I hear that a woman in our street has killed herself. I ask adults what happened.
They say the woman who burned herself or drank poison or detergent was unhinged. She was corrupt. Many "corrupt" women in my Lahori neighborhood had chosen not to live and quickly disappeared from community conversations.
Joyland, a 2022 Pakistani drama film, is a dive into the lives of two women in Lahore, Mumtaz and Beeba. Both want to change forms and only one will succeed.
Mumtaz is the wife of our main boy, Haider. They live in a joint family unit. Salmaan Peerzada plays a 70-year-old wheelchair-bound father to Haider and his hot-headed brother Kaleem. Kaleem is married to Nuchi and has four kids. Haider and Mumtaz have none. There's tension between the two brothers throughout the film, culminating in mild violence at the end, making you feel a power dynamic set forth by some ancient family secret.
Beeba, being Khwaja sira, is clawing for space in a Punjabi "erotic" dance (and comedy) theatre show where ciswomen rule the stage. A confident, prying camera walks us through these dense details. Haider's meek demeanor allows the camera into spaces where I, as a Muslim male Pakistani viewer, would have felt uninvited and ashamed, and I did. This is mainly due to the internalized gendered modesty norms of Pakistani "respectable" and "middle-class" family settings, which the film shows.
Halftime into the movie, we know that Haider has landed a gig as a backup dancer to Beeba. Mumtaz is asked to leave her job to help Nuchi with the house chores and ready herself to make a baby, preferably a boy. Haider, however, is shown trying to hook up with Beeba instead. We learn that in the world all our characters live in, love, desire, needs, and wants come with conditions.
I feel like it's important to take a moment and acknowledge Salman Peerzada, the father figure in the film, who's acting in a film almost forty years after his last stint in Jewel In the Crown (1984), or almost thirty years after if you count Zargul (1996), the Peerzada-family film that no one I know has ever seen.
I've also been for years feeling immensely jaded with weak and even weaker derivative globalized representations of life on the ground, especially in North Pakistan, and more specifically in Lahore, my hometown, that I expected nothing stirring from this film. The short film director, Saim Sadiq, made in 2019, showing a bit of Beeba's life and her theatre world, had me quite underwhelmed. I thought Joyland would be a watered-down idea of a thing, but I came out feeling shook.
Joyland reminded me of Pakistani-French filmmaker Jamil Dehlavi's first feature film, Towers of Silence (1974). Dehlavi, just like Sadiq, is a Columbia MFA graduate who employed freshly learned cinematography to tell an autobiographical tale of a boy and his obsession with authority, death, and seemingly macabre rituals of his religion in '70s Karachi.
For a Pakistani audience, Joyland has many things to relate to, starting with the name Joyland, an amusement park in "Fortress," Lahore, also featured in the film. There are details all Khajistan-heads would recognize in the film, like the fresh cream pineapple cake for a "happy birday" party, a tray full of tea and biscuits, LED lights at Beeba's guru's dera, a beautiful scene of Kaleem and Haider in the ablution corner of the mosque where Kaleem cryptically advises Haider to keep an eye on Mumtaz, and china dishware perching in the wall shelves, probably Mumtaz's, Nuchi's or Haider's late mom's dowry set, most likely showing how khandaani the family is.
For academics and activists, there's a lot to ride on in Joyland as well: elderly desire, trans/queer rage, middle-class interaction with the lower class over money, homophobic and transgender bullying, and Islamic rituals of life and death like an aqeeqa and janaza, and of course, there's arranged marriage.
For the festival bigwigs, and industry powerhouses, it has a familiar feel of a serious Italian or french drama film, an artistic 4:3 aspect ratio, a laboriously edited screenplay with an effectively placed flashback, and echoes such as recurring shots of Lahore's metro-bus announcement boards, a good old liberation shot at the end of the film and subtle suffering (emphasis on subtle). The film also has a female "Muslim woman" masturbation scene, which is gold for European cinephiles in particular.
Joyland takes its sweet time in the first hour but soars in the second half with moments that stayed with me overnight. Like Nuchi's long pause when Mumtaz, in a moment of vulnerability, shares her desire to escape. A pregnant and depressed Mumtaz's manic play with the kids on the house's veranda making the otherwise obedient and demurely moving camera do a 360-degree spin. And the befuddling sexual encounter between Beeba (who has an overly sexualized Khwaja sira public identity) and Haider (with a vague sexual private identity) showed how confusing suppression can be and what happens when only one thing is expected of you. Beeba calling Haider a faggot because he wants to be fucked by Beeba showed the layered existence of on-ground global south sexualities and their divergence from the imperial western LGBT framework. It showed that the Khawaja sira has to barter for its existence by buying into and often perpetuating the bashing of the one with homosexual desire (homosexual).
Another one of my favorite details in the film is when a little boy is heard saying off-screen to his sibling or to his friend, who is prematurely throwing rose petals as both walk as part of a funeral towards the graveyard, "You don't throw flowers here, you throw them in the graveyard," he says. Such observations are sprinkled across Joyland and particularly shine best in this moment. They also strongly hint at the otherized feeling the director's child-self must have felt in his environment leading to an almost sponge-like absorption of real-life events and details happening around and to him with vigilance. Not to mention the surgically painful task of putting these observations into a film.
Some things didn't fully work for me. Starting with the ungenerous use of music that the Punjabi theater industry, which employs Beeba and Haider, has thrived on for the past twenty-some years, not given the full shine and glory it fully deserves. The main number Beeba and her bevy of backup boys, including Haider, are shown dancing to is an electronic dance music track instead of a rapturous and crassly poetic Naseebo Lal song. You know the woman whose voice made Punjab's dancehalls dough and was left to fend for herself alone in Lahore High Court when put on trial in 2009 for singing "vulgar" songs? This was way before she was conditionally welcomed into the coke studio industrial complex that made her sing nice and clean spiritual and cultural hits rather than the songs that got her in trouble, almost put her in jail, and still make a heft of her discography. Joyland, which perfectly shows us the psychic, social, and emotional intricacies of a "middle-class family," is missing the same complexity when dealing with other marginal characters and subcultures. The depiction of Beeba's Khwaja sira family, however still beautiful, seemed hurried, and the cis showgirl shown on the screen a couple of times saying the same brand of expletives to Beeba felt impositional trying to hammer Beeba's outsider status.
Beeba mentions in passing that the video of her EDM dance performance is grabbing views online. Then Nuchi sees that video on her phone before bedtime, clearly alarmed at Haider dancing in a shimmery top voguing behind Beeba. We don't know if Nuchi keeps Haider's secret as women of respectable families often do when they see boys and men of the house act in ways they ought not to. We don't know if Nuchi shared this information with her hot-headed husband, Kaleem. Similarly, we don't know if Kaleem shared with Nuchi about him walking in on Mumtaz pulsating her clit against creaking furniture, wearing goggles, and spying on a masturbating male neighbor.
There are many great moments in the film. My favorite one has to be when Beeba is shown removing her nail polish in an uber/careem before walking into a funeral. Reminding us that it is only at birth and death when Khwaja sira people are let into otherwise khandaani spaces.
And Mumtaz's parlor scene when she has her colleagues turn their cellphone lights on during a power cut to finish off a bride's "bridal makeup." Her husband, Haider, shows similar resourcefulness later in the film when he arranges a modest crowd of spectators holding up their phone lights for Beeba to perform on the EDM track during yet another timely power cutdown.
I also liked when in an upside-down profile shot, Haider says to Beeba that everything he has in life feels borrowed. The camera is flipped with Haider's snap. Then it goes on wide to show the deserted theatre. The scene hints at the systematic suppression of individual agency, and the feeling of being a bad debt to society.
And finally, the family jirga, which is reminiscent of Xavier Dolan's "Laurence Anyways" (2012); the tight profile shots showed the emotions and status of each character in the room. It bared inter and intra-community dynamics of the family and its neighbors. The cameo by the director of the film as the barking son of Sania Saeed giving a schpiel on respectability is also irritably familiar.
Last night, I was talking to an Iranian friend who was like, after the Islamic revolution, Iranian films started to seem to be made specifically for the French or western festival audiences. A racist France that still holds a savior mentality expressed through loud and rigorous rallying for Iranian activists, filmmakers, and intelligentsia. Take a walk in the Republique neighborhood of Paris, and you'll see boards and fliers showing the Iranian intelligentsia's persecution. After Joyland's resounding success, I don't think such a shift would happen in Pakistan, where visual culture is already under Bollywood's overpowering specter for decades. Censorship is selective depending on what class of people the film is made for. Yet, something essential to notice here is how the west's reaction to our art puts us in the direction of delivering to the west what they want, as that's where the industry, the capital, and recognition through accolades sit.
In Pakistan, making a film such as Joyland has got to be expensive unless you're an ISPR-funded action film or a TV channel-funded something. You can tell from the list of producers in the credit list that Joyland is an internationally monied project. With capital from the west, one must also incorporate what funders resonate with and want to see and what they want to trim. Thus, the camera lingers long enough on people's faces for the global audience to feel us through the familiar subtle European ways of making films. The film shows the people it wants you to see and feel for; bystanders like the cis showgirl and Khwaja siras are there helping shine a light on our main characters.
Regarding light, Pakistani middle, and lower-class homes overwhelmingly use white tube lights to save energy. There's that tube light feel we all know and see daily in shops and houses, which is traded in the movie for a warm cinematic look. These are some artistic choices made to make a film have global appeal. With international capital, you must selectively dial down or straight up mute the realness of life and culture in favor of palatable storytelling for a worldwide audience.
The uproar of the religious right in Pakistan is directly oppositional to the west's embrace of the film and a continuing reaction to American liberal imperialism exported to the third world in the past half a century or so. This hatred spewed towards the film; specifically, its Khwaja sira character has come to eerily resemble the Republican transphobic propaganda playbook. This symbiotic relationship, seeing the west as an all-in-all savior, enabler, and nemesis, is something to look at.
This brings us to the broader politics of the movie. I'm not talking about identity or morality-related politics taking place in western and Pakistani media about the film. Instead, I'm talking about the politics of the global south powerfuls managing to create art that lives up to the tastes and industry standards of the first world. Sadiq's "middle class" family's military background enables him to have access to and train in western-oriented schools in Pakistan and the west. This begs the question: why is global success almost always contingent on your proximity to families in power: feudal, industrialists, or the mighty military, in places like Pakistan? Why do people close to monied backgrounds continue to be seen and lauded by our first-world masters? With an on-off ban in its home country and getting west's favorite saved Pashtun child, Malala, now a married adult, as executive producer on board right before its anticipated Oscar nomination in the Best International Feature Film category, shows that the makers know the business of doing films.
Joyland is packaging the present of Pakistan for a world cinema stage. Even though It's hard for me to fully get behind the muting of the unpalatable culture in favor of that of the middle class, It is a film that deserves all the attention and praise for its toil and clarity of purpose. Joyland is the story of a place where joy is infrequent, grievances are muted, where love is conditional, and survival, non-incentive.
Khajistan gives Joyland a wow, nice!