“Joyland” is the directorial debut of Saim Sadiq, a melancholy joyride through the life of Haider (Ali Junejo) in the city of Lahore, Pakistan. The film opens with a birth, where a woman’s water breaks and she asks Haider to take her to the hospital on a bike. This incident is a clear portrayal of how the woman, Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani), is accustomed to giving birth to children, as she has given birth to four girls already. Haider lives in a joint family with his wife, his elder brother, his father, his sister-in-law, and four nieces. The story is focused on Haider but also devotes time to the other characters, especially the women around him, and how the patriarchal structure works for all of them. In the household, Saleem (Haider’s elder brother) and Mumtaz (Haider’s wife) are the only ones who are employed and keep the household running. However, even their earnings are not sufficient, and the family struggles to fall in line with the traditions of the family.
In the opening sequence, Nucchi gives birth to a girl child to a family desperate for a boy and argues with the hospital, as pre-natal scans had promised a boy. On the other hand, in the house, Haider is asked by his father, the patriarch of the family, to sacrifice a goat but fails to do so, while his wife steps into his shoes. Mumtaz is a strong-willed, dedicated make-up artist who did not think twice before killing the goat, which her husband failed to do. Saim Sadiq sets the tone of the film with these two sequences and establishes the gender roles in the story for audiences, especially the female characters and their resilience. His masculinity is challenged when he is unable to slit the animal’s throat, and the disdain on his father’s face is clear from his failure to act. Haider also stayed at home, helped Nucchi, and played with his four nieces, which put a direct question on his masculinity as he is engaged within the four walls of the house, unlike his brother, who is earning for the family.
With the sequence, we get to understand that the masculinity of Haider is threatened by the patriarch of the family and that he has always been pushed to look for jobs by his father. When he lands a job as a background dancer for Biba (Alina Khan), a trans woman who is a dancer at an erotic theater, Haider is welcomed into the family as ‘the man’ once he lands the job, and Mumtaz is forced to cloister herself and take care of the household along with Nucchi. In this sequence, Mumtaz is the one whose independence is slit and who is asked to stay at home, which is a new world for her, like Haider. Haider is content with his role inside the four walls of the house and is a stranger to the outside world, and his venturing is also vulnerable; only the genders are opposite. The family, to be exact, the patriarch, seemed to be very enthusiastic about the new developments and content with the current scenario. We get to see a fierce, angry Mumtaz fighting for her job and her independence, but all goes in vain as her husband can now provide for her.
Throughout the course of the film, in regard to various incidents and activities, we see that Mumtaz’s life is getting stuck inside the household, and an uninvited pregnancy complicates her life even more. She is blessed with a boy, but she does not want to become a mother, which creates a small tension between her and Nucchi. The suffocation of upcoming motherhood ate Mumtaz up, and she had to make a final choice with which the Ranas were deprived of the boy child they’d been waiting so long for. The story is intricately built in relation to each character, and the portrayal of Saim Sadiq’s curated family, where there is nothing but the truth in each of their stories, makes the characters more alive than ever.
When Haider takes a job as a background dancer for a trans woman performing in erotica theater, his masculinity is again questioned, and this time by himself. Gradually, as the story unfolds, Haider grows close to Biba, who helps Haider rediscover the world. Biba symbolizes freedom, and Haider very soon finds himself in love with his boss, Biba. He focuses more on Biba than on the rehearsals, abandoning Mumtaz alone in the household and roaming the streets of Lahore with Biba. Haider watches closely as Biba instructs her dancers, how she tries little tricks to get her cut-out made, and her struggle to become a successful performer. Biba’s actions provided Haider with the courage that he had been lacking, and Haider felt comfortable in his masculinity when Biba was around. Their awkward relationship soon became a full-blown affair where Haider would ask Biba questions about her life, her choices, and her wishes, trying to get to know her. Joe Saade, the DoP of the film, captures the moments of Haider and Biba with nuances and extra close-ups with high contrast color on Biba’s face to heighten the emotions that both of them were feeling.
The dialogues between them were limited, and the muted facial expressions completed each scene. In one scene, when Biba confesses to Haider about her wishes to save money for gender affirming surgeries, Haider remains quiet, which is an affirmation of how little he knows about her and how much he wants to be a part of her life. But the affair also breaks off at a certain point because of the limited knowledge that Haider has about Biba; he does not know how to see her as a woman, and thus Haider is thrown out of the theater group and his job as he had disrespected Biba, which Biba did not anticipate would happen. Through Biba and Haider’s relationship, Sadiq tries to answer the questions of sexualities and bodies without being too blunt about it. Saim Sadiq’s beautiful depiction of Biba shows how people who identify with sexually marginalized identities continuously face discrimination and are considered non-existent by the Cishet people. Biba is the symbol of resilience, battle, freedom, and independence.
The story does not only focus on Haider, Mumtaz, and Biba but also sheds light on other characters like Nucchi, whose failure to give birth to a boy child is highlighted at the beginning of the film. Even though she seems to be jealous of how much money Mumtaz is allowed to earn while she is being denied her degree in interior design, she confides in Haider as her friend and confidante. When Haider gets the job, she becomes alone in the entire household, and in the process, Mumtaz has to give up her job to help out Nucchi with the household chores. The tension between the two wives of the family turns into a friendship, and the joyride takes us through the celebration of female friendship. In one sequence, Nucchi is seen to warn Mumtaz about Biba’s beauty and how she would dress more provocatively to have Haider’s attention over the new job, as the job was keeping him away from Mumtaz for the most part.
In one special sequence, where an elderly neighbor aunty is seen to stay back a night when the old patriarch wets himself in front of her, both of them are mortified as the house is empty, because of the societal rules on what the neighbors would say if they found them together. The next morning, only the neighbor aunty was denigrated by her sons and defiled her character by asking her to leave her own house. Such is the structure of patriarchy that does not leave old men and women alone, even when they are beyond the age of any wrongdoing. The man of the family is put down to questioning himself, and the echoes of embarrassment could be heard from every corner of the neighborhood. Saim Sadiq’s debut has a lot to offer. Some might argue that it is a heteronormative criticism of transgender people and the community, but every scene can be decoded as a reflection of what a patriarchal structure does to a household and the people living in it.