Dispatch from Tromsø Film Fest: ‘Joyland’ and the Price of Liberation

Powered by his love of film, Rahul Desai braves the teeth-chattering Norwegian cold to write about all he’s watching at TIFF
Dispatch from Tromsø Film Fest: ‘Joyland’ and the Price of Liberation

Haider is the black sheep of a crowded Lahori family. He is young, meek, jobless and married to a breadwinning woman. His domineering old father (Salmaan Peerzada) sneers at his inability to provide and breed. His elder brother (Sohail Sameer) treats him like an errant child. Haider (a Riz Ahmed-esque Ali Junejo) spends his days playing with his nieces and ‘home-making’ with his tireless sister-in-law (the timeless Sarwat Gilani). Nobody respects him. He is both a victim and villain of patriarchy. 

When Haider finds work at an erotic dance theatre, he falls for Biba (a mercurial Alina Khan), the fiery trans woman leading the troupe. His kindness bowls her over. When he agrees to pick up her giant cutout on a bike, his face is buried between the legs of the cutout. Their love story blossoms behind the cloak of fairy lights and shadows. At long last, they feel seen – by each other, by themselves, by the democracy of desire. He struts around on stage; she steals flirty glances. They sweat and breathe in public, but kiss in private. The two disparate outcasts complete one another. 

This swirling romance in modern-day Pakistan might have been the rousing centerpiece of most movies. It features all the themes: Sexuality, social stigma, sensitivity, (be)longing, a transgender actress playing a transgender dancer, the crisis of identity, coming-of-age feelings. But Saim Sadiq’s Joyland (2022) — which has received much critical acclaim and is one of 12 titles competing for this festival’s Aurora Prize — is not most movies. Joyland goes beyond the striking joylands of storytelling to reveal the hidden wastelands of living. It’s about the tragedies sketched by the triumph of liberation. In fact, the film counts on our conditioning – it wants us to segregate the narrative into ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ threads. It is crafted to make us notice Haider and Biba, the strength and the sadness and the complexities of their love. In rooting for them, however, we mirror the broader prejudice that shapes the societies we occupy. We see them, they see each other – but everyone forgets to see Mumtaz (an unforgettable Rasti Farooq), Haider’s wife. All three of them are marginalised in their own ways. But the interconnectedness of South Asian society forces hierarchy even upon the downtrodden. As in life, it’s the desires of a man – no matter how subversive or cinematic – that steal the spotlight from the desires of a woman. 

As in life, it’s the desires of a man – no matter how subversive or cinematic – that steal the spotlight from the desires of a woman. 

Joyland opens with a moment that hints at this inherent invisibility. Haider is dressed as a ghost – a white sheet draped over his body – during a game of hide-and-seek with his little nieces. He pretends to look through them while slinking across rooms. His pregnant sister-in-law Nucchi’s water breaks in the kitchen, but she resists Haider’s attention – like a veteran who’s been through this routine several times before, but also like a woman immune to the curated care of the men in the house. The scene ends with the birth of yet another girl – for them to look past – in the family. This sets the stage for the rest of the film, which plays out almost as if Mumtaz’s track is fighting for relevance in a story that is destined to neglect her. 

The irony is cruel: Haider’s arc takes off when he gets a job as a background dancer, but it’s Mumtaz who is relegated to the background. She has to sacrifice her own job at the parlour and replace him as Nucchi’s domestic soldier. Haider’s scenes with Biba are lofty and sensual, their rhythm often punctured by Mumtaz’s silent grief. It feels like she’s jostling for narrative and emotional and sexual space in a film that has eyes for two other underdogs. Joyland is staged to make the viewer wonder why Mumtaz’s life is ‘interrupting’ the real picture. In doing so, it reflects our own culpability in a culture of skewed agency. Little by little, Mumtaz bleeds into the movie, striving to be seen by a partner who is distracted by his own awakening. 

Joyland is determined by its relationship with the audience. It is constructed to let Haider and Biba – a couple who expose our preconceived reading of love stories, as well as our liberal sense of entitlement about LGBTQ+ stories – hijack the film. We expect Biba to be not just a person but also a noble statement on trans rights. Yet, by normalising her individualism and ultimately treating her as one of three persecuted characters, the writing humanises her in a way no other story can. It does not look at her through the lens of pop-culture and porn, like the men in the film do. By design, the film’s more attractive scenes are reserved for the couple. Like a lovely moment in the metro, when Biba is judged for taking a seat reserved for women, until Haider ‘legitimises’ Biba by sitting next to her – and breaking into a coy smile. Or like their dance performance in a dark hall, illuminated by an idea that Haider steals from Mumtaz, whose corresponding scene at her parlour pales in visual comparison. Even when Mumtaz literally decides to take matters into her own hands, a beautifully lit scene of her masturbating is cut short by another member of the household. It’s like nothing she does can trump the novelty of the romance between a man and a trans woman. 

Dispatch from Tromsø Film Fest: ‘Joyland’ and the Price of Liberation
Cannes 2022: Pakistani Director Saim Sadiq On Showing Joyland To Local Audiences

This invisibility branches into all directions. It’s not just validation that Mumtaz seeks. There are times when she is even denied the courtesy of oppression. At one point, a frame opens with the implication that she is being punished for one of her “transgressions”. The shot is blocked to suggest that the family – headed by the toxic patriarch – is ashamed of her; she stands, head bowed, in front of them. But that’s not the case. It’s then revealed that this is not about her, but another woman sitting in their midst. All Mumtaz can do is watch quietly, and marvel at how nobody affords her the luxury of being defective either. Even the camera doesn’t examine her as she wants it to; she’s almost willing it to transcend its male gaze and European aesthetic, and film her trauma without decorating it. She succeeds only during a slow zoom-out towards the end in the toilet, in the film’s most haunting sequence. At another point, even the old man – an enabler of all that’s wrong with the home – is offered the dignity of a disability story. It’s like he, too, is robbing Mumtaz of the attention she deserves. 

The heart of Joyland, though, is rooted in the unsaid. Haider and Mumtaz have an arranged marriage in the purest sense of the term. She is the only one who understands him and accepts him, and he is the only one whom she can be a career-driven and childless woman with. They shield each other from the scrutiny of his family. In an early scene, his father forces him to “be a man” and butcher a goat in the yard. He struggles. She senses his weakness and does it herself. It’s the first time we see them together, and for a second, they look like siblings looking out for one another. It’s a scene brimming with platonic affection. Theirs is more of a friendship than a companionship; even the (rare) sex they have is more primal than romantic. In another film, they might have been queer characters in a lavender marriage. Equality is the bond that binds them. So when he finds love elsewhere, it’s not betrayal that Mumtaz feels so much as a sense of abandonment triggered by the violation of their unsaid agreement. She is left to fend for herself, in a new setting and an old system. They thrived on being alone together, but now she is alone and he is not. Where he finds joy is incidental to what he leaves behind.

At some level, it’s like watching one friend ditch another for ‘cooler’ company in school. And the other flays around, thrashing and waiting and hoping to reclaim a lost self. This dimension of 31-year-old Sadiq’s film echoes the central conflict of Close, 31-year-old Belgian director Lukas Dhont’s soul-crushing drama about two teenage best friends and the sudden rift between them. It’s fitting that Close, much like Joyland, is one of the international favourites to be shortlisted for an Oscar. The two movies come from specific cultures, but they are spiritual companion pieces, linked by a moving inspection of gender norms and its implicit casualties. Because the truth at the core of both is universal: Breaking is a subset of breaking free.

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