Before you watch Saim Sadiq’s Joyland, take out 16 minutes to look up Darling on YouTube. In this student film by Sadiq, which won best short at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, a trans woman named Alina Darling, played by transgender actor Alina Khan, comes to audition at a theatre where mujras are performed. Her dream is to headline her own show—as we see in an exuberant fantasy sequence—but she will settle for being a backup dancer for resident diva Shabo, even passing for a man by concealing her long hair in a turban. The film ends with her on the bus home, having compromised but also gotten a foot in the door and saved a goat from being sacrificed.
There’s a lot of Darling in Sadiq’s first feature, which will be screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival (3-6 November). Joyland premiered at Cannes, the first Pakistani film to do so; it won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize and the Queer Palm. Alina Khan again plays a mujra dancer—this time her character, Biba, has her own show. Like in Darling, she has a smitten male cisgender friend who supports her. Giant cutouts of mujra dancers show up in both films. Above all, it’s the same directorial voice: composed, realistic and hopeful.
Haider (Ali Junejo) is the younger son in a middle-class Lahore family. He lives with wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), brother Saleem (Sohail Sameer), sister-in-law Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani, the lead in the excellent web series Churails), their four children, and his intimidating, conservative father (Salmaan Peerzada). It’s not a comfortable existence—an air conditioner is seen as an extravagance—which is unsurprising given there are only two earning members, Saleem and Mumtaz. The early scenes establish Haider as a dreamy young fellow in no hurry to find a job: he’s happy making dal at home and playing with his nieces while Mumtaz works at a parlour.
When a friend gets him an audition for a backup dancer at the “theatre”, he goes through the motions—until Biba walks in. He then pulls out his meagre dance moves, enough to get him hired as part of her troupe. She plays it cool, though the shy Haider is instantly floored. Their increasing closeness has the knock-on effect of ending Mumtaz’s freedom to work, even if Haider’s father and brother aren’t thrilled that he’s working at an erotic dance hall (he lies about being a manager there).
The scenes set in the world of mujra show how, at this time, in this specific field, trans performers are an accepted part of the landscape, even wielding some power if they are celebrities. A look at the wild, dangerous but also genuinely diverse mujra scene is provided by the 2020 documentary Showgirls Of Pakistan, directed by Saad Khan (it’s on VICE’s channel on YouTube; we wrote about it here). One of three women featured is a khawaja sira (transgender) performer, Reema, who supplements her income by visiting houses with newborn babies and blessing them for money. Khan’s film would make a great first half in a double bill with Joyland—not least for their contrasting energies—and Reema’s section gives us an idea of the struggles of Biba that we don’t see.
With her husband spending more and more time with his crush, Mumtaz, a sunny presence at the start of the film, sinks into depression. She and Haider are an affectionate couple, even when he reveals that he’s a backup dancer and Biba is trans. (He asks Mumtaz if she’s angry. “No,” she replies. Then, a second later: “A little”—a measure of the economy of both writing and playing in this film.) Farooq is a magnetic presence, showing us Mumtaz’s struggle at containing her frustrations, both with her sudden unemployment and the sexual urges her husband is too distracted to fulfil. On one occasion, she starts to rub herself while looking out of the window at a man in the alley doing the same—a scene that recalls the forthright taboo-breaking of Indian director Alankrita Shrivastava, who, coincidentally, is making a film on Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch.
Saim Sadiq underlines the tension and claustrophobia of the household through film technique. The 4:3 shooting ratio reduces the space around the characters, boxing them in. Sadiq and cinematographer Joe Saade also keep a surprising amount of negative space overhead, which, for me, had the further unsettling effect of throwing off the balance of the frame.
Unusually for a film that features a transgender character and stars a trans actor, Joyland never feels like it’s opining on an “issue”. Instead, it remains intimate and focused on Haider, Biba and Mumtaz. Though it’s an unsparing film, it also struck me as a romantic one. Haider shyly tells Biba during his audition that he played Juliet in college. When they almost kiss for the first time, static electricity surges through Biba and she drops the cup she’s holding. And the penultimate scene, a flashback, is a brilliant, moving choice. Like all that’s come before, it’s a thing of delicacy, close observation and empathy.