Joyland - Saim Sadiq
Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
by Shar Tan Featured Film

Joyland — Saim Sadiq [Sundance ’23 Review]

January 27, 2023

As the first Pakistani film to premiere at Cannes, Saim Sadiq’s Joyland — which also won the Un Certain Regard Jury prize and the Queer Palm in 2022 — is a historic directorial debut. Set in Lahore, Pakistan, Joyland is a gentle and sobering look at repressed desires. However, while Joyland is groundbreaking for what it represents for Pakistani cinema, the film’s disproportionate focus on a cisgender man’s anxieties undermines its promising premise.

In one of Joyland’s very first scenes, a woman’s water breaks. This is not Nucchi’s (Sarwat Gilani) first rodeo; she swiftly tells her other three daughters that they will be fed. She makes sure the spill on the floor is cleaned, before ordering her brother-in-law, Haider (Ali Junejo), to get his bike so they can go to the hospital. He is visibly flustered, and so she yells at him, once more, to get his bike. Only then does he listen. Throughout the commotion, Haider’s face is out of the camera’s line of sight, though Nucchi’s is in full view. With this, Sadiq makes it abundantly clear who runs the household. This opening reflects Joyland’s strongest moment, as it precisely delineates the patriarchal gender politics which govern families: Nucchi is more strong-willed than Haider, but is confined to her expected role as a mother of four. Her brilliance is unfairly hampered by a flustered man who doesn’t quite know what he wants in life.

Joyland would have made for a searing indictment of patriarchal cruelty if it had sustained the masterful concision displayed in its opening scene. Instead, Haider’s insecurities over his masculinity — he is unemployed and his wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), is the sole breadwinner — provide the filter through which audiences are made to view the women in his life, especially Mumtaz and Biba (Alina Khan), a trans dancer with whom he has an affair. When Haider lands a job as a backup dancer for Biba, Mumtaz is begrudgingly forced to give up her career as a make-up artist in order to take care of Haider’s father and Nucchi’s children. Just as she is pushed to the margins by her father-in-law, Sadiq’s script also diminishes Mumtaz’s role in the narrative in the film’s latter half; she’s reduced to only her palpable sadness over Haider’s lingering absences. By the final act, Mumtaz all but disappears entirely.

Perhaps what is more concerning is Joyland’s treatment of Biba, whose character is largely defined (and curtailed) by her love affair with Haider and the transphobic violence that she experiences in Pakistan. Joyland has little to say about trans womanhood that isn’t filtered through what Haider, as well as other men, think of Biba. Her character serves as an allegorical tale for the failures of cis-ness; Haider’s affair with Biba is less about his affection for her than it is about lashing out at his insufficiency at performing what is expected of him as a man. In what is ostensibly intended as a touching scene, Haider tells Biba: “Sometimes… I feel like I have nothing that’s my own. Everything feels borrowed or stolen from someone else.” These two lines would have been stunning had they been articulated by people who are on the receiving end of gender oppression. But in Joyland, it is Biba whom comforts Haider’s sorrow over having the freedom to leave the house while his wife bears the brunt of misogyny. While men like Haider do suffer the consequences of oppressive gender roles — and Sadiq brilliantly highlights the nuances of this — it’s the systemic misogyny toward women like Biba, Nucchi, and Mumtaz that sustains the patriarchy.

Part of the marvel of watching a film like Sean Baker’s Tangerine is seeing trans characters exist as who they are — neither Kitana Kiki Rodriguez’s Sin-Dee nor Mya Taylor’s Alexandra were used as metaphors for the precariousness of cis-gender norms or the ways in which cis-ness disappoints. In an ironically cruel fashion, it is Biba who barely has anything of her own in Sadiq’s film beyond her figurative duty to make Haider’s self-actualization meaningful. Even scenes of intimacy between Haider and Biba are heavy-handed in illustrating this; during their first kiss, the light in the room shines on Biba, while Haider is shrouded in darkness. In Joyland, Biba’s characterization only occurs when tenuously contrasted against Haider’s. As a result, Biba isn’t afforded the narrative heterogeneity that she rightfully deserves.

One of the most euphoric scenes in Joyland occurs when Nucchi and Mumtaz take some time off to go to Joyland, the titular amusement park. It’s a rare moment where the two women are free from the gendered expectations that suffocate their dreams and ambitions. Womanhood, for Nucchi and Mumtaz, is most tangible when they are together without their husbands. Their solidarity highlights the squandered potential of Sadiq’s script. One can’t help but wonder whether Biba’s character would be more fully realized had she been in community with other trans women or given a standalone arc — these wonderful scenes do happen, but they are few and far between, instead of being used to literalize a cisgender man’s journey toward enlightenment.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 4.