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Pakistani film ‘Joyland', banned for ‘highly objectionable material’ now playing in Dallas

Ali Junejo (left) and Alina Khan (right) in Saim Sadiq’s Joyland
Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
Ali Junejo (left) and Alina Khan (right) in Saim Sadiq’s Joyland

The film stars a transgender woman and explores the consequences of strict gender roles in Pakistani society

A year ago, "Joyland" took home multiple prizes as Pakistan’s first feature film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival. The independent film was the country’s official entry to the Oscars, and Malala Yousafzai even joined on as an executive producer. But back home, protests and political backlash against its subject matter led to the film being banned for many Pakistani viewers.

"Joyland," set in the city of Lahore, Pakistan, explores a love triangle involving a married couple and a transgender woman. The film’s protagonist, Haider, under pressure to fulfill his financial obligations as a man, takes a job as a backup dancer at an erotic theater. There, he falls in love with a transgender dancer named Biba, and an affair ensues. Writer and director Saim Sadiq depicts how a family is slowly suffocated by the layered consequences of Pakistan’s strict gender roles.

A week before Sadiq’s film was set to release nationally in November, it was banned by Pakistan’s information and broadcasting ministry for complaints that it “contains highly objectionable material which does not conform with the social values and moral standards of our society,” according to a statement.

While most of the controversy around the film was centered on the transgender love interest, the Muslim-majority country has made significant strides on the issue of trans rights over the last decade. Since 2012, Pakistan has legally recognized a third gender, a category that includes the trans community. A law in 2018 followed to further safeguard trans rights.

Sadiq said any credit for the progress made should go to the Pakistani transgender community, and that it’s not necessarily a sign that the general public is progressive on this issue.

“Of course there’s the extremely progressive laws of 2018 and 2020, which allow a person the dignity of self identification and which recognizes a third gender, which is remarkable. But the credit for that doesn’t go to the ones supporting the community, but the community itself,” he said in a press statement about the film.

While the nationwide ban on "Joyland" was later reversed after recommendations for changes to the movie, it’s still banned in Punjab, the region of Pakistan where Lahore is located.

"Joyland" hit U.S. theaters last month, and is now screening locally at the Angelika and select theaters.

Arts Access is an arts journalism collaboration powered by The Dallas Morning News and KERA.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

Michelle Aslam is a 2021-2022 Kroc Fellow and recent graduate from North Texas. While in college, she won state-wide student journalism awards for her investigation into campus sexual assault proceedings and her reporting on racial justice demonstrations. Aslam previously interned for the North Texas NPR Member station KERA, and also had the opportunity to write for the Dallas Morning News and the Texas Observer.