A 10ft-tall cutout of a woman in a bright orange sharara, balanced on a scooter, coasting down a Lahore flyover. A glittering dance performance in the dark, illuminated by cellphone flashlights. A kiss between a couple in a dimly lit room as neon green lasers dance across their faces. Two women shrieking with laughter atop a Ferris wheel on a sweaty night.
Saim Sadiq’s spectacular debut feature, Joyland, pulsates with visual imagery that imprints on the mind. Equally, though, it’s filled with characters that burrow into the heart. It’s hard to provide a succinct overview of what the film—fresh off a festival run, with stops at Cannes and Toronto—is really about. On the surface, it’s about Haider, a stay-at-home husband in a Lahore joint family who begrudgingly takes on a job as a backup dancer in an erotic dance troupe led by a trans woman named Biba and starts to fall in love with her. In the hands of a lesser film-maker, the story might have begun and ended there—a romance between a cisgender man and a transgender woman with all the predictable rhythms: secret identities revealed, existential crises of sexuality faced, and fears of societal rejection addressed.
But Sadiq, a 31-year-old Pakistani director, isn’t content with scratching the surface. He takes that premise and stretches it, examining it from all angles, adding new layers, bringing in more perspectives. The result is a staggering interpersonal tale about desire, identity and gender normativity where no one’s actions or impulses exist in a vacuum. When Haider is coerced by his patriarchal family to get a job, it’s his wife Mumtaz who must pay the price, giving up a job she loves to look after the home. And as Haider’s understanding of his sexuality begins to shift, how can that not have an impact on Biba? Sadiq doesn’t value one subjective experience over the other; to him, they are all equally valid, so he offers us a window into them all, adding even more richness and complexity to the story as it unfolds.
Joyland will be touted foremost as a queer romance (and it did win the Queer Palm at Cannes this year) but at its core this is a film about understanding one’s sense of self. From three unique vantage points, we see people trying to figure out who they are on a fundamental level, who they are allowed to be in a society with rigid ideas about masculinity, domesticity and gender identity, and the toll a chasm between these two versions can wreak. Sadiq balances the gravity of these big, existential questions with a tenderness and a biting sense of humour.
Edited excerpts from a phone conversation with Sadiq in Karachi, Pakistan, after his film’s rapturous premiere at Toronto:
Your 2019 short film, ‘Darling’, was the jumping off point for ‘Joyland’. Where did the idea first come from?
I was toying with ideas of sexuality and gender and sacrifice, and where you draw the line between ambition and sacrificing too much of yourself to become something. Those were themes that interested me and the setting of the theatre was something that I was very fascinated with…. There was a trans woman, an older lady in her 50s, who told me a story of when she was young dancer and there was a boy who fell in love with her but didn’t know she was a trans girl. It sparked a germ in me at that point in time. I knew I didn’t want it to be a secret that she’s a trans girl, I didn’t want there to be a big reveal. I kind of wanted to do the opposite of it. So it was a real story that I heard and I was looking to write a romance—I knew that I had a romance in me—and those two parts came together.
Alina is the only ‘Joyland’ actor who appears in ‘Darling’—not as the fiery Biba from the feature but still a trans woman trying to make it as a dancer. How did you adapt the short into a feature?
I knew the feature was not about Biba entirely. I always knew she would be the second- or third-most important character. It’s kind of a two-way between her and Mumtaz. They are both very important, one is propelling the story forward but the other turns out to be the heart of the film. And I knew the main protagonist was the guy. Just like the guy in the short, there was something far more complex happening with him...a man who questions why he loves who he loves and what it says about him and does it say something about him or not? That area of confusion really informed Haider.
As characters, Mumtaz and Biba were always with me. I knew that in the short I did not want to put Biba in. A character like Biba almost seems meant for a bigger screen, she needs time and space to do her thing and for us to fall in love with her and get to know her. She’s not easily likeable, which is something I like. She’s not a sweet girl. To show that without judging her required a feature film.
Though the central romance is the catalyst for events, this is not a love story. Why did you zoom out from just the two of them?
I didn’t want it to be just about Haider and Biba because I thought it would be a bit boring. I didn’t think it would be a holistic picture because it doesn’t feel correct that for a guy who comes from a joint family system, that he would be having this affair and the big thing is only that it’s a secret. It is going to affect his family in some way, there’s no way that in our world things don’t affect our family because they are so up in our business all the time.
The film wrestles with many themes and ideas, so much more than you might think. What are some of the themes you would say it’s exploring?
I knew that I was making a film about gender and desire, almost like a Pakistani version of Sex And Punishment—about what you want and what you can’t have, and if you try to have it, what happens or what could happen, you know, the fear of it all… And of course there is an intersectionality that I was interested in because there are all these hierarchies of characters and it’s not like they are pitted against each other, but it was interesting to me (to consider) where does a guy who’s potentially queer lie in the hierarchy as opposed to his wife, who’s far more confident and assured in terms of her place in the world. And a trans girl who is so powerful—but she is a trans girl in our society at the end of the day—where does she lie in the hierarchy, and what happens if one attempt at finding their identity is something that leads to another person losing theirs.
At Toronto, Sania Saeed, who has a small but impactful role in ‘Joyland’, called the film an act of protest and resistance. Is that something you were consciously thinking of?
I mean she’s right, objectively speaking. But I would not say that when I was making the film that the protest was the intent, for me personally. I was really interested in these characters. But I wasn’t going to be stupid, I knew I couldn’t do certain things. I had to tell the story in a certain way which is palatable for people to watch. There is a far more sexual version of this film that exists and I know that. But in some ways it felt correct to me that if I am talking about desire in a repressed society, that I take both into account, I take the repression. But beyond that, the intent was not protest or activism. My interest was very artistically inclined. But I did make it as honestly as I possibly could, which in itself, I think, is pretty protest-y—that you choose the kind of film you want to make and you make it exactly that.
Pahull Bains is a freelance culture writer and the outreach and marketing manager at Reelworld Film Festival in Toronto.