance at the hospital few days back. She reveals that the blood was of her transgender friend Tina who was shot by a man. She attempts kissing Haider but he retreats. They talk about sea and Haider admits that he has not even stepped out of Lahore. Biba asks him to earn, save money and go to Karachi to see the ocean. At home he is unable to sleep and on pretext of just going out for stroll he comes back to Biba’s house and they kiss passionately.

At another occasion, Nucchi and Mumtaz go to an amusement park called Joyland while Haider has a performance. Unfortunately, the power goes off and show is about to be cancelled. But Haider convinces everybody in audience and they perform the show in the light of audience’s mobile phone’s flashlight till electricity is restored. The show is a success and Haider comes much closer to Biba. That night Saleem catches Mumtaz masturbating outside bathroom when she is watching another man masturbating while he is chatting on phone. Next day, Saleem tacitly indicates Haider to look after Mumtaz and not to return late at nights.

After few days, Mumtaz is seen getting examined by a doctor and Nucchi is by her side. Doctor reveals that Mumtaz is pregnant with boy. Nucchi is happy and Mumtaz feigns her happiness. Outside she blurts out that she wants to run away but on seeing Nucchi’s reaction she dismisses her statement as a joke. At night Mumtaz packs her bag and goes to railway station but soon comes back home. That same night after performance, Biba and Haider kiss and want to have sex but when Haider lies down and turns over in receptive position, Biba is furious and throws him out of his house scolding him not to return even in theatre. He returns home and Mumtaz tells him that she is pregnant with a son. Haider cries profusely on her shoulders.

Soon, Family is celebrating 70th birthday of Amanullah and guests are called. Mumtaz plays with kids not paying attention to her pregnancy. Nucchi tells her to stop and relax. At night after the party, Mumtaz takes a bottle out from flush tank and drinks from it. Next day, we find out that Mumtaz is dead. Her suicide weighs heavy on Haider and Nucchi. After the body is buried, Haider takes his bag and goes out. He is later seen at a sea shore getting lashed in sea waves.

The film is heartwarming and sensitively portrays multiple layers of biases in patriarchal society and limited acceptance of trans genders in today’s Pakistan. All the cast is exemplary but Ali Junejo and Alina Khan’s performances must be called out for the sheer courage and amount of hard work they have put in. The film essentially is Biba and Haider’s love story with ensemble supporting the narrative. Alina had previously acted in ‘Darling’, a short film made by Siam Sadiq the director but Ali was new comer. In an interview and at Toronto film festival Siam disclosed that he had auditioned numerous actors but all would run away after reading script because of its scandalous nature as far as Pakistan is considered. No wonder then that the film was about to be banned in Pakistan even though the censor board had cleared it and release dates were finalized because a section thought it “glamourized trans genders”. After an uproar in social media and a letter by youngest Nobel peace prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who is also an executive producer of the film, a committee was formed which cleared the film for release with some erotic scenes censored. But still the film is banned in Punjab province of Pakistan.

About the director, Siam Sadiq

Born in 1991 in Lahore, Pakistan, Siam completed his schooling from St. Mary’s Academy in Rawalpindi. He later took admission in anthropology course and graduated with honours from Lahore University of Management sciences with B. Sc. (Bachelor of Sciences). For post-graduation he went to New York and completed Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting and Direction from Columbia University School of Arts, New York in 2019.

His first Short film was ‘Nice Talking to You’ which was very well received in festival circuit. It was in BAFTA shortlist for ‘Best Student Film’ and won Vimeo’s Best Director Award and Kodak Gold Award at Columbia University Film Festival, 2019. It was also an official selection in SXSW, 2019 and in Palm Springs International Film Festival, 2019.

His next Short film, ‘Darling’ in which he explored the world of trans dancers was actually his Film School thesis final film. The film was screened at Venice International Film Festival and incidentally became the first Pakistani film to be screened at Venice Film Fest. The film won Orizzonti Award for the ‘Best Short film’ at the film festival. His present film, ‘Joyland’ is an extension of Darling and main protagonist in both the films is played by the same transgender, Alina Khan as mentioned above.