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Film Review: Joyland
by Marinell Haegelin

Saim Sadiq, Pakistan, USA 2022

Pakistani writer-director Saim Sadiq’s feature debut, JOYLAND, is as simple, and complex as any patriarchal joint family dwelling. Three generations of life-energy are squeezed into a boxy house in Lahore. Unemployed, Haider (Ali Junejo) is the Ranas’ ménage “househusband,” keeping everything happily on keel and underappreciated by older brother Saleem (Sohail Sameer) whose wife Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) awaits their fourth child’s birth. Conversely, much to father-in-law Amanullah’s (Salmaan Peerzada) chagrin, Haider’s wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) has a job she enjoys. Expectations are high Nucchi, inshallah (if God wills), will give birth to the long-awaited son to carry on the family name. Mumtaz and Haider may be childless—nieces often crawl into their bed at night—yet share a sweet love and trusting friendship.

Haider finally gets a backup-dancer job at Joyland amusement park's exotic theater-of-sorts. Biba (Alina Khan), ferociously competitive, performs bi-monthly; Haider’s immediately infatuated with the brash trans woman. Mumtaz delightedly tells the family, and considering his pay Aman grants permission; Nucchi cleverly reminds everyone she needs help, with Saleem adding pressure. The patriarch decisively overrules Mumtaz continuing to work, leaving the couple glum, silent. Biba, noticing Haider’s attentions, reciprocates and a romance-of-sorts starts that’s consequential for Haider. His naiveté makes him imprudent; Mumtaz’s more observant and intuitive than given credit for; unluckily, neighbor Fayyaz (Sania Saeed) gambles on Amanullah, as pervasive discord enters the household. None see what is in plain sight.

The cast deliver amazing performances of complex characters whose stringently prescribed cultural practices pit family members against one another, and smother open discourse. Haider’s virility is questioned, chauvinistic Saleem is championed by the weakling Amanullah—watch Peerzada’s perspicacious depiction. Consumed by rebellious feelings for Biba, Haider unfortunately overlooks Mumtaz; this wavering love thwarts her. Delicately seeking Nucchi’s assistance she’s ignored but, not forgotten. “Where there’s life there’s hope.”

The 75th Cannes Film Festival winner in the Un Certain Regard section, plus awarded the Queer Palm, the film was shortlisted for the 2023 Academy Awards. According to Saim Sadiq, “JOYLAND is de-romanticization of a coming-of-age tale and a homage to all the women, men, and trans people who pay the human cost of patriarchy.”