“Ten…nine…eight,” counts Haider (Ali Junejo), draped in an oversized white bedsheet. Playing hide-and-seek with his three nieces, with the camera deliberately wary of his slow and sudden movements, Haider looks like a ghost.

This visual reference hits deep because, for a good portion of Joyland, for all intents and purposes, Haider is a ghost. A docile and compliant young man, his joblessness makes him all but invisible to his friends and family, until he has to do house chores.

He makes killer lentil curry, his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq, a brilliant find) tells him in the beginning of the film, and he is a caring uncle. But who is he inside?

The drapes Haider wears in the first shots of Joyland signify one of two interlinked core aspects of the story: Haider’s concealment of his true self and his craving for liberation.

A distinct, grounded tale of human frailty and fallibility, Saim Sadiq’s Joyland sees characters in search of an exit

Haider is happily married to a smart young woman, but cowers at the idea of questioning his place in the world. A chance encounter, which later turns into beguiling sexual attraction to a trans-woman (Alina Khan playing Biba), eventually strips away Haider’s societally enforced inhibitions.

Joyland, co-written, co-edited and directed by Saim Sadiq, however, digs deeper than that lone hullaballoo-evoking aspect. It does not play up Haider’s internal dilemmas for the sake of dramatisation, nor does it overly romanticise his brief fling with Biba — a character whose inclusion in the story doesn’t shake up the narrative as much as one expects.

Biba performs at an erotic theatre in Lahore, but her items aren’t really a hit. The crowd, who stay for the sexualised gyrations of one of the female artists, mass exit the hall when Biba’s performance starts… not that it dissuades her.

Biba fights, cajoles and sexually entices her way to what she wants. Unlike Haider, she is no pushover, and her objectives are clearer, because she knows how the world works.

Although we see it in the posters and the trailers, the taboo relationship between Haider and Biba is not the crux of Joyland, but it does serve its purpose in propelling the story forward.

For the most part, the film snaps one’s attention to socio-cultural phantoms that are bred and nurtured by antiquated customs and convictions.

Through Saim’s purposely narrowed field of view, we see the fallibilities of the patriarchal family system, the toxicity of roaring alpha-male masculinities, the suffocation of one’s independence, the festering of inner resentments, and the fear of invoking societal taboos.

Wedged between this catalogue of issues is Haider’s tale of self-realisation. Consequently, Haider’s story is also the lynchpin that holds together other tales of turmoil from his household.

Mumtaz, a skilled beautician, is forced to quit her job so that she can look after the household and conceive a child. But how could she, when one of Haider’s older brother’s daughters sleeps between her and her husband every night.

Mumtaz and Haider share a camaraderie of sorts in this constricting home. She has a worldly-wise perception of life, and is accepting of her husband’s choices (he eventually lands a job playing a background dancer behind Biba).

Mumtaz’s individuality and plight, however, is as invisible as Haider’s to the family. As the story shapes up, her subplot ties into Haider’s and we realise that, like her husband, she is literally and metaphorically trapped in a subjective, constricting world. Both are characters in search of an exit.

Their emotional states do not register to people like Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) who, despite her passive-aggressive proclivities and her friendship with Mumtaz, has embedded herself into the patriarchal system. Others, like Nucchi’s husband Saleem, Haider’s elder brother (Sohail Sameer, quite good in his brief screen time), can’t even fathom what these problems are — nor does he want to.

Saleem is the staunch alpha-male of the family whom audiences — including two key characters — will likely paint as a villain. In macro view of events, one realises that Saleem’s reactions stem from the sense of convictions that are passed on from his father Rana (Salmaan Peerzada, another excellent casting choice), the unyielding patriarch of the family, whose gruff exterior masks his own timidity.

Saim craftily paints no villains; he just draws circumstances, dispositions and reactions, and lets the audiences decide on how they personally want to perceive the characters. He also chooses to shy away from creating a narrative of empowerment for the trans community. One realises that his interest — and compulsion — lies in telling a story.

Saim is a skilled filmmaker with a firm grip on technicalities and their aesthetic implications.

Shooting in the square-ish 1.37:1 aspect ratio, he purposely boxes in the audience with his characters, preferring to shoot them in medium, medium-close and close shots. At times, he flips the camera 180-degrees, or mounts it on the shoulder, introducing micro-jitters in the frame to stress specific emotions he wants the audiences to feel.

His touch is naturalistic and openhearted, but there is also little doubt that the plot purposefully inclines towards issues that favour film festival runs for statement-making films.

Still, the assemblage of themes Saim opts to creatively ingest into the plot, and the ideas they manifest, suits this particular narrative well (it won’t work for other movies, and I shudder to think how less-intelligent filmmakers will exploit the thematic precedence he just championed).

Call it early prediction, but I can foresee why Joyland will win the Oscars this year. It checks all the boxes that help films get international recognition (the film has won the Jury and Queer Palms at the Cannes Film Festival, and is the official selection for the Oscars from Pakistan).

It is a distinct, grounded tale of human frailty and fallibility — one, that, as good as it is, is far from flawless.

Two turns of events late in the story could have easily been avoided, if the characters made simple and sensible decisions. On the other hand, despite the logical pitfalls of those scenarios, elimination of these events would have robbed Joyland of two of its best-performed scenes (Sania Saeed, one of the best actresses from Pakistan, commandeers one; the other belongs to Farooq).

Joyland does not promote activism but it does deserve its ‘A’-rated certificate from the three censor boards.

The cuts, mutes and blurs (the last two aspects, laughably unwarranted) do not expunge any aspect of the overarching, omnipresent narrative Saim’s film is irrefutably proposing.

Only extreme, extensive cut-downs by the censors would do that… but then it would not be the movie that runs in cinemas right now.

Distributed by Distribution Club, Joyland is playing in cinemas. The film has an A (Adult’s Only) certificate and features edited moments of intimacy between a man and a trans-woman

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 27th, 2022

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