Joyland is the powerful debut foreign feature from writer-director Saim Sadiq, exploring the complexities of love and desire in a patriarchal and deeply conservative society. The film premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize, the Queer Palm, and the Winner – Best International Film Award at the 2023 Film Independent Spirit Awards, solidifying its place as an essential and impactful film.
This remarkable story revolves around Haider (Ali Junejo), a gentle and timid man living in Lahore, Pakistan, with his wife, father, and brother’s family. Haider finds work as a backup dancer in a Bollywood-style burlesque and becomes infatuated with Biba, a strong-willed trans woman who performs in between the heavier-set females in the show. The unlikely partnership opens Haider’s eyes and ultimately his worldview, in ways both admirably unexpected and intimate.
Joyland candidly examines the conflicts within Haider’s family and his struggle to balance his responsibilities and desires with the expectations of his conservative family and society. The film’s title is a melancholy irony. It opens with a seemingly happy family living in an area that harbors an amusement park of the same name. However, secrets, pain, and internal conflicts lie within the surrounding houses and streets of this so-called joyous territory.
The film’s acting is superb, with standout performances from Rasti Farooq as Haider’s soft and instantly lovable wife Mumtaz, and Alina Khan as the ever-so-gorgeous, Biba. Farooq captures an enigmatic strength that slowly declines upon entering a path of emptiness and despair. At the same time, Khan exudes a magnetic and fiercely passionate will and drive that emboldens her purpose and existence. Both are painstakingly defined by similar challenges and heartache endured. This a brutal reality among women and those who identify as so that still face this modern day, yet long suffered oppression.
Sadiq’s direction takes a measured approach, allowing the audience to connect with a small cast of characters and to closely understand their, to all appearances, mundane and intentionally overlooked contentions. The film’s slow pacing allows for a deeper exploration of societal norms and the traditional family structure. Challenging the audience to question their own beliefs, moral practices, and comprehension of basic human rights and decency. Clearly poking holes at society’s regard for equitable rights, peaceful enjoyment, and the cherished (alleged) freedom to reflect that.
Joyland‘s narrative diffuses in the second hour as Haider is caught between wanting to please his father and being accepted for who he is while trying to comprehend where his thoughts and feelings lay with his newfound relationship with Biba. Leaving Mumtaz feeling more abandoned and alone than before. The camera clings to each character adding texture to the aura resonating from every emotion and condition conveyed.
Sadiq’s exquisite masterpiece pulls together a gothic ambiance while sublimely harmonizing a claustrophobic tone. Additionally, he richly unifies a visually pleasing color palette into every single scene. This film is undeniably relatable to men who are pressured to live up to “manly” expectations regarding personal choices of who to marry and where they belong in society. Furthermore, Sadiq magnificently integrates a raised platform of diverse women who rarely have a place to think, speak, or feel and allowed them to do exactly that.
The film makes perceptive use of space, with sexuality and desire being acceptable with an open heart and eye. All the while Haider’s multigenerational family home and society offer no privacy; intimacy is borderline taboo. Sadiq’s brilliant use of his artistry is mindful not to judge his characters as he opens a door to explore. He delicately unveils those dualities and the human cost of the morals they place on themselves. Shining an informative and influential spotlight on an unnecessarily secretive world that was never supposed to be discussed. Sadiq utilizes and wonderfully springboards into the cinematic universe where now more people can see, hear, and talk about it.
Joyand is a beautifully crafted film that challenges societal norms and explores the many sides of love and desire in a patriarchal and conservative society. The film’s superb acting and slow pacing allow a connection with the characters and to understand their stories. Although some scenes stretch beyond more times than they should, it allows for the story to flow smoothly, explore, and resonate with the conflicts laying within Haider’s family and community. Along with the emotional struggle to balance his desires with the expectations of his conservative society. Nevertheless, it’s a must-see film with a soul-touching story that conveys truth, highlights real-world dilemmas, and is judgment-free; making it a poignant and vital addition to the film industry.
Joyland is in NY theaters now, LA on April 21st with a larger rollout to follow.