Joyland is described rather sweetly on IMDb as an “impossible love story,” from its terse synopsis on the site the film would scan as a light, almost Shakespearean dramedy about the inconsequential and low-stakes blunders of a close-knit family. Never was a more misleading synopsis written. Really, Joyland lacerates and burns with its brutally sober look at the still-grim state of Pakistani gender politics, interrogating the hypocrisies of a stubborn status quo through turns of phrases as deceptively inconsequential as a lazily spinning fan during a heatwave, through characters so well-wrought and complex as to leave you aching with a heavy emptiness when the credits roll. With Joyland, director Saim Sadiq has achieved what every director must aim for with their debut feature: an unignorable, galling perfection of a movie that deals in matters of life and death.
The screenplay is based off of one of Sadiq’s short films, and it is co-written by Maggie Briggs. Joyland takes place in Lahore, Pakistan, and the film begins by positing Haider (Ali Junejo) as its protagonist — he is a young man living under his father’s roof, with his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), his older brother, his older brother’s wife and their three daughters. Dissatisfied by the three girls, Haider’s father, the patriarch, and his brother hope that his (the older brother’s) wife, who is pregnant, will have the family’s first grandson. Haider doesn’t work, he stays home and helps his sister-in-law with chores, in taking care of his nieces, and performs much of the work a woman of the house ought to perform. Mumtaz, meanwhile, works as a make-up artist and loves her job. Compared to an obviously effeminate Haider, Mumtaz is straightforward, headstrong, and practical. After much haranguing and humiliation from his father — a man must work, his father says — Haider lands a job as a back-up dancer for a trans burlesque dancer, Biba (Alina Khan). Haider lies to his family, telling them he manages the theater. His father, pleased, tells Mumtaz that she now has no reason to leave the house to work, that she can now stay at home to help her sister-in-law cook, clean, and take care of the children. Crestfallen, Mumtaz has no choice but to abide. The rest of the film follows Haider as he falls in love with Biba and neglects Mumtaz, whom we watch as she melts into the domestic landscape that swallowed her sister-in-law.
But Sadiq takes a surprising turn when it comes to Haider’s role as protagonist: the director periodically eschews Haider’s point of view and shows us life through Mumtaz’s eyes, even skipping over to Biba’s point of view a few times, and thereby deftly depicts not only how Haider’s treatment of the women affects them, but also the unique toll gender essentialist Pakistani society takes of women and trans women simply because they are women.
A stunning qurbani scene demonstrates the dynamic between Mumtaz and Haider, ultimately building up the heft of the hypocrisy that Sadiq wants to reveal. The family needs to have a goat slaughtered as sacrifice, in thanks for the family’s healthy new baby — Haider’s sister-in-law gave birth to a girl, much to everyone’s dismay. The butcher is running late, and Haider’s father asks him to slit the goat’s throat — according to Islamic doctrine, the action must be committed with a swift and steady hand, a sharp blade, so that the animal does not feel any pain. But Haider hesitates, he can’t bring himself to perform the act. Mumtaz sees that even if Haider were to bring the knife down, his hand wouldn’t be swift enough, so she takes the knife from him and does the deed.
Through simple and mundane scenes from Haider’s, Mumtaz’s, and Biba’s points of view, Sadiq develops a searing critique of the difficulty of being a man, but also its perks. Haider’s father and his older brother are constantly emasculating Haider, for being good with his nieces, for being too soft to slaughter an animal, for attributes that seem to be an integral part of him, in addition to berating him for not having a job. But the tone shifts as soon as he gets a job, as though they forget who he is. No one bats an eye when he comes home too late after staying out with Biba, for being absent from the home, from Mumtaz’s life. As long as he is fulfilling his duty as a man, that of earning money to support his wife and himself, he is in the clear. He accompanies Biba to one of her friend’s weddings during the day, apparently outside of work hours, and nobody in his home remarks upon his absence. He is allowed such agency and freedom that one senses that even if his father were to find out about the affair, he wouldn’t care too much. It’s eerie the amount of mobility Haider has once he is employed.
Haider is a good man, but he is a man nonetheless, Sadiq shows. Mumtaz, meanwhile, doesn’t even seem to have privacy within a bathroom, is always under scrutiny, never has a moment to herself as she did when she worked. The second of the two most affecting yet terrifying scenes in the film is when Mumtaz is in the bathroom and spies below her window a man masturbating to someone over the phone. Mumtaz likes sex, she is very attracted to her husband, but of course Haider has been distant ever since Biba. Turned on by the stranger’s masturbatory scene, perhaps the thrill of being a voyeur, Mumtaz starts rubbing up against the corner of the sink. Her brother-in-law walks into the washroom and stands behind her, not saying anything, simply waiting until she notices. Mumtaz is humiliated, and the next day the brother-in-law tells Haider he ought to be in better control of his wife, he ought to keep a closer eye on her, which Haider, of course, doesn’t care to do, obsessed as he is with Biba.
The other terrifying scene is one glimpsed through Biba’s eyes. She had initially given up dancing for men for money because a man shot one of her friends as they did the same at the film’s start. Forced by necessity, Biba takes up the work again, only to have a group of men force her at gunpoint to dance with a man she initially refuses. Both this scene and the scene with Mumtaz and her brother-in-law observing her are suffused with such intense danger, these men stand tall over these women whose existences they could destroy, literally in Biba’s case and figuratively/ideologically in Mumtaz’s case, if they wanted to. They explode through any boundary the women might have, assuming a right to take up space within their space. Mumtaz’s brother-in-law feels no sense of shame for watching Mumtaz, only ire at her behaving in a way counter to the austerity and docility a woman, in his view, should have. This is a danger to women’s personhood that Sadiq delicately shows us, a danger that lands upon us, the viewer, like a pall, heavy as to make you weep.
Haider is a good man, he doesn’t hurt Mumtaz, he doesn’t berate her in the way his brother hurls meanness at his wife after she gives birth to a girl instead of a boy. But Haider is a man nonetheless. When Biba tells him she is saving up for bottom surgery, Haider, albeit softly, says he wishes she wouldn’t. Biba is deeply offended by this, she explains to him that she is doing this for herself, for no one but herself. Haider apologizes but the damage has been done — we have seen that despite his gentleness, Haider still instilled that sense of ownership so many of the men around him have over women’s bodies.
Certainly the film can be seen as a family’s search for sexual freedom and expression, but this would be too optimistic a reading, it would ignore all the ways in which the film shows us how a man, simply by being a man and ticking the box of having a job, is allowed a world of freedom and mobility not accessible to women, regardless of how “well behaved” they are. Sadiq shows us that even if a man is an asshole to the women he is meant to love, he will suffer less than they suffer, suffer only their loss, while the women move through the world continuously thinking about how they might keep themselves alive, whether they might keep themselves alive. Sadiq has us consider so much through stunning cinematography (by Joe Saade), moving dialogue, and performances delivered by a jaw-droppingly skilled cast. Joyland is a perfect, challenging film, and I can’t wait to see what Sadiq, what each of the cast, will do next.
One of the most peaceful scenes in Joyland takes place at an amusement park, Joyland. Mumtaz and her sister-in-law are on a ferris wheel, they are high up in the night sky away from any children who need their attention, away from any man’s scrutinizing gaze. The women cling to each other in a thrilling fear of the moment, a fear of heights, but they’re laughing uncontrollably, like children. Watching this scene, I wished I could be with Mumtaz on that ferris wheel, that I could be in the starry black Lahore night sky with her hearing her ringing laughter. So free and so defiantly her own for a moment, Mumtaz laughs without interruption and for a moment doesn’t think about life in Haider’s family’s home.