Saim Sadiq’s joyride through an orthodox and hypocritical society turns out to be quite unlike any other discourse on the matter. Although it deals with widely recognized themes of patriarchy and gender fluidity, the film is imbued with a certain quality that prevents it from being reduced to a clash of ideologies. There are many pieces that fall into place perfectly in Sadiq’s coliseum and contribute to the poignancy of each and every scene. Taking a closer look at each of these strands might mean coming to terms with the entire range of emotions, including the unwarranted ones, that it might evoke.
The film opens with a woman going into labor and giving birth to her fourth child—another girl—to the great dismay of her husband and her father-in-law, who, relying on the sex determination reports, were expecting a boy. One realizes that, had the reports predicted a girl, they would probably have terminated the pregnancy. In another scene, a man is forced to take the life of a goat (to celebrate the birth of the child), as the butcher is late. But he is visibly distressed and is rescued by his wife, who does it on his behalf. Sadiq has incessantly questioned gender roles, and this is only the first instance of the same.
Thus, from the very beginning, the viewer finds himself neck-deep in these great dichotomies of existence. A celebration of birth with death, or underpinning masculinity with femininity, strikes an extremely fragile balance. Haider appears to be quite happy to play the role of a homemaker and help out his sister-in-law with her household chores while his wife works at a beauty parlor. But their dynamics are not received well by the rest of the family or the society. After he finds a job, his wife is expected to leave hers and stay at home, which she does, albeit with reluctance. It is also prominent that she is not as adept with household work as Haider and does not enjoy the company of her little nieces all the time. But the family seems to be satisfied with the new developments. A glaring yet subdued portrayal of familiar conflicts paves the way for a glint of the truth to which no argument can possibly lead: all these well-defined divisions only exist in our minds and are essentially the opposite sides of the same cosmic coin.
The beauty of the film lies in the intricate web of relationships that it depicts between each of the characters, who are all helpless and emasculated in front of a system of hard-set conventions and are striving to break free in their own obscure ways. Haider was aware of Mumtaz’s aspiration to be independent but felt powerless in front of his father’s notions of right and wrong. After years of being unemployed, it seemed unlikely that he would settle for odd jobs because of societal pressure. Perhaps, subconsciously he felt the need to go against the decorum, and hence he was intrigued by Biba, an outlier of society. Nucchi probably wished to stop having more children, but for a woman, expressing that would be considered a harrowing act of defiance.
Haider and Saleem’s father might appear to be the real culprit, as he seems to be playing a major role in holding the protocols in place. But, in reality, he is dependent on his sons and often not aware of all the proceedings of his household. His authority is often questioned by “well-wishing” neighbors who feel that it is their moral duty to bring to his notice any misstep by his sons or daughters-in-law. Old age has taken away his chances of a true friendship, and all his relationships are now either guided by fear or pity. When he wets himself in front of an elderly lady from the neighborhood, who had come to look after him because nobody else was at home, he is mortified. Funnily enough, this was a rare moment of vulnerability that might have led to an intimate friendship blossoming between the two. But, again, this intimacy was nipped in the bud by his notions of propriety.
While maneuvering this extensive handbook of rights and wrongs, Sadiq also manages to parallelly sustain an inquiry into sexuality. Haider and Biba’s relationship seems to be a trope for understanding the body, gender, and sexual orientations without aiming for classification or coming up with the right labels. These aspects of being are not just dealt with in isolation but are looked upon as an integral part of a society that is utterly keen on suppressing, or rather manipulating, their expression. And often, the expression is successfully manipulated, and the purity of the feeling is lost. Haider’s relationship with Biba ends because of his inability to recognize her as a female, which is what she wants, even when he is about to have sex with her. Haider’s confusion might have stemmed from the comments of his peers, who would often fantasize about what Biba might want in bed. And Biba was too keen on experiencing herself as a female and never understood that one way or the other did not matter to Haider, who liked her just the way she was.
Beyond themes and philosophies, “Joyland” concerns itself most with the subtleties of lived experience. One might wonder if a film so disquieting has been named “Joyland” sardonically. Mumtaz’s death comes as a jolt, and the dysfunctionality of the whole situation reveals itself in such a way that it can no longer be overlooked. Haider remembers his first meeting with Mumtaz when he had gone to ask her if she consented to the marriage, something that is a rare thing for a man to do in their society. In spite of being respectful of her independence, he failed to love her. When everything falls apart, one realizes that this all-pervading grief is a recurring motif in the film, only it is like the presence of someone so familiar that he or she becomes almost invisible. This grief is not personal; it is not self-pity. It only makes a man feel tremendously small, as one feels in front of the ocean.