An intimate portrait of the bonds and tensions within a family. An subtly wrought domestic drama. An unhesitatingly honest romance. All of these threads and more wind together to make Joyland, the debut feature from Pakistani filmmaker Saim Sadiq. The picture they create is not simply more than the sum of its parts; it’s a tender celebration of each of those parts individually and in tandem.
Joyland follows the story of a staunchly patriarchal family in Lahore, where an ailing yet domineering father (Salmaan Peerzada) lives with his sons – Saleem (Sohail Sameer) and the timid Haider (Ali Junejo) – daughters-in-law Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) and Mumaz (Rasti Farooq), and Saleem and Nucchi’s daughter. When the film starts, Nucchi has just given birth to another daughter, and Haider, desperate for employment, finds a job at an erotic dance theater.
What unfolds from there is a series of love stories, all of different shapes and forms, but all intertwined and victim to the same forces. Most prevalent is the budding relationship between Haider and Biba (Alina Khan), a headstrong trans dancer for whom he performs backup. Where Haider is gentle to the point of being weak-willed in his father’s eyes, Biba is steel-spined and fearless, toughened by a world that makes her fight for everything she gets. As the chemistry between them crackles, they carve a space for themselves, away from the oppressive structures that stifle them. Even as the romance here blossoms, there is still a genuine love between Haider and his wife Mumaz. But as they’re both trapped by the patriarchal expectations that limit them, passion and romance dwindles. For her part, Mumtaz finds freedom in her close friendship with her sister-in-law Nucchi. Both women are bound by expectations to be the perfect wife, and both find solace and levity in their shared confidence.
Love, above all, is what defines this delicate detailed gem of a movie. When restricted by oppressive systems, Joyland posits love as a necessity through which to survive and escape; in saying so, the film delivers what is honestly a profoundly political message, but does so without ever tripping into the territory of feeling preachy or didactic. It never strays from being totally human.
In large part, this is due to the wonderful cast of performers. Junejo is instantly endearing while still exhibiting the complicated layers beneath Haider’s softness; Khan is vivacious and effortlessly charismatic as she brings Biba to life. Perhaps the ultimate standout performance comes from Farooq. In her hands, Mumtaz is dynamic and vibrant. What could have been a 2D character relegated to a prop in Haider’s story becomes the protagonist of her own journey. Her ambitions for a career of her own their clash with her debilitating fear of motherhood – exacerbated by how the pressure to produce a male child has affected Nucchi – all of which struggle against the expectations of the family she has married into. Despite their mutual affection, she is in many ways a reminder of all the ways Haider’s family stifles him. From Farooq’s performance, however, it’s clear that Haider is just as ill-suited to help Mumtaz realise her full potential.
The ending of the film is tragic, yet not so much so that it feels gratuitous. Sadiq crafts a carefully paced and deceptively uneventful narrative that is paced by the mounting suffocation the characters feel under the pressures of their environment. It’s a house of cards that has to be constructed with a delicate hand, and that is inevitably going to cave in on itself. The victory of Joyland is in making that eventual collapse feel like an insistence upon its characters’ humanity, rather than the end of it.
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