Briefly banned, Pakistan's ground-breaking 'Joyland' is now a world cinema success
Updated April 13, 2023 at 1:13 PM ET
Last May an ensemble of actors and filmmakers from Pakistan walked the legendary carpet into the Cannes Film Festival to make national and film history. Joyland became the first feature film from Pakistan ever to screen at Cannes and won both the festival's Un Certain Regard Jury Prize and its Queer Palm for its intimate portrait of a society rarely seen on international screens.
What began as a small independent production among friends at Columbia University's graduate film program became one of the year's biggest success stories in world cinema — and a ground-breaking film about queer desire in a traditional Muslim society.
For 32-year-old first-time filmmaker Saim Sadiq, the film's story of young Pakistanis struggling to overcome the rigid boundaries of tradition and gender was rooted in his own coming of age story. "It was a rigidness I was born into myself – the lines of what you are supposed to do as a boy and as a girl – and by creating characters who are experiencing what I was, I was trying to achieve some level of catharsis."
Joyland is an ensemble story about a multi-generational family living in a shared home under the shadow of a stern, widowed patriarch. One of the film's central characters is named Haidar, an empathetic and soft-spoken young man who has struggled to find work and receives frequent lectures from his father for failing in his responsibilities as a husband and as a man. When Haidar finally finds employment as a backup dancer at a seedy dance theater, it leads him to work for a brilliant performer named Biba played by trans actress Alina Khan. Her confidence and unapologetic sexuality up-ends Haidar's life and as he falls in love with the star, he begins to see his city, and the possibilities for his life, in a radical new light.
The one thing Muslim characters aren't allowed to be on screen is sexy and I was very excited about doing that.
Sadiq says he was keenly aware of how Pakistan is conventionally portrayed in world cinema as a desolate land of mosques and veiled women soundtracked by the call to prayer — it wasn't what he wanted to show. The result is a film that is as searing in subject matter as it is sensual, filmed in lush colors and intimate close-ups shot entirely on-location in Lahore. "The one thing Muslim characters aren't allowed to be on screen is sexy and I was very excited about doing that." Without being explicit, the film pushes boundaries with its queer love scenes and its portrayal of desire.
But just as Haidar finds reprieve from the stifling family home in Biba's world, his wife Mumtaz played by Rasti Farooq is forced to stay at home and give up her own career under the pressure to begin a family. The film's producer Apoorva Charan says while Joyland is about Haidar's queer awakening, it is also "about the burden that women have to bear to allow the space for the men in their lives to have their own coming of age experiences. ... It happens very often in South Asian families and I've definitely seen it happen in my own."
Alina Khan, who plays Biba says one of the things she most appreciates about the film is that it integrates her character's trans storyline into a collective portrait of Lahore.
But even as Joyland has earned accolades, it's also been controversial and divisive at home. Charan says in anticipation of the response in Pakistan, the filmmakers shot alternate scenes and planned ahead for the Pakistani release. The local edition of the film, which pre-emptively did not include some love scenes, was cleared for release last November and selected as Pakistan's official entry to the Oscars. But shortly before it was scheduled to open in cinemas, a campaign accusing the film of inappropriate content led to a last-minute ban. The local campaign against that ban included a passionate defense by one of the film's executive producers, Pakistani Nobel-Prize laureate Malala Yousufzai.
Although the film was eventually unbanned and released in several major cities, it has still not been released in the province of Punjab and its capital city of Lahore, where the story unfolds. The actor Alina Khan who plays Biba and still lives in Lahore says she cried when she found her family would not be able to see it but hopes the decision will eventually be reversed.
Sadiq says while the vocal backlash in Pakistan has been personally disheartening, he has also been frustrated by the ways the film's nuances have been flattened by seemingly positive Western press hailing the film a landmark queer film or piece of social activism. "Muslim LGBTQ Film!" You know that sounds exciting and it sounds sensational. It sells an article better than doing justice to a film from my standpoint and that has happened from the beginning of the film."
Despite the controversies, the film has already become a small indie success around the world as it arrives in American cinemas. "The discourse around the film is the discourse and you can't really control it," Sadiq says. "It's just heartening that whenever the film plays anywhere, the theater is usually packed and that is quite nice to see."
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