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Joyland (Film Review)

3 min read

Joyland’s title, while referring to a setting, is the definition of a misdirect as Saim Sadiq’s first feature film tackles tough, emotional material. But you may at least leave your screening with a feeling of joy for filmmaking: Sadiq has put his name on the map.

Joyland sets the scene at the start: we follow a family led by a patriarch, Rana (Salmaan Peerzada). He respects one of his sons, Saleem (Sohail Sameer), but looks down on his other, Haider (Ali Junejo). Why? Because Haider and his wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), haven’t yet conceived a child and Rana wants a grandson.

Suppose this wasn’t enough of a hurdle for Haider and Mumtaz to overcome. In that case, Haider is also confronted with an opportunity to explore his sexuality when he meets Biba (Alina Khan), a transgender dancer who hopes to capture the hearts of the audience during the intermission of shows at an erotic dance theater.

These two situations – heteronormative, patriarchal stability vs. open sexual exploration – come together, and Sadiq is brave in portraying both. We’re not asked to side with either Haider or Mumtaz. Sadiq wants us to understand what drives both and holds each of them back.

In Haider’s case, he’s unsure about what he feels. It’s not a clear identification, as proven during a subtly devastating sexual encounter. But that’s the point Sadiq wants to make. Haider lives in a society that normalizes man and woman together – can anyone of us blame Haider for not fully understanding sexuality?

Haider (Ali Junejo) falls for transgender dancer Biba (Alina Khan) in Joyland.

On the flip side, Mumtaz knows what she wants. She enjoys her job. She doesn’t want to have a child. But she’s forced into both through emphasis from Rana, which kills her enthusiasm for life. She’s put into invisible shackles by the patriarch of her husband’s family. Sadiq captures Mumtaz’s feelings of lust with a genuine feeling through his shot choice, but the men within the family treat it with shame.

Beyond this, Sadiq highlights Biba and the specific feelings of difference she experiences (the constant intrigue people have towards her genitals understandably puts her on edge). And even Rana is shown to feel tempted by the possibility of sex with a neighbour.

Juggling all of this, you’d think Sadiq would approach it big, like an epic melodrama that tackles all of these social dilemmas. But he doesn’t. His direction is Bressonian, focused on physical details – a touch, a kiss, a look. His writing (with Maggie Briggs) is intimate and non-expository, allowing us to feel scenes and encounters. It’s expertly crafted.

Now, Joyland does falter at the last run. I mentioned melodrama and was slightly disappointed to see Sadiq resort to a grand finish that shifts the weight of the delicate balance between characters that Sadiq masterfully manages.

But the journey is stunning. Joyland brings many important topics to light: the pressures of becoming a parent, sexuality, the persistence of the patriarchal perspective and more. If this is the beginning of a successful career for Sadiq, what a joyful start.