Joyland — Pakistan’s entry for Best International Feature at the 95th Academy Awards — opens in theaters across the United States in the coming weeks.
A seemingly content family in Lahore disintegrates when they fall back into patriarchal patterns in the film Joyland — an ironic title if there ever was one.
Haider (Ali Junejo) and his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) live with his elderly father (Salmaan Peerzada), Haider’s older brother Saleem (Sameer Sohail), Saleem’s wife Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani), and their four young daughters. Mumtaz is a talented makeup artist who works outside the home, while Haider cooks and helps with his nieces. It’s a slightly unconventional setup for this otherwise traditional family, but it works.
Everything changes when Haider’s friend finds him a job. Running the household is too much for Nucchi to manage alone, so Father decides that Mumtaz will quit her job and stay home. Mumtaz’s objections are ignored, and Haider is too timid to stand up to his dad.
The thing is, Haider’s new job isn’t exactly “respectable.” He’s a backup dancer in an erotic dance theater. He tells his dad that he’s the theater manager, but he’s honest with Mumtaz about what he does.
What Haider fails to tell his wife is that he’s infatuated with the starlet he dances behind — a transgender woman named Biba (Alina Khan). It’s not just that Biba is beautiful, but she has all of the self-respect and willpower that Haider lacks. She’s learned how to stand up for herself because no one else will. Her confidence — coupled with the freedom Haider experiences upon being liberated from his oppressive house — inspires him to act more boldly than he ever has, including starting an affair with Biba.
The fallout from Haider taking his new job is a mess of isolation, secrecy, conservative gender expectations, and unmet sexual needs for multiple members of the family. Trapped in the house, Mumtaz becomes all but invisible to everyone, including Haider. She goes through the motions of being excited when she finds out she’s pregnant with a boy — all of the accolades for said feat go to Haider — but she longs to escape.
No one in the family is happy, even with the household operating exactly the way Father wants it to. Rigid adherence to expectations makes everyone miserable when it requires erasing individual identities to do meet them. Biba is unique in asserting her own identity, but it comes at an enormous cost to her as well.
Saim Sadiq’s writing and directing of his first feature film are excellent, as is Joyland‘s talented cast. All the women in the ensemble are terrific at eliciting sympathy for their characters, particularly Rasti Farooq as Mumtaz. Ali Junejo’s job has an extra challenge because Haider is legitimately frustrating at times, but he’s a man ill-equipped to live as his authentic self within the confines of his family. No matter how exasperating his behavior, the root of everyone’s problems is a strict set of social norms that punishes individuality for no discernible benefit.