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In Joyland, Gender is the Universal Dreambreaker

Why did Saim Sadiq name his Oscar-shortlisted film ‘Joyland’? Joyland is one of Pakistan’s major amusement parks located in Lahore. The film has a scene in which two sister-in-laws go to Joyland (the amusement park) and take on a ferris wheel ride. The jethani clings to her devrani’s shoulder and screams her lungs out, “Ya allah mere saare gunah maaf karde.” Maybe Joyland is the place where you sin. Maybe it is a sin to consume or experience joy. Joyland is about these joyful sins that keep human beings and their desires in check.

Joyland is the story of these very desires that desire to flourish amongst the struggling sections of Lahore. Haider is a wimpy, jobless man whose ambitious wife (Mumtaz) finds it easier than him to butcher a goat. The adjectives here are the hamartia in Joyland. Haider gets a job as a dancer in a theatre group and falls for a transgender woman (Biba) who is fighting really hard to be taken seriously despite her marginalized identity. But what really makes Joyland worthy of all the hype and acclaim that it got is the fact that it is not only about Haider and Mumtaz and Biba. It is also about Nucchi, the wife of Haider’s older brother, his dad and the middle aged woman who resides in the neighbourhood mohalla. Gender connects all of them; it is the universal dreambreaker. Haider helps Nucchi in the household chores, so when he gets a job, he is replaced by Mumtaz even if it means her having to let go of her dearly adored job as a rising makeup artist. Mumtaz says, “Main akele nau logon ka khana aur chaar bacche kaise sambhalu.” When Nucchi cautions Mumtaz about Haider’s proximity to Biba, the former says, “Yeh ladki nahin hai.” What does it mean to be a female? Irritated by Nucchi’s daughters bickering her about fireflies, Mumtaz says, “Yeh sheher hai. Yahan jugnu nahin hote.” In Pakistan’s second biggest city, fireflies burn in their own fire.

Joyland had to go through a lot to release in Pakistan. One of Jamaat-e-Islami’s senators, Senator Mushtaq Ahmed Khan, accused the film of being “against Pakistani values”. He said “Glamourising transgenders in Pakistan, as well as their love affairs, is a direct attack on our beliefs.” In a country where thousands of young boys are exploited through baccha baazi, the lawmakers are more concerned about a film that has a bunch of adults wanting to break out of the narrow lanes of the mohallas they live in. Despite getting rave reviews and winning both the Queer Palm and Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Joyland remains unreleased in Pakistan’s Punjab.

There is a sad, sad phenomenon that plagues film industries throughout the world. It is trans characters being played by cis actors. Popular examples include Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (a cis woman plays a trans woman) and Super Deluxe (a cis man playing a trans woman). Why are actors from one of the world’s most marginalized communities not given the chance to play characters sourced from their trauma? Joyland joins the heartbreakingly short list of films and shows that debunk this phenomenon. HBO’s ‘Euphoria‘ is one of them.

Joyland has some of Pakistan’s best actors from veterans like Saina Saeed as the matriarch who never was and Salman Peerzaada as a patriarch who must make sure he abides by the rules that he has set for his sons and their wives. Sarwat Gilani is perfect as arguably the only person who sees the constant suffocation that Mumtaz suffers from. Despite her patriarchal conditioning, her empathy and sisterhood for Mumtaz is both hopeful and refreshing. Rasti Farooq as Mumtaz is mercurial as the woman who refuses to accept her prejudiced circumstances. I was almost looking for hints of homoeroticism between Mumtaz and Nucchi. Alina Khan as Biba is pathbreaking as a trans woman trying her level best to fight the gruesome gender dysphoria and transphobia that have been normalized beyond repair. In a powerful scene, she refuses to leave her seat in the female coach of the metro. What is there to not like about a woman who knows that her fight is bigger than the binaries of the world? Despite these remarkable characters, it is Haider who appeared to me like the biggest lead of them all. Ali Junejo’s portrayal of a man who finds himself falling for a woman whose identity he does not really understand is commending. ‘Film Companion’s’ Rahul Desai in his review of Joyland made a very particular observation about how Mumtaz struggles to rise above the exoticity of the tragedy that Haider and Biba are. I resonated a lot with his opinion.

Shamefully, Joyland narrowly missed out on the final Oscar nominations for Best International Film. It released in Indian Cinemas on March 10.

Sarthak Parashar is a student persuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Syed Ilham Jafri

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Written by Sarthak Parashar

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