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Normalising transgression: A review of Joyland.

Ostensibly centred around the affair of the married Haider with the transgender Biba, Joyland brims with moments of queerness. Director Saim Sadiq presents us with what seems to be a typical Pakistani family, which reveals itself to be the site of transgressive acts of desire and gender expression.

The husband-wife dyad of Haider (Ali Junejo) and Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) is played out in unconventional terms. The opening scene follows Haider, shrouded in a bedsheet, as he runs through the familial house playing with his young nieces. We then discover his casual and sporadic employment, that it is Mumtaz who plays the breadwinner while Haider supports his sister-in-law, Nucchi, in the running of the multigenerational household. The marriage is unconventional: sexless, yet platonic. It is only when Haider finds employment, restoring the normative marital structure, that things fall apart. Mumtaz is forced by the patriarch, Rana, (Salman Peerzada) to leave her job, and it is at Haider’s place of work, an erotic dance theatre, that his affair with Biba (Alina Khan) blossoms.

Yet, even in this restoration of surface-level patriarchal order, queerness persists. The domestic quasi-confinement of Mumtaz and Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) becomes a space for female homosocial relationships akin to that in Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996). A scene in which the pair visit a carnival together becomes a focal point of female intimacy, with Sadiq and Maggie Briggs’ masterful script interposing the women’s closeness with Nucchi’s cries for mercy as they are propelled forward and backward on a pirate ship ride.

Joyland has had a fraught journey to the silver screen. Despite a strong debut at Cannes last year, where the film was met with a standing ovation and awarded a Queer Palm, Joyland was marred by controversy in Pakistan. Perhaps unsurprisingly in a country with a troubled record on LGBTQ+ rights, the film was banned at first by censors in the state of Punjab. However, after appeals from figures across the country, including Malala Yousafzai, a recut version of the film was finally released in Pakistan.

Despite this turn of events, the film is profoundly Pakistani. The only definitively queer character is Biba, a ‘khawaja sira’, a term translated variously as ‘transgender’, ‘intersex’, or ‘third gender’. By centring a character from a community whose identity resists English definition, Sadiq presents an imaginative reality entirely divorced from Western constructions of gender, resisting the common claim that queer identities are outside impositions. Biba’s work as a ‘mujra’ dancer, a lasting vestige of Mughal courtly culture, loads the character with subcontinental ideals of femininity.

A sort of tragi-comedy, Joyland intersperses wry commentary on Desi family values and discrimination with moments of pure joy, and not-so-pure humour. Along the string of powerful, yet pearlescent scenes, come moments of unrestrained sadness: the rebuking of an old woman in search of new love, the emasculation of Haider as he fails to complete ‘qurbani’ (ritual sacrifice) on Bakr Eid, and the jealous yearning of Nucchi to, at last, bear a son.

The final shot sees the camera panning outwards from Haider’s still body as he wades in the waters of Karachi. Haider has escaped the inland chaos of Lahore and finds himself fulfilling a dream deferred: to see the sea. By the time the credits roll, he is almost invisible, for Joyland far outflanks him, and Mumtaz, and Biba for that matter.

Omnipresent and consistent is only the veil of patriarchy which obscures the genuine expression of each character – like the shrouded figure of Haider in the opening scene, like the loose-cut salwaar behind which Mumtaz hides, like the cardboard cut-out of Biba (in the film’s poster) which is precariously draped.

In Joyland, queerness becomes banal, and patriarchy is revealed to be futile. It is a must-watch.

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