The 2022 arthouse film “Joyland” by Pakistani director Saim Sadiq serves as a crucial piece of art that presents the other side of the Islamic country—the lives of the ones who remain unseen. Debutant director Sadiq tells the tale of a middle-class house where each member has certain desires, ones that are seldom fulfilled by the suffocating girdles of society. The film throws critical light on the sections of society that are deliberately ignored because it goes against what is treated as ‘normal’ in society. “Joyland” is the story of a Lahore-based family with the patriarch Rana Amanullah at its head and how each person’s desires are expressed differently. With multiple characters and a few sub-stories, here are the several themes that the movie explores.
A patriarchal society like Pakistan, which follows a state-imposed religion, has some preordained roles for the common people, where the activities are predetermined based on one’s gender. Saim Sadiq’s film “Joyland” makes a mockery of the patriarchal mentality where a man earns the respect of his father and the adulation of his neighbors when he has a job and is the father to a male child. However, Haider, the younger son of a middle-class family in Lahore, is unemployed and does house chores like cooking and supervising his elder brother Saleem’s daughters. Haider’s wife, Mumtaz, works as a beautician in a salon, and she loves the independence that the job brings her. This earns her the ire of the family’s patriarch, Rana Amanullah, sedentary father of Haider and Saleem. With the responsibilities that are expected of a woman in a regressive society being enforced on Haider, he starts losing whatever masculinity he can muster and keeps shriveling in because of his inability to fulfill any of the duties as a man. Mumtaz takes the lead in every activity, be it bringing in the cash to afford some electronic affluence for the house or being the pillar that her husband leans his head on.
However, the hierarchy of the family is reversed when Haider finds a job as a backup dancer in a local theater specializing in erotic dances under Biba, a transgender woman. Although Haider is deeply embarrassed to admit the job he has found and claims to be a theater manager, this spells the end of independence shutting on Mumtaz forever. The desires that Mumtaz had aspired to of not being encumbered by the responsibilities that she’s expected to fulfill are crushed systematically, starting with her being forced to take up the job of a housewife and later realizing that she’s pregnant. While Haider claims the spot as the favorite son, thanks to his job (no matter how seedy) and his ability to father a male child, Mumtaz watches herself get sidelined and reduced to a vessel responsible for bringing in the heir to the Rana family—thereby fulfilling the gender role that she wanted to escape.
One of the primary themes of “Joyland” is the expression of unbridled desire in the human soul, but the only time the women of the Rana household get to express their excitement and pleasure is when they visit the joy land in their locality. For a brief moment in their lives, the two women can scream in ecstatic joy as the ride swings to enormous heights, and they can remove the mask of the polite and docile housewives that society wants them to wear till they turn gray and die. All other expressions of desire have been either under the hush-hush, away from the prying eyes of people, or in the darkness of the night, to protect the flimsy façade of honor that the society so rigidly wants to uphold. Incidentally, an elderly woman named Fayyaz, who enjoyed the company of Amanullah and spent the night in their place, is shamed by her own son because she has incurred the shame of society. A widowed woman’s desire to find happiness when her hair is grey and she’s not much use to anybody in the society is chastised because society frowns at a woman having wishes.
The most glaring example of desire superseding societal norms is Haider, who finds himself attracted to the transgender woman Biba and can’t help but gravitate toward the woman he dances behind in the theater. Despite Mumtaz’s affection for him and her wishes to be conjugal, Haider finds solace in the arms of Biba, but his extremely submissive nature ruins the passionate moment between them. The awakening of Haider’s desires is perceived as perverse by Biba, who cannot wrap her head around the homosexual urges that he has repressed for the majority of his life. Haider is reduced to sub-human standards because of the mentality of society, and the movie manages to throw light on how homosexuality is viewed as delinquency in a society that considers the phallus as the instrument of reproduction.
Mumtaz’s primary identity as the daughter-in-law of the Rana family is something she didn’t wish for even before being married, and her ambitions soared higher than her sister-in-law Nucchi could dream of. Being the primary breadwinner for Haider and herself filled her with pride until her desires to soar were bludgeoned. Starved of physical affection from a husband who found comfort curling up with a transgender woman, Mumtaz chose to quench her desires through voyeurism, but those means were also shut down when Saleem walked in on her actions. The only way she can find an escape from the shackles that chain her desires down is by drinking bleach, and she even manages to rob the men of the family of the satisfaction that their family line would be continued with a male heir. Instead of submitting to a secondary citizen’s status inside the household, Mumtaz escaped the bondages that men like Amanullah and Saleem would force upon her. However, despite all his flaws, Haider managed to fulfill a desire that Mumtaz left unfulfilled when he visited the ocean for both of them and waded through the rocky terrain as the waves washed over him.
The desires can also go beyond the needs of physical intimacy, as Biba bears witness. Her desires were to climb the ranks of the social strata, especially by overthrowing her competitor Shabboo and barging through the hateful male gaze. Biba begins as an interval act, with people choosing to wait outside rather than see her perform. She has to submit to the pressures of violent men, but Haider’s loving embrace brings her a moment’s peace. However, the uncouth comments of her colleagues and Haider’s inability to fathom her desires lead her to cast aside those whom she considers weaker men. Biba rises to superstardom by the end of the film, becoming the lead actor of the theater and commanding a position of power, proving that desires can be societal in nature as well.
A Voice Of Protest
The entire film is one big protest against the regressive and backward mentality that wants to stamp out every unique voice by using religious sacraments as a hackneyed excuse. “Joyland” had to fight through extreme censorship to allow the film for public viewing and managed to win awards at the Cannes Film Festival. The protest begins with Mumtaz’s refusal to quit her job and accept the domestic responsibilities of a housewife, but she’s coerced into submission by the other members, her husband included. She complains about the shackles that the male members of her family force upon her, but her complaints are snuffed out because women are expected to adjust to the dynamics of a family. When her subtle attempts to foil her pregnancy fail, she engages in a game of tag with Nucchi’s daughter in what’s probably the most palpitating moment of the film—watching her run around with children, fully aware that one misplaced knock can kill the unborn child. As it turns out, this had been her protest all along, but nobody listened until she protested the loudest she could, with her life. The absence of her being is felt throughout the corridors of the house, and it’s the tragic reality that women’s voices remain unheard until they take their own lives in order to make themselves heard. However, the laughable irony in her death is that Mumtaz’s body is barely in the ground when her name is besmirched for killing the unborn son.
Nucchi, perhaps the only person who stood by Mumtaz’s side ever since the latter had to resign to housework, is the one who finally lashes out at the men of the family, witch-hunting her sister-in-law. From pleading with her to stay back when Mumtaz wanted to run away to being the only one speaking her piece, Nucchi protests against the dominant male voice that she herself had submitted to years ago. The traditional housewife, who had wilfully accepted her role as the vessel for continuing to give birth until she bore Saleem a son, screams at her husband when he complains that Mumtaz took away their family’s male heir. The blindfold of subservience that patriarchy had put over Nucchi’s eyes is stripped off to find the woman’s body with whom she had truly lived and found happiness.
Biba serves as the mouthpiece of every transgender woman in a country where they’re persecuted for their gender identity and treated with a tremendous lack of respect. The years of hatred that had accumulated in her for the injustice she had faced because of her sexual identity explode like the first bullet from the barrel of a gun when the men in her theater bully Haider because of his intimacy with Biba. She corners Qaiser, the loudest and brashest of the lot, and emasculates him with her words before spitting on his face and leaving. The vehement disgust at transphobic men like Qaiser is the protest of every transwoman, with “Joyland” serving as the platform to deliver.