Guilty, but Blameless:
The Suffocation of Joyland.
15th Sept 2023 . 6 min read
In a scene that gives no hints of the tragedy to come, we see a pivotal female character in Joyland displaying resourcefulness and kindness in equal measure.
Somewhere, a transformer goes off.
“Aap ne pareshaan nahi hona hai.” Mumtaz gently and confidently soothes the bride as the lights in the beauty parlor go off during a makeup session. You need not worry, she calms the woman, as she makes do with a dozen flashlights jumping out of her co-workers’ mobile phones. It creates a luminous halo of white light as she expertly handles the final touches.
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Saim Sadiq’s Joyland (2022) is a testament to the spectrum of storytelling that is bursting at its seams to break free. Cinema is most effective not when it paints grand narratives or achieves pre-conceived ends. It does its job when it lands gracefully with authenticity and doesn’t attempt to forcefully reconcile contradictions. Joyland doesn’t shy away from
the task - it is an ensemble film that is unafraid to deal with the intertwining of homophobia, misogyny and trans-abuse.
Anchored around the younger son (Haider) of the Rana household, the film is about an intergenerational middle-class family from Lahore. Haider lives with his wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), older brother Saleem (Sohail Sameer) and his wife Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani), all of who live under the resolute gaze of the family patriarch – the wheelchair-bound father who yearns for a grandson. When the unemployed Haider (Ali Junejo) finally lands a job as backdrop dancer at a local theatre that specializes in mujra shows, the erotic dance form prominent in Pakistan, he keeps it a secret. In the background, we see his wife sidelined and invisibilized as an unstable romance between Biba (the fiery trans-woman played by Alina Khan, who heads the dance troupe) and Haider gains momentum.
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Mumtaz’s sacrifices are expected and solicited. She ends up being coerced into leaving a job she enjoys, restoring the heteronormative familial balance of the universe, as her husband engages in an affair, and she is told to think about giving the family an heir.
The dynamic between the two, it is worth mentioning, is not just patriarchal; there is an uneven reciprocity that is less straightforward.
In a stunning scene early on in the film, a qurbani is taking place in the family courtyard. The butcher hasn’t arrived and it’s Haider that will have to slaughter the goat. Amanullah, the patriarch of the family, looks on with disapproval as Haider fumbles with the knife. Mumtaz deftly steps in and finishes
the ritual to put the animal, and her husband, out
In the metanarrative of the film, Haider returns little
of these favors his wife liberally bestows upon him.
His sexual awakening with Biba cannot be decoupled with the misery of the woman who loses her autonomy and husband at the same time. It bleeds into the film, and taints his journey of liberation.
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Biba, who belongs to the Khwaja Sira community, navigates the world of desire through her own precarious position. Abiding by her stoicism to veil the pain of societal ostracization of the third-gender, she takes care not to wallow too long in her sorrows – she simply doesn’t have the time for it. Still, we don’t miss her hands shaking as she lights a cigarette while pleading with the owner of the theatre company for a confirmation of her next gig. This self-imposed emotional reticence can be found in Mumtaz too. Before deciding it was all too much to bear, she continues her silent suffering, stuck in an indecisive limbo - gradually becoming a shadow of her past self. Haider is not cruel, but he isn’t kind either, to himself or to others. He doesn’t try to negotiate for his wife to keep her job, doesn’t know how to take the lead when his pregnant sister-in-law’s water breaks, doesn’t know how to stand up to his own humiliation at the hands of his father and elder brother. We see this when he presumptuously voices his opinion on Biba’s decision to go ahead with her gender-affirming surgery. We witness his complete absentmindedness when his wife is holding a bottle of poison and sitting right next to him with a vacant stare. Haider isn’t a bad guy – the problem is that neither is he a good one. He is an unskilled adult, perpetually confused and uncomfortable in his own skin, always quiet when the moment demands him to use his voice. His inability to be himself – that is his undoing, and of those closest to him.
This is felt most intensely in the crumbling of Mumtaz’s character. Her strong-willed nature dissolves under the absurdity
of half-understandings and the reality of conditional love. The elevation of her husband’s reputation upon the news of them expecting a son, her lack of agency in the matter, his passive attitude - none of this is lost on her. The film studies the effect of sustained trauma on interpersonal relations, and how oppression is no gateway to an enlightened worldview. Through close reading, we can see that Haider’s attraction to Biba is tied with his desire to experience anal intercourse, where his self-discovery takes precedence over establishing a mutually healthy sexual dynamic. While there is no clear signaling
on his sexuality, his muddled self-understanding inadvertently makes Biba an instrument of experimentation in their relationship. His repeated attempts at anal sex, despite Biba’s clear resistance, lead him to being thrown out of her room
as she yells a homophobic slur common to the subcontinent. Gandu. Faggot.
Joyland provides a layered narrative that avoids the staleness of all-too-explicit messaging often found in progressive cinema, but weaves a story that is contextually grounded and does not spoon-feed its audience. It does the much-needed job of telling us that we are not learning any noble lessons by denying ourselves and making endless sacrifices to keep an arbitrary sense of “propriety” intact. Instead, we turn inwards, giving into narcissism built out of self-loathing.
The characters in Joyland explicitly yell out to us: the cost of giving up on yourself is not a small one to pay.
Queer representation in South Asian cinema has a shameful history. Just a couple of decades ago, using queer and
trans characters to serve as comedic relief material was the norm. Who can forget the apoplectic Kantaben in Kal Ho Na Ho (2003), who starts shaking like a leaf whenever she walks into a room to find Aman and Rohit alone, muttering prayers, wholly ready to pass out? Inducing humor through homophobia has long served as a stale playbook. Nuanced portrayals have started making their mark only recently, with films such as Margarita with a Straw (2014) and Aligarh (2016) doing away with exaggerated flamboyance and other tropes around queerphobic portrayals.
Certainly not the first to do so – but films like Joyland have humanized fluid identity-making in queer characters, and brought them back to earth. This means showing a character in all their hues, the light and the dark, the admirable and
the despicable. Cinema has come full circle when it doesn’t demonize or glorify, but portrays people as they are – just people. In Joyland, you’ll find them as messy as they come; no neat categories and no heavy sermons. Just people trying
to live in unlivable conditions.
Yusra Khan is a writer and digital policy enthusiast based between Lucknow and Delhi. Her interests are versatile, but she is particularly fascinated by the intersection of politics, labour and technology studies.
Currently, she works at Nvidia as a prompt-writing specialist, bringing human creativity to AI-generated outputs. A film addict since childhood, she is rumored to have rewatched Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na over sixty eight times till date, and doesn't plan to stop.