In Lahore, Pakistan, a multi-generational family all live under the roof of its patriarch, Abba (Salmaan Peerzada), who has a dim view of his younger son Haider’s (Ali Junejo) unconventional marriage to Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), who works while he does not and who has not yet had a child. Then a friend, Qaiser (Ramiz Law), hooks Haider up with a job interview, which much to Haider’s surprise turns out to be as a backup dancer for the transgender performer at an erotic dance hall. While he tells his family he’s secured work as the hall’s manager, his household is nonetheless turned upside down by the move in “Joyland.”
Laura's Review: A-
Cowriter (with Maggie Briggs)/director Saim Sadiq makes his feature debut with a film his home country banned initially despite its Cannes 2022 Un Certain Regard Jury Award and submission for the 2023 International Film Oscar, before ultimately lifting the ban and allowing the film to open nationwide. While “Joyland” has become known as a romance between a married man and the trans dancer he begins to work for, it is actually far broader in scope, addressing how Pakistani patriarchy oppresses women and the LGBTQ community. The film is a rich family drama, the type of movie that feels like settling in with a good novel.
Sadiq kicks off with a symbolic allegory, Haider hidden beneath a sheet to play a game of hide and seek with his three young nieces. We’ll quickly learn that Haider shares housekeeping and child rearing duties with his heavily pregnant sister-in-law Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani), his brother Saleem (Sameer Sohail) even noting that he’s left a shirt out for him to iron. When Nucchi goes into labor, we will get a disturbing view of a Pakistani maternity ward and when Haider goes off in search of doctor ordered medications the hospital doesn’t appear to have, he will note a striking woman stagger into a waiting room, the front of her garment covered in blood.
He’ll recognize her immediately as Biba (transgender actress Alina Khan), the dancer he is hired to work with and who he is immediately attracted to. Haider needs a lot of coaching and Biba seems willing to put in the effort for the handsome young man who immediately shows a willingness to do her bidding when star dancer Shagnam Rani (Priya Usman Khan) disses her and hall owner Ashfaq Saab (Honey Albela) doles out third rate treatment, refusing to pay for her advertising cutout. Haider’s involvement at the hall leads Nucchi to complain that she needs more help around the house now and Abba demands that Mumtaz give up her salon job. When she outright refuses, Haider is called upon to lay down the law and meekly acquiesces.
Sadiq creates a strong core for his film, then spins out multiple threads of behavioral and societal issues from his characters’ actions, some events quite unexpected, many of them moving. He’s assembled a phenomenal cast of veterans and newcomers, Junejo anchoring the film with his sensitive performance. Cinematographer Joe Saade’s contributions cannot be overstated, his use of Academy framing around his exquisitely composed shots especially highlighting the love and support between Haider and Mumtaz. Farooq’s Mumtaz is a dynamo, a strong woman taking pride in her ability to innovate on her job who is crushed by Haider’s submission to his father just as she’s becoming aware of his newfound romantic obsession. Khan provides an equally strong woman, one forced to speak up for herself, also having faced horrific injustices (having initially denied having run into Haider at the hospital, she will eventually tell him the story of what happened that night). Gilani is a bubbly presence as a woman content with her role. As Auntie Fayyaz, Sania Saeed will break your heart as the loving woman is rejected because of a man’s pride.
“Joyland” continues to surprise right up through its final moments, a flashback to Haider visiting Mumtaz to discuss their marriage arrangement shedding new light while his final action serves as both homage to her and his own awakening. It is an important film that should bring empathy and awareness to open-minded audiences while also engaging them with its artistic achievement and storytelling skill.
Robin's Review: B+
Oscilloscope opened "Joyland" in select theaters on 4/7/23, expanding thereafter. Click here for play dates.