Should a film that’s groundbreaking for its LGBTQ depiction within its own country be held up to more progressive standards when reviewed by international audiences? This is the central dilemma which comes with assessing the various merits of Joyland, the first Pakistani feature to premiere at Cannes and make the Academy Awards shortlist for Best International Film – an accolade it achieved despite being heavily censored for its domestic release. This tale of a doomed love triangle shines a light on the casualised nature of misogyny and transphobia within the deeply conservative nation, but falters by predominantly viewing this world through the eyes of a cisgender man, with the struggles of the two women in his life depicted fleetingly in comparison to his woes of emasculation.
That man is Haider (Ali Junejo), who is already placed under severe scrutiny by the rest of his family unit. He hasn’t held down a job in years, putting him in a contrast with career-driven wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), with his struggle to make ends meet leading him to land a job as a backing dancer at a theater company known for their “exotic” performances. This is nothing particularly risqué, of course, but the likely source of what many conservative commentators within Pakistan deemed “repugnant” about the film. Despite having two left feet, he’s hired and becomes an immediate source of fascination for transgender dancer Biba (Alina Khan), with whom he strikes up a friendship. This puts his relationship with Mumtaz under an increased strain, only highlighting the lack of romantic passion within their domestic lives, and the fact they’re yet to start a family. Haider will frequently assume the traditionally “feminine” roles of babysitting their nieces and nephews over his partner, but this largely goes unspoken until the discovery of his new job brings their flipped gender roles to the fore.
Haider is the character devoted the most screentime, and the least interesting inherently, largely because his pseudo-coming-of-age journey covers familiar ground to countless other tales of masculinity in crisis. Co-writer/director Saim Sadiq does a good job of weaving this into a wider cultural critique, outlining how the stereotypical expectations placed upon millions of men like him from a young age to marry, raise a family and become the breadwinner are in no ways universal, the character eventually finding his voice the more he fights back against those societal demands. In one of the most powerful sequences, this is demonstrated by how he quietly sides with Biba as she’s subjected to transphobic hectoring on a subway cart; if there’s any flaw with the film, it’s that this trans character with agency has it taken back from her on a scene-by-scene basis if it helps her cis lover’s journey. Their relationship doesn’t build to the place that you’d expect as it becomes clearer that Haider is fetishising her as part of his own journey of self-discovery, something the film doesn’t quite unpack to the level it should. Biba is a much richer character than what we’d deem a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and yet she’s very rarely viewed outside of a perspective in which she’s being overly romanticised, or forced to argue for her own humanity.
This does mean Khan has plenty of standout sequences – one particular highlight is her denigrating a dancer she overheard making a gross comment about her physical appearance – and delivers the most commanding performance of the central trio as a consequence. But the perspective through which we see her, although not quite that of an audience surrogate being welcomed into the dancing community she inhabits (Haider is too complicated a character to scan that easily), is still at somewhat of a remove; it’s telling that for much of the film’s third act, she’s absent, having served her purpose within the cis male protagonist’s journey.
As a direct interrogation of gender roles in a heterosexual relationship, set against a conservative backdrop, Joyland offers more in the way of insight, even if the majority of its character depth is afforded to its least interesting character. I’m not entirely convinced it succeeds as an LGBTQ narrative, however, due to the lens through which we view its trans lead: Biba may have agency, but ultimately, this never becomes her story.
Written by Alistair Ryder
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