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From The Afterglow

Verses, Tales, Thoughts

By Varsha Panikar

Perspective on Joyland by Saim Sadiq

Contemporary Life in Pakistan

As an Indian trans non-binary filmmaker, exploring Saim Sadiq's "Joyland" unfolds a poignant narrative on love, identity, and societal norms in Pakistan. This film, a quiet rebellion against oppressive traditions, makes history as Pakistan's first-ever entry at Cannes, winning the "Queer Palm" and Jury Prize in "Un Certain Regard."

Set in Lahore, Pakistan, the Rana family grapples with societal expectations and personal desires amidst the patriarchal pressures of a male heir. Haider, the youngest son, finds escape and explores hidden desires in the vibrant burlesque theater, Joyland. As Haider's infatuation with Biba, a charismatic trans woman and the theater's star attraction, deepens, he confronts the stark realities of their love in a society that often marginalizes transgender individuals. Joyland weaves themes of love, identity, and familial expectations, challenging societal boundaries and embracing true selves.

"Joyland" boldly tackles homophobia, transphobia, and societal expectations within a patriarchal society, exposing hidden shadows. The film's impact extends beyond the cinematic realm, becoming a mirror reflecting the struggles of those challenging societal norms, a powerful voice for the marginalized.

***spoilers ahead***

Characters as Portraits:

Sadiq's intimate and meticulous character study and thought-provoking narrative immerse the audience in Haider's inner turmoil and the lives of the characters, offering a glimpse into their struggles and consequences of their choices within this constrained world.

Haider's Dance with Tradition: Ali Junejo's portrayal of Haider anchors the emotional depth, encapsulating sweet naiveté and self-discovery. Haider's nuanced dance between societal expectations and personal authenticity unfolds against the rigid structures of marriage and family, finding solace in the unconventional world of burlesque theater.

Biba's Enigmatic Resilience: Alina Khan, portraying Biba, transcends stereotypes, presenting a trans woman with a blend of strength and vulnerability. Her character adds layers to the narrative, avoiding fetishization and portraying Biba as a multifaceted individual with her own desires, struggles, and triumphs. The film takes a commendable step by casting trans roles to trans persons. Finally!

An Ensemble's Impact: The ensemble cast, including Rasti Farooq as Mumtaz, Sohail Sameer as Haider's brother, Sarwat Gilani as the sister-in-law, and Sania Saeed as Fayyaz, a family friend and widow, further enhances the film's emotional resonance. Farooq's portrayal of Mumtaz, a woman caught between societal expectations and personal desires, adds depth and complexity to the narrative. Rasti Farooq's heartbreaking performance layers poignancy onto the story, while the broader family dynamics mirror patriarchal structures that stifle individual freedom. Their collective presence strengthens the film's exploration of gender roles, familial dynamics, and the search for personal fulfillment within a conservative society.

Metaphors and Symbolism:

The Ocean of Experiences: The metaphor of the ocean echoes through the film, representing the longing for freedom and the choices it entails. Biba's experience at French Beach becomes a powerful reminder of self-discovery. This expression of true self is echoed when she tells Haider her transitioning is only for herself. Makes me wonder, once you see past the city skyline and onto that infinite blue horizon, the sea throwing itself upon the earth, how can you return to the insignificance of your old status quo? Maybe that explains why in all the landlocked places I've lived people are petrified to evolve or challenge their own rigid routines—they've only learned to value the ground beneath their feet.

Mumtaz's Battle with Freedom: Mumtaz has a more complicated battle with freedom. When Haider asks her if she’s every been inside the ocean, she says she’s just about touched it but her family never let her in completely for the fear of getting wet. This is mirrored by the fact that she’s tasted living her own life, even having love etc at the start of the movie but it all gets stripped away through familial constraints. She’s cast asunder and stripped from her freedom further with the baby, this is what truly drives her to edge as that’s what she craves for the most.

Haider's Repression: Haider is the most repressed, under the thumb of his dad, constantly ridiculed for the letting Mumtaz be the breadwinner and not having an heir and also not making any decision without the approval of his father. He has never even seen the ocean. This is why the ending of the movie is so beautiful in how tragically hopeful and beautiful it is. He has gone on a journey of self-discovery, and despite the pain and loss it brings about, he has probably for the first time, found himself in the end, as he finally moves away from his family and symbolically enters the ocean.

Joyland as a Symbolic Playground: The titular Joyland, a theme park in Lahore, serves as a metaphor for the constraints of societal norms. The neon-lit vibrancy of the burlesque theater, in contrast to the muted tones of Haider's family home, becomes a symbolic canvas reflecting the characters' entrapment.

Symbolic Motifs: Scenes like Biba's introduction at the hospital and the towering cut-out at the Rana's home are impactful motifs. They depict the everyday struggles of queer individuals in a queer-phobic society and symbolize the intrusion of the theater into Haider's personal life. The director on an instagram post talked about how this scene was his and Alina Khan’s as it represented their struggles being queer.

My personal singular favourite still from the movie (of many possible candidates) is Biba’s cut-out towering over Haider and his scooter. The extremely articulate Saim Sadiq explained in an interview how the large cut-out at the home of the Rana’s shows how much a trans presence bothers the family and how the theatre and Haider’s explorations there are slowly seeping into his personal life and are causing real problems to his family. He talked about how just this tran’s presence is causing such an irritation to the fragility of the members of the family. This is an important motif.

Joyland is almost a film constructed backwards, an examination of what led to the death of a woman. A flashback scene late on places the characters in a new context perhaps, where love seems hopeful even if it is a sham. Joyland is a carefully presented movie, shot with a confined aspect ratio that oppresses the characters. It's a fascinating exploration of bad choices made within an suffocating world, the sort of movie that stays with you a while.

In many ways Joyland is a quiet film. Quietly documenting the quiet toilings of the characters silenced and trampled on by the violent wheel of tradition. Its rebellion made only more potent by its subtlety. Silences in "Joyland" often speak louder than words, revealing unspoken depths within the characters.

Social Structures and Representations:

Patriarchy's Stranglehold: The film fearlessly tackles the complexities of gender identity within a patriarchal society. It sheds light on the challenges faced by individuals, especially women, who navigate societal expectations and constraints. Even Alina’s character is not free of patriarchy or the notions of social sexual norms based in the binary. The internalized homophobia, evident in the scene where Haider and Biba have an intimate encounter.

Fleeting Glimpses of Freedom: The juxtaposition of scenes, such as the elation within Joyland against the quiet streets outside, becomes a commentary on the struggle for individuality within a society resistant to change. The film navigates the nuanced struggles faced by the LGBTQ community, urging viewers to question societal assumptions about representation.

Intersectionality of Struggles: "Joyland" delves into the broader struggles of marginalized communities, addressing discrimination based on gender identity, race, and class. The characters embody a spectrum of experiences, portraying a tough existence as they grapple with societal norms that restrict their authentic selves.

A Subtle Rebellion: "Joyland" unfolds quietly, a testament to the silenced lives trampled by tradition. Sadiq's masterful subtlety amplifies the potency of the rebellion within the shadows, resonating with the quiet toilings of individuals seeking authenticity amidst societal expectations.

Unmet Desires: A patchwork of characters hones in on a central theme of desires being unmet due to familial structures. This theme touches everyone, even the 70-year-old iron-fisted man of the house. Everyone but Biba. Perhaps the most hopeful aspect of Joyland is how she remains in control separate from the familial tragedies and is not swallowed up by them. Alina Khan's enchanting portrayal enhances this hope.

Cinematic Realization:

Sadiq's Directorial Vision: Saim Sadiq's directorial vision is both intimate and evocative, creating a world that is both real and dreamlike. His use of long takes and tracking shots immerses the audience in the character's lives, fostering a deeper emotional connection.

The collaboration with cinematographer Joe Saade brings forth visually poetic moments, such as Haider navigating a cut-out of Biba, and a huge emotional moment made by just having one person turn away from another in a devastating way. The neon-lit energy of the burlesque theater stands in stark contrast to the muted tones of Haider's family home, a visual metaphor for the societal constraints that bind the characters. Joyland becomes an allegory for queerness or individuality within a society that insists on confining individuals to predetermined boxes. Saim Sadiq's craftfully challenges, captivates, and resonates with the universal quest for authenticity.

Impactful Sound Design: The sound design and score enhance the emotional resonance of the film, eliciting a range of emotions from tension to nostalgia. This auditory dimension adds another layer to the cinematic experience, contributing to the film's lasting impact.

Critical Reflections and Impact:

Unveiling the Shadows: "Joyland" exposes the shadows within a conservative Pakistani society, addressing issues of homophobia, transphobia, and societal expectations. The film's impact is not merely confined to the screen; it becomes a mirror reflecting the struggles and triumphs of individuals who dare to challenge societal norms.

Representation: While the film excels in portraying the struggles of its queer male protagonist, it falls short in fully exploring the stories of its female characters. The narrative predominantly views the LGBTQI+ community through the eyes of a male character, leaving female characters somewhat overshadowed.

Biba, the charismatic trans woman at the heart of the burlesque theater, is a captivating presence, but her relevance to the narrative diminishes as the film progresses. Her absence in the latter part of the film is noticeable, leaving a void that could have been filled with a deeper exploration of her experiences and perspectives.

The film beautifully captures the restrictive nature of small communities and cramped family homes, where everyone's eyes are constantly upon you. It delves into the strictness of social order and the fertile ground for secrets within such constrictive spaces. The longing for personal truths becomes stronger when one looks beyond the city skyline to the infinite blue horizon of the sea, challenging the insignificance of the old status quo.

A Resonance with Marginalized Communities: The film's ability to resonate with those who have experienced life in repressive societies is undeniable. It speaks to the universal human experience of seeking freedom and authenticity amidst societal constraints. The film becomes a mirror reflecting the lives of countless Haiders, Mumtazs, and Bibas—individuals navigating a landscape where societal expectations suffocate.

I also appreciate that Joyland does a better job than other films in acknowledging the pain and struggles of the unknowing partner in a queer story. It reflects the reality where we often celebrate coming out stories but tend to overlook the genuine suffering of the spouse. It's a delicate line to walk, and while Joyland makes progress in this regard, the ending throws a curveball that complicates the narrative.

A Masterful Depiction of Flawed Characters: Sadiq's mastery shines through in his portrayal of flawed characters. Each character grapples with their own struggles, making them relatable and human. Their imperfections add depth to the narrative, revealing the complexities of the human experience.

The film's ability to linger long after the credits roll is a testament to the power of its storytelling. It leaves an indelible mark on the viewer's mind, prompting reflection and a deeper understanding of the characters' journeys.

In Conclusion:

"Joyland" transcends the realm of mere entertainment. It is a profound exploration of the self and society. As a trans filmmaker, I am moved by the film's nuanced portrayal of gender identity and its ability to challenge norms and promote the universal quest for freedom and authenticity. It is a testament to the enduring power of storytelling to unravel the complexities of the human experience.

The depiction of repression and desire in Joyland is expansive, touching upon patriarchy in Pakistan and the limitations imposed on sexuality, masculinity, and femininity. The characters face a tough existence as they struggle to be their authentic selves. Rather than providing a journey with a happy ending, the film leaves their fate uncertain, making it a complex and thought-provoking work that explores the consequences of their decisions within their limited world.

Ultimately, "Joyland" is a film that works like a cold breeze on a winter morning—slightly uncomfortable yet soothing to the senses. It is a film that provokes thought, challenges perceptions, and leaves a lasting impression.

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