‘Joyland’ Review: A Daring Queer Pakistani Drama About Desire

The first Pakistani film to premiere at Cannes, Saim Sadiq’s Un Certain Regard selection “Joyland” rides a fine line between sweet and foreboding right from its opening shot, in which an unseen adult man waltzes mischievously with his nieces while shrouded in a bedsheet. His life, and his liveliness, are carefully concealed; he exists as if between the worlds of the living and the dead.

This is Haider Rana (Ali Junejo), a soft-spoken husband to an outspoken wife. The film revolves around him and uses him as its magnifying glass to zero in on social rigidities — gender and sexuality in particular — and the quiet, often painful ways in which they manifest.

“Joyland” is, on one hand, a kind film. It paints even Haider’s quietest moments in bright, living colors. He and his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) — to whom he was betrothed before they met — have a playful, personable understanding of each other, and of his unconventional role as a homemaker while she works as makeup artist for Lahore’s economic upper crust. They live with Haider’s elderly father (Salmaan Peerzada) who, along with his gruff older son Saleem (Sohail Sameer), grumbles at the fact that Saleem’s wife Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) has only given birth to daughters. The stern patriarch hopes his younger son will pick up the slack, but despite the family’s invasive expectations, Haider and Mumtaz make the most of their marriage in delightfully friendly fashion.

“Joyland” is also a daring film, given its conservative cultural backdrop. Once a handful of interactions firmly establish what the Ranas expect of Haider — a job, and more importantly, a son — his life takes a turn when he ends up being cast as a background dancer for a popular underground theatre act led by a transgender woman, Biba (Alina Khan). Haider, however, tells his family that he’s a stage manager, and nothing more.

The first time he lays on Biba, it seems to awaken something within him, and the more time he spends around her, the more he becomes a version of himself he cannot be at home — and the more his domesticity, and respectability, are threatened in the process (“Joyland” pairs nicely with the masterful “Zindagi Tamasha” — or “Life is a Circus,” the banned Pakistani queer drama directed by one of this film’s producers, Sarmad Khoosat, in which dance leads similarly to a tale of social and masculine unraveling).

Biba soon becomes an all-consuming presence in Haider’s life, at one point in hilariously literal fashion, when he’s forced to bring home a ten-foot-tall cutout of her in an errand gone awry. His family is none too pleased. As much as “Joyland” treads dangerous ground, it doesn’t do so lightly, and it has no qualms about exploring how the tension between religious conservative norms and modern sexual freedom can often be awkward and absurd. Its story may be linear and simple, but it feels always on edge, always unpredictable, as if its most human moments could lead either to harrowing disaster or to unconstrained euphoria.

What further separates “Joyland” from many such films is the way it blends gentleness with desire. Its gaze, embodied by numerous point-of-view shots of bodies from afar, is undoubtedly voyeuristic, but these shots are edited not only as the result of looking, but of feeling. Their context isn’t just the sudden ignition of lust, but prior scenes which hinge on the depth and nuance of Junejo and Farooq’s performances as Haider and Mumtaz, characters whose every interaction paints a thousand words about who they are and what they want for themselves — sexually, socially, and in the space where the two overlap (a space seldom spoken about in most South Asian households).

Mumtaz’s dynamic with Nucchi is spirited and sisterly behind closed doors, but both women are forced to dull themselves whenever the family gathers. Haider’s relationship with Saleem, his taller, more muscular older brother, never reaches that level of comfort, and their interactions always hover around the question of Haider’s place in society, as man whose duty involves not only providing for his wife (and satisfying her, though Saleem dare not say so explicitly), but also bringing more men into the world. When scenes such as these are followed by moments of withheld sexual desire, each character’s gaze becomes a reflection of a kind of liberation just out of reach.

When Mumtaz watches an attractive neighbor through binoculars from her bathroom window, her arousal becomes tied not just to sexual fantasy, but to a fantasy version of herself, for whom the very notion of desire is permissible.

Biba is certainly the object of Haider’s desire, but she is also a force of nature in her own right, whose tale of success and self-sufficiency is forced into conflict with the way other people’s desires manifest. The desire of most male strangers around her is aggressive and ugly, so the gentleness of Haider’s gaze captures her own — even though, eventually, the complications arising from Haider’s confused sense of self end up grazing against her own sense of womanhood, in ways that slowly derail the front-facing façade of confidence she has so carefully erected. Haider may be kind, and he may even rescue Biba from daily indignities, but the shame drilled into him over a lifetime can’t help but radiate outwards in destructive fashion.

Khan, though she only really interacts with Junejo (and with Biba’s other background dancers), has an immediately commanding presence — when she walks into a room, she makes it hers. However, as Biba grows closer to Haider, inadvertently threatening what little footing he has left as a man in society’s eyes, a deep vulnerability begins to emerge, which Khan wields with precision. It is these sort of vulnerabilities, portrayed briefly but vividly by Junejo, Farooq, and Khan, that lay the groundwork for both comedic scenes and emotionally powerful ones, where the characters’ movements through space, while constrained, feel purposeful, like they’re always searching for something.

The film’s 4:3 aspect ratio forces them into each other’s orbits in carefully composed tableus, and forces them to exist not just as individuals — whose joys and suppressed sorrows define them in equal measure — but as parts of a larger, fragile social fabric that feels like it could snap at any moment.

The frame moves slowly, if at all, but it always brims with physical and emotional energy; in “Joyland,” there’s always something in the ether, whether embodied by dazzling displays of light as characters move across stages and club floors, or by breathtaking silences as they begin to figure each other out, and figure out themselves.

Grade: B+

“Joyland” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking US distribution.

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