Debuting director Saim Sadiq made headlines with his inaugurating film “Joyland,” which won the Queer Palm Award and the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for its brilliant storytelling. A film about a family in Lahore where gender roles are strict, and the family’s honor matters more than individual choices, “Joyland” takes a deeper look into the nuances of characters that are neither black nor white but just people. Like the people you see on the street, Sadiq’s characters have several flaws, and they try to get by each day in a society that places responsibilities over desires. Here’s a closer look at the three major characters in this arthouse film.
The black sheep of the Rana family, Haider (Ali Junejo), is the younger son who has submitted to his father’s will from a young age. Unable to voice his opinion against his father, who had deigned to let him stay at their ancestral home when Haider was unemployed – something that’s almost as bad as committing a crime in the patriarchal society – he had to obey every wish of Rana Amanullah, no matter what his heart may want. Taking care of his elder brother Saleem’s daughters and helping his sister-in-law Nucchi cook food for the joint family, Haider was dependent on his wife Mumtaz, who worked as a beautician. It’s depicted rather early on that Haider is timid and servile by nature and lacks the heart to speak his mind. He’s constantly verbally emasculated by his father, who snarks at the fact that he hasn’t sired children yet or the fact that he can’t slaughter an innocent animal in cold blood. He enjoys the confident and bold nature of a transwoman named Biba, and in an immensely chivalrous gesture, he places himself between Biba and a rude woman who was chastising Biba for sitting in the women’s seat in a metro, earning her respect. He comes to terms with his sexual identity much later in life and learns that he’s attracted to Biba, and he chooses to ignore his wife—an action that greatly affects her—to begin an affair with Biba, but he’s not able to voice his opinions. He quickly rescinds into a mousy and nervous mess when she raises his voice at him and can only mumble a few words in return.
Haider was never “man enough,” according to the patriarchal society of Lahore, and he wanted to cling to a stronger pillar of support in an almost parasitic way. From clinging to the giant cutout of Biba while traveling on a scooter in the beginning to hiding his face in her back while she drove the scooter towards the end, Haider demonstrates his need to hold onto someone stronger than him, finally finding the answer in Biba. He even admits to her once that he feels he’s living a borrowed life because there’s nothing in the world he can call his own. Having miserably failed at being a husband, with his wife losing faith in him as he spends night after night with Biba, Haider slowly starts finding a voice. When Mrs. Fayyaz’s son chides his mother for spending the night at Amanullah’s house, Haider defends the old woman, and it’s the first time he voices an opinion, and it’s probably because of the influence of Biba, who shows him how to stand up to people. However, his latent homosexual urges are revealed during a passionate moment between him and Biba, and as Biba throws him out of her room, he can only grovel and beg for a chance to explain himself. It’s evident that Haider’s self-respect is so low that he allows himself to be treated with tremendous indignation. After being kicked out of Biba’s place, he doesn’t have the nerve to confess to his wife about his homosexual desires. Instead, all he can muster is that he doesn’t know what he wants to say before curling up in a ball and crying at her feet while she tolerates him disdainfully. When Mumtaz is heavily pregnant, he’s too inattentive to spot a bottle of strange liquid in her hand, which turns out to be the bleach she consumes to take her life and that of their unborn son. The last time Haider protests, and perhaps the loudest that we hear him, is when Saleem chastises the deceased Mumtaz moments after lowering her body to the ground. Haider throws things at his elder brother and shouts at him not to say another word about his dead wife, and he’s too late to realize that the most precious person in his life whom he ignored was his now-deceased wife. In a flashback, it’s shown that Haider had visited Mumtaz before they got married and asked for her consent, and proceeded with it only when she agreed, showing a rare understanding of consent in a male-dominated society.
The backbone of Haider’s two-person family inside the joint structure of the household, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) was the primary breadwinner with dreams in her eyes. Being bogged down by the gendered responsibilities expected of a woman in a male-dominated society was not something she had wanted, and she truly fought for the same until the entire family of her in-laws cornered her to stop doing what she loved. In being undaunted in voicing her opinion, having the confidence to protest when she was being wronged, and fixing ancient ventilators for her father-in-law, Mumtaz was the polar opposite of her insignificant husband. However, she was the only one who didn’t shame him or try to drag him down when he was unemployed and was again the only one who supported him when she learned about his real job—a backup dancer at an erotic theater. Mumtaz helped Haider every step of the way, lying for him, helping him hide the things that embarrassed him, and silently accepting the fact that her husband chose myriad excuses to avoid having conjugal relations with her.
The only time we truly see Mumtaz embracing happiness in the absence of the veil of courteousness that society expects women to adhere to is when she visits the titular Joyland in the town with her sister-in-law, Nucchi (Sarwat Ghilani), the only woman who truly loves and understands her. Amidst the screams of ecstatic happiness, Mumtaz briefly forgets the humbling reality that her life has now been limited to taking care of her wheelchair-bound father-in-law, cooking food for the massive family, and taking care of some rather excitable nieces. Upon learning that she’d have to bring the male heir to the family into the world, Mumtaz was terrified because she had never pictured herself as a mother, more so when she learned how much of a nuisance her sister-in-law’s daughters were. She watches from the sidelines as the black sheep of the family gets crowned as the favorite son for being able to sire a son and earn the respect of Amanullah. It’s perfectly clear to her that her role in this life shall be one of subservience and submission, and whatever hopes she had had of being a free woman again have now been completely crushed, thanks to the baby in her womb. However, Mumtaz never wanted to be chained down and treated as the prized horse while pregnant and the broodmare at other times amidst the chores of the house. Thus, she chooses to end her life to escape the asphyxiating environment. The unborn baby’s death, along with hers, can be seen as coincidental or deliberate on her part. It depends on whether she felt unable to handle one more day on this accursed earth or if she ever wanted to bring a child into this world. Mumtaz died with several regrets, but not following her heart when she could, would never be one of them.
In a society that’s especially unkind to transgender people, Biba (Alina Khan) survived hardships on every possible level. The intermediary dancer in an erotic theater between the sessions of the major attraction of the show, Biba faced discrimination from her rival Shabboo, financial difficulties, shunning from every walk of life, and the inability to find anyone who’d accept her because of her sexual identity. However, Biba was never going to lay down and accept defeat; had she been that easily beaten, she would not have survived this long. Despite the daily disrespect directed at her, Biba dusted herself off and faced the odds until she found Haider, who didn’t denigrate her as an object of ridicule but instead found comfort in her.
Biba started opening her heart to Haider and shared how terrified she remains after one of her friends was shot dead by a gangster in a fit of rage. We see her in extreme discomfort when a gangster forcibly embraces her at a sleazy club, but she’s helpless in the face of a gun, and the film holds a mirror up to the lack of value placed on the life of a transwoman. However, she doesn’t back down from getting in the face of Qaiser, another background dancer of the theater, because of his crass jokes about her sexuality, and she silences him with her unrestricted courage. Biba is homophobic, as is exposed by the way she treats Haider when he reveals his true self to her, and she proceeds to throw him out of her room and threatens never to have him return anywhere near her. Throughout the movie, she tries various ways to climb the ladder of establishing herself as a famous erotic dancer, and by the end, she manages to do the same, and immediately, she dons the same arrogance and vanity that she had chided Shabboo for. Biba does arrive at the funeral of Haider’s wife, Mumtaz, to quietly be there at his time of mourning, and this shows that she wasn’t a bad person, per se, just a helpless woman forced into a desperate situation.