Reviewed for Film Factual by Abe Friedtanzer
Director: Saim Sadiq
Writer: Saim Sadiq, Maggie Briggs
Cast: Ali Junejo, Alina Khan, Rasti Farooq, Sarwat Gilani, Sohail Sameer, Salman Peerzada, and Sania Saeed
Screened at: Critics’ screener, LA, 11/23/22
Opens: November 18th, 2022
Controversy isn’t always a good obstacle for a film to encounter in the run-up to or following its release. Yet the reason for that controversy may in fact be something positive, or at the very least worthy of further examination. In the case of Joyland, Pakistan’s official Oscar submission for Best International Feature, the film has now been banned within that same country. The nature of that censorship is precisely why the film deserves to be seen, since it showcases a transgender character in a story that doesn’t conform to Pakistan’s nationality morality standards but which absolutely speaks to real people whose experiences aren’t supposed to exist.
Haider (Ali Junejo) lives at home with his entire family while his wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), goes to work. Pressured to get a job so that his wife no longer needs to be the provider for the family, Haider finds an unexpected opportunity that he initially turns down as a backup dancer for Biba (Alina Khan). Impressed by the salary but embarrassed by the association, Haider does tell his family that he has been hired at the erotic theater, but as the manager. As he spends more time away from his family and his wife, Haider builds an increasingly close relationship with Biba.
This film’s title makes reference to the theater rather than the state of affairs at Haider’s family home. He is a product of his society, someone who has been taught what is acceptable behavior and what few opinions are permissible to express. His father is the source of most of his misery, reminding him constantly that he is not making money and then only approving of his newfound work with the caveat that he shouldn’t go out of his way to tell neighbors what he does. Haider’s work with Biba by definition becomes a refuge, one that allows him to discover who he might be without the limitations of a repressive family dynamic.
This is the second screen credit for Khan, whose first performance came in a short film from this film’s director, Saim Sadiq, Darling. Khan has a remarkable presence and terrific chemistry with Junejo, and it’s wonderful to see her make the leap from short film to feature along with her director, Sadiq. After seven shorts, Sadiq’s first full-length film is an extremely impressive effort that splits its time between getting to know Haider and his home environment and the respite of Joyland and the magnetic figure at its center.
To presume that Joyland is an entirely happy movie would be overly optimistic and naïve. It’s particularly disappointing to see Haider overcome his own preconceptions and get close to Biba, sitting next to her on public transportation when someone tells her to move to the men’s section, only to later give in to childish inquisitions from his colleagues about her anatomy. Biba’s fierce reaction when she hears them talking is unforgettable, defining this film’s very purpose in existing, not content in simply giving voice to an underrepresented group but furious that anyone would seek to demean or invalidate them.
Opposite Khan, Junejo makes his film debut, delivering a compelling turn as someone bitterly haunted by conflict. It’s easy to feel sympathy for Haider but still very possible to be upset with him for the choices that he has made and how he is unable to be fully honest with most of the people closest to him. His relationship with Mumtaz is particularly intriguing, and Farooq also delivers a lived-in and thought-provoking performance. The unfortunate irony of the freedom that Haider feels with Biba is that his wife’s vision of an ideal life might not be that different from his own, but neither of them are able to create that within the confines of their reality. This film presents much to think about embedded within an involving story that functions very well as a straightforward family drama.
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+