Joyland review: Desires run wild in Saim Sadiq's controversial, daring directorial debut that Pakistan wanted to ban

BySantanu Das
Jan 30, 2023 05:12 PM IST

HT at Sundance | Joyland review: Ali Junejo, Rasti Farooq, Alina Khan and Sarwat Gilani deliver terrific performances in Saim Sadiq's bitingly democratic study of desire.

The first component that strikes in Saim Sadiq's debut feature Joyland is the framing. Filmed in 4: 3 aspect ratio, the composition is key to situate the claustrophobia that exists at the heart of this Pakistani drama that was mired in controversy when it was initially banned in the country. Joyland, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, jostles for space and privacy in a deeply patriarchal society where taboo desires threaten to ruin the religious conservative norms, and sexuality exists in a hetero-normative prerogative. Yet curiosity tethers around the edges and desires run wild in this daring, humane drama. (Also read: Slow review: This raw, intimate study of asexuality resists easy resolution)

Ali Junejo and Alina Khan in a still from Joyland.
Ali Junejo and Alina Khan in a still from Joyland.

Joyland focuses on the Rana family, where the younger son Haider (Ali Junejo) substitutes as the caretaker of the house. His wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), a self-sufficient and confident woman, works at a local parlour. The elder son Kaleem (Sohail Sameer) is the one who is frustrated for his fourth child with wife Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) is again a daughter. They were expecting a boy. When his conservative father (Salmaan Peerzada) asks Haider what are his plans, he promptly says that Mumtaz wants more time. But the truth, which unravels from hereon, will tell a story he is not ready to confront.

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When Haider lands an employment through a friend, he lies to his family that its for a theatre manager. He dare not reveal that he is hired as a background dancer for a popular underground theatre act that is headlined by a fiery transgender woman named Biba (Alina Khan). Haider first meets her off-guard at the hospital, when she's soaked in blood. But here at the theatre, she's tough and no-nonsense, constantly making her presence felt in a room full of people, mostly consisting of men. Her confidence and courage shifts something in the shy and apologetic Haider, yet Sadiq fortunately doesn't use the presence of Biba only as an inspiration for a cis man to come to terms with his own sexuality.

Biba makes it clear that she's a woman in her own world first, and won't function as per the cis imagination. Even though Joyland is not Biba's film, her womanhood is never compromised. Alina Khan shines bright whenever she's on screen, and punctuates the film with a vibrant, ferocious energy. Her dance sequence, superbly choreographed by Gulshan Majeed and lensed by cinematographer Joe Saade, injects the film with unbridled verve.

As Haider and Biba come closer, the framework of the Rana family is drawn into focus. Joyland carefully unravels the withheld desires of the Rana family, which threatens to rupture the facade of modesty and predictability when ignited. As another pregnancy comes into focus, the conflicts arise out of the frustrations and resentments built over a lifetime spent in a strict, patriarchal household. Sadiq, who is also credited as a co-editor with Jasmin Tenucci, turn the focus swiftly to the constrained spaces and dynamics in the family. Joyland is that rare instance of a film that attempts to show how the coming-of-age story of a man inadvertently comes at the cost of the women in his life. There is no space for empty delusions or glorifications in Sadiq's screenplay- his gaze is bitingly democratic.

Joyland is enriched by a tableau of marvelous performances by its ensemble of actors. Ali Junejo is a wonder as Haider- he aces the inexplicable turmoil that takes hold of him with immense control. Sarwat Gilani is quite effective as Nucchi, and her scene with Mumtaz at the titular fairground is the heart of this unforgettable film. But Joyland ultimately belongs to Mumtaz- the embittered wife of a complicit man- who cannot run away and Rasti Farooq steals the show with a remarkably raw performance. Her line delivery of "Ab bhi nazar nhi aa rahi thi (Am I still invisible)?" in a later scene will haunt you for days. Joyland is a terrific, groundbreaking work that is not to be missed.

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