'Joyland' Review: Pushing the envelope

Joyland marks a strong debut, not just for its director Saim Sadiq but for Pakistani cinema at large at the Cannes Film Festival

'Joyland' Review: Pushing the envelope

Namrata Joshi

A few scenes into Saim Sadiq’s debut feature film Joyland and I was struck by the intriguingly knotty gender dynamics. The universe here is that of fraught ties in the joint family of the Ranas in Lahore. It is headed by all controlling patriarch Rana Amanullah (Salmaan Peerzada) longing for a grandson to take his family lineage forward. The elder son Saleem (Sohail Sameer) is weighed down by a vague sense of honour. His wife Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) is pregnant for the fourth time, hoping for a son after three daughters.

The younger son Haider (Ali Junejo) is unemployed, helping his sister-in-law Nucchi in the housework—feeding kids, doing odd jobs in the kitchen, happy in the domesticity. A man in touch with his feminine side. What’s more, a fascinating camaraderie underlines his relationship with his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), who is the bread earner, working in a beauty salon. A while into their marriage, they still don’t have children of their own. There’s time to plan for that. Fayyaz (Sania Saeed) is the friendly neighbour and proxy family who adds to the skein of relationships with her vibrant presence.

It’s a site of curious contradictions where patriarchy is upheld consciously as well as getting challenged aslant every day, especially by the three wonderful women, smoking on the sly, gazing at men through binoculars, furtively expressing and fulfilling their forbidden desires and going up against their own ageist children who want to smother them into seclusion in the guise of taking care.

The veneer of the regular obscures a lot that is utterly wrongful.

The other world is that of mujras—the raunchy erotic dances that we also saw in Sadiq’s short Darling—where jealousies and rivalries thrive as does exploitation, both covert and barefaced. A world of lacerating brutality where a trans woman Biba (Alina Khan) is trying hard to create a space for herself, hiding her fragility behind the mask of aggression that she wears persistently.

What happens when these two distinct zones collide, when Haider joins Biba’s troupe as a background dancer but claims to his family that he is a theatre manager, when he is drawn to her frantically, irresistibly?

Sadiq’s filmmaking craft is founded on the power of the implicit. A lot is left deliberately unspoken about situations, characters, and relationships. But little details and gestures allude to a lot. Meaning and mood both build slowly over time. There’s something beautifully tacit in Haider bringing a huge cutout of Biba home. Or positioning himself between a woman and Biba when she complains about Biba boarding a ladies’ compartment in the metro.

Sadiq boldly goes into zones that conventional, commercial cinema doesn’t dare to tread. He captures the pulse of the joint family, its spaces and interpersonal interactions, the rooted humour as well as the illicit passions, the necessary transgressions, and consequent realignments. It’s a tangled, intricate mosaic that he fashions with deftness and grace, even while scooping out, questioning, and defying the entrenched hypocrisies.

Each character, irrespective of her or his length of stay on screen, is imbued with a rare completeness, and brought alive by meticulous, effortless performance by a virtuoso cast. It’s a film that might spring from Haider and Biba but truly belongs to Mumtaz. A free-spirited, gregarious woman with a heart and mind of her own, confronting the suffocation within the family by an act of rebellion that gives her final freedom but at a huge cost.

Joyland begins with a birth, a sense of hope and possibility but leaves one with a tremendous sense of loss. The circle of life is communicated with tenderness and poise by Sadiq that makes it doubly poignant.

Featured in the Un Certain Regard section, that platforms young talent, unusual styles, and non-traditional stories, it opened to a warm and wonderful response on its premiere screening at Salle Debussy on Monday and marks a strong debut, not just for Sadiq but for Pakistani cinema at large at the Cannes Film Festival.

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