Pakistani cinema made history last year when Joyland (2022), written and directed by Saim Sadiq, became the first Pakistani film to premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, receiving a standing ovation and international acclaim. During its festival circuit, Joyland received several prizes and was shortlisted for the Academy Awards but was banned in its home country. Despite previous clearances from federal and provincial censorship boards, distribution of the Punjabi-language film was halted by the Pakistani government last November as the film consisted of “highly objectionable material” including scenes of LGBTQ+ intimacy.
While Pakistan’s Federal Censor Board quickly reversed the nationwide ban three days later with “minor cuts” to the film’s more controversial scenes after immense criticism for censorship on social media, the Punjab Censor Board ultimately prohibited the film from being screened in the province of Punjab, where the film is set and filmed. Now, New Yorkers can watch the contested film at Manhattan’s Film Forum theater.
Joyland is told through the lens of bumbling and soft-natured black sheep Haider Rana, the second adult son to widowed, power-wielding patriarch Amanullah “Abba” Rana and younger brother to eldest son Saleem Rana. Haider and his wife Mumtaz live with Abba, Saleem, Saleem’s wife Nucchi, and their four young daughters in an apartment in Lahore, Pakistan, close to an amusement park. Nucchi had just given birth to her fourth daughter — a disappointment as they were expecting a son per the sonogram results. Amidst the shift in household energy after Abba did not get his first grandson, Haider, who was previously a house-husband while Mumtaz worked as a bridal makeup artist, found employment at a local erotic dance theater as a backup dancer for a self-confident and smart-mouthed transgender woman named Biba, played by Pakistani trans actress Alina Khan.
With Haider finally earning money for the family, his wife was ordered to leave her job and help Nucchi maintain the home, cook for the family of nine, and care for Abba who is in a wheelchair and losing more of his physical faculties. Cursed with two left feet, Haider, who can’t ever seem to do or say the right thing at the right time, fell for Biba almost instantly when she seduced him after asking to see a picture of his wife. In the meantime, Mumtaz, suffocated by the confinements of the patriarchal pecking order and claustrophobic with the constant demands from Nucchi and Saleem’s four girls, unraveled when she discovered she was pregnant with the family’s first grandson while Haider neglects their marriage for Biba’s attention.
Shot in a 1:1 aspect ratio, the film’s tight compositions emphasize the awkwardness and lack of privacy in a multi-family household embedded in a culture where everyone knows everything and there is a constant worry of “log kya kahenge,” both Punjabi and Hindi/Urdu for “What will people say?” This claustrophobia and anxiety permeate throughout the film as Haider lies that he is the theater manager and not a dancer, Mumtaz feigns excitement for her pregnancy, Nucchi hides her hurt feelings regarding the daughter-son mix-up, and Biba’s hardened shell of endurance fractures.
Joyland is a breakthrough film that holds the mirror up to Pakistan’s past, present, and future through an examination of womanhood and its expectations, for both trans and cis women, within the combined web of patriarchy and religion. And through its confrontation of womanhood is truth in how stringent gender roles impact men as well, a side effect that has yet to be unpacked across South Asia. Though Haider is the intentional vehicle through which we discover the layers beneath Biba and Mumtaz, we’re made privy to the fact that Haider was always on the fringe of the binary and felt like nothing belonged to him.
Rife with humorous moments, explorations of insecurities across gender and generation, and familiar family dynamics, Joyland challenges viewers to empathize with the oppressors as well as the oppressed, both of whom are victims of the system regardless of who holds the power. Sadiq gives us breathing room to process these emotions throughout the film in beautiful shots where subjects recede into the background, and objects spring to life in the foreground. Joyland screens at Film Forum through Thursday, May 4, and tickets can be purchased through the theater’s website.