“Joyland” (2022)- Movie Review

Writer/Director: Saim Sadiq
Starring: Ali Junejo, Alina Khan, Rasti Farooq

‘Joyous Achievement’

Pakistan has built an image of being an orthodox country that expresses outrage towards same-sex marriage. Unlike America, queer people in Pakistan face stigma. Coming out of the closet is easier said than done in a nation following strict Islamic religion. LGBTQ stories are scarcely depicted in movies. Despite homosexuality’s prominence, LGBTQ movies have commonly attracted a limited audience in a country where the community lacks acceptance. Audiences have always had appetites for watching immigrants in Jackson Heights (ex. Mehreen Jabbar’s “Jackson Heights”) rather than transvestites. Strict censorship proves the country hasn’t come to grips with LGBTQ relationships. Justifiably, it is scarcely ever simple to acknowledge homosexuality in a country where it’s illegal. Due to fear of movies being banned, it’s easy to understand why filmmakers always avoid discussing homosexuality in their homeland. Therefore, acceptance has a long way to go in a country where being gay is a heavy price to pay. However, everything changed when Saim Sadiq’s “Joyland” became the first ever Pakistani film shortlisted an Oscar nominee. Not only did it honor the gay community, but it affected the country. Like light at the end of a dark tunnel, it sparked conversations about the queer population. Could a Pakistani film about transgenders win an Oscar?

While the Academy Awards are months away, “Joyland” deserves recognition for celebrating gay communities in the world’s most misunderstood country today. Intimate, heartwarming and empowering, it offers joyous glimpses at Pakistan’s LGBTQ communities. With his debut, Sadiq uses Cinema to condemn homophobia. Boasting exquisite production-design, engrossing storytelling and phenomenal performances, it’s a joyous achievement. Although “Joyland” is unforgettable, it isn’t flawless. It builds open-ended conclusions lacking satisfying resolutions. Nevertheless, it provides thought-provoking entertainment for Lollywood fans.

Set near Lahore, “Joyland” follows a homosexual whose troubles disappear out of thin air when he forms a queer affair. Ali Junejo embodies Haider, the youngest son of a middle-class family which condemns homosexuality. Haider dreams of escaping his broken marriage but has never found the courage. However, his life forever changes when he develops feelings for transgender dancer Bina (Alina Khan). As Haider embraces homosexuality, he challenges norms of his conservative country.

Writer/director Saim Sadiq has always found joy in visiting lands of transgenders. Following critical appreciation with 2019’s short “Darling”, Sadiq has become a phenomenal Punjabi filmmaker. With “Joyland”, however, Sadiq crafts a queer love story. It’s the filmmaker’s endeavors to dramatize Pakistan’s queer communities, but he succeeds. Using spellbinding cinematography, Sadiq draws viewers into a homosexual’s self-discovery in a metropolitan city. Evoking Kamal Khan’s “Laal Kabootar”, Sadiq expertly uses real-life Lahore locations to capture the city’s beauty. If the West has often viewed Pakistan as a poverty-stricken nation without prosperity, the visuals exhibit different sides to the country. Working alongside DP Joe Sade, the director captures his land’s beauty. Sadiq honors his country, crafting a movie that demands big-screen viewing.

If cinematic portraits of countries don’t attract attention, however, there are plenty of reasons to see “Joyland”. Assisted by production-designer Kanwal Khoosat, Sadiq successfully captures sorrow experienced by queer communities through the 4:3 aspect ratio. For instance, the condensed ratio is effectively used to evoke empathy for transgender communities during the subway scene. During this unforgettable scene, the transgender dancer Bina experiences discrimination from subway passengers due to her sexuality. One appreciates box-like aspect ratios capturing artists that challenge societal conventions in Aamir-zing styles recalling Kiran Rao’s “Dhobi Ghat”. Furthermore, Abdullah Siddiqui’s score is magnificent. Siddiqui’s choice to use instrumental rather than song-and-dance music is risky, but succeeds. Evoking Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name”, it captures despair of being queer. Through set-design, Sadiq honors queer communities.

Another extraordinary “Joyland” aspect is the screenplay. Sadiq’s screenwriting strength is his capabilities evoking empathy for marginalized LGBTQ communities through minimal dialogue. In Lollywood, movies commonly highlight downsides rather than pride faced by homosexual communities in a nation unable to set prejudices aside. Case-in-point: Shoaib Mansoor’s “Bol” suggested transgender teens without control over their destinies experience an emotional toll. Fortunately, however, “Joyland” avoids dehumanizing LGBTQ communities. Emulating Mehreen Jabaar’s program “Jackson Heights”, Sadiq expertly uses silence sequences to capture a tight-knit community’s perseverance. Recalling South-Asian immigrants from similar socioeconomic backgrounds bonding in the Jackson Heights neighborhood, silence sequences capture transvestites’ relationships. Minimal dialogue is a complicated technique to employ in Lollywood movies. As Haseeb Hassan’s “Parwaaz Hai Junoon” proved, loud song-and-dance numbers rather than silent character encounters tend to attract audiences towards theaters. However, it succeeds. Through a sharp script, Sadiq honors transvestites.

One praises powerful performances.

Ali Junejo delivers a breakthrough performance as Haider. In a career-making role, Junejo emerges a talented star with flair for playing queer individuals engaging in romantic affairs. It’s intimidating to portray a gay man in a country where homosexuality is a felony. It’s a challenging role that requires the actor to express emotions through expressions rather than words. However, Junejo succeeds. With riveting expressions, he captures the angst, determination and regrets of a citizen questioning societal standards of his country. It’s a star-making performance that proves Junejo is destined stardom.

Alina Khan is terrific as a tormented transgender dancer that battles barriers imposed by traditional Pakistani culture. As Biba, Khan draws from her personal experiences as a real-life transgender to portray a member of her community. Evoking Kubbra Sait in Netflix’s series “Sacred Games”, Khan uses body-language to personify a transgender seeking fame. Whether she’s confronting bullies for mocking her sexuality or silently ignoring strangers’ stares, Khan conveys Biba’s larger-than-life personality through body-language. It’s an extraordinary performance that commemorates LGBTQ communities.

Finally, “Joyland” earns everyone’s appreciation for celebration of queer populations. Evoking Shoaib Mansoor’s “Khuda Kay Liye”, the film transforms the West’s views of Pakistan by tackling taboos. Sadiq discusses timely topics including family, sexuality and religion. Viewers aren’t required to be Punjabi to enjoy the movie. Thus, “Joyland” leaves everyone satisfied.

Despite universal appeal, however, “Joyland” doesn’t entirely do justice to LGBTQ communities populating joyous lands that reject their identities. Sadiq’s decision to conclude the movie with symbolism is clever and unexpected, but doesn’t entirely succeed. It’s an open-ended conclusion leaving characters’ fates up-in-the-air without satisfying resolution. As Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl” proved, ambiguous endings are appropriate for Hollywood LGBTQ dramas about sex operations. Punjabi audiences seeking neat resolutions won’t be satisfied with the ending. Thus, “Joyland” isn’t a masterpiece.

Nevertheless, fans of Pakistan Cinema will certainly enjoy “Joyland” and so will audiences seeking moving entertainment. A powerful drama, it suggests that stories of LGBTQ communities that take a stand deserve to be told in a joyful land without being banned. If Cinema is a medium with the power to remove social stigma in a country experiencing rising rates of homophobia, hopefully it will alter Pakistan’s view of transgenders like Bina whose homosexual identities are an important ingredient of their persona allowing them to experience joy in lands overpopulated by hijras.

A joyous glimpse at the culture of a grand land, it could allow Westerners to understand homophobia that’s gotten out of hand in a nation where artists are rarely allowed to take a stand supporting queer communities without getting movies banned.

In a nation following Islamic religion reluctant to change its old-fashioned traditions, the movie has the potential to incite long-lasting conversations convincing the government to take actions addressing discrimination endured by marginalized populations.

At a time when the tide has begun to turn in favor of queer communities in Pakistan, one hopes it will lead citizens to set their differences aside take pride rather than hide their sexual identities in a nation where significant numbers of homosexuals reside.

Being a native concerned about his homeland’s future, it’s a relief to discover filmmakers are breaking barriers by telling stories of transgenders proving there’s glimmers of joy to be found in a dark land where individuals’ destinies all-too-often depend upon government’s orders.

4.5/5 stars

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