Festivals, Reviews

‘Joyland’ review: Defying the Rhythms of Masculinity

Haider (Ali Junejo) is not a stereotypical man. He enjoys playing with his young nieces, hesitates in butchering livestock, lives off his wife Mumtaz’s (Rasti Farooq) salary, and doesn’t have kids of his own. He is physically smaller than his peers and is meeker than the usual cisgender heterosexual man. There is nothing he “truly owns,” as he puts it—not his social standing, his family, or his individuality.

It is this idea of masculinity’s peculiar relationship with private ownership vis-a-vis personal identity that is examined in Saim Sadiq’s transgressive feature debut Joyland. Historically, men have claimed social superiority over women at the advent of class society, when families had become a means by which private properties could be passed from one generation to the next, signaling an overblown importance towards paternal lineage. Under such norms, Haider’s lack of private property is seen as an anomaly, manifesting as social pressure to be his family’s provider, produce an heir, and consequently earn his father’s approval.

However, Haider’s attempt at conforming to his preconceived gender role by working in an erotic theatre is challenged when he meets Biba (Alina Khan), a transgender dancer whose own existence is in itself a defiance of the patriarchal Pakistani society. Biba is the epitome of freedom: she freely expresses her chosen gender identity, is not bound by any familial responsibilities, and is assertive toward what she wants in life. Though she starts as a minor performer for a bigger cisgender female star, she is laser-focused on her goal of becoming the theatre’s main attraction—a feat that she eventually achieves. Simply put, Biba is everything Haider aspires to but cannot be.

Haider’s desire for the emancipated self, as reflected in Biba, eventually transforms into an extramarital affair between the two. Theirs is not just an act of forbidden romance; it also directly challenges the monogamy essential in the capitalist family structure, which then grants Haider a semblance of self-autonomy. However, Haider’s naive insistence on maintaining a peaceful relationship with his family takes a toll on his wife Mumtaz, whose burgeoning career as a hairdresser is put to a halt as the former navigates success both in the conservative and “free” aspects of his life.

Here, writer-director Saim Sadiq exhibits a profound understanding of gender and power dynamics. These two aspects of Haider’s life are contradictory and unable to co-exist. As a cisgender man, the patriarchal society always favors him—even his uglier sides—and women always suffer the brunt of his careless actions. Confronted with such toxic privilege, Haider is forced to reassess his place in the world, no matter how tragically bittersweet it might be.

Despite all these, however, one can’t help but feel that Joyland is too mechanical in its execution, as if it’s ticking off current film festival conventions to qualify as what counts as a “good” contemporary film. There is nothing wrong with that, per se, because these conventions are still effective in communicating the film’s ideas (which is why they became conventions in the first place), but in effect, Joyland loses the rebellious spirit that its story demands.

Even in the film’s freer scenes—Haider’s solo rehearsal on the rooftop, Biba’s first major stage performance, and Mumtaz’s game with the kids in the garden—the aspect ratio still suffocates the characters, with the only sign of liberation being the close-ups and camera movements instead of the usual static shots. Perhaps that’s the point, that attempts at freedom are fleeting and futile in a patriarchal society, but it also robs the characters of any opportunity at showcasing genuine agency, for the formal elements had already marked their tragic ends since the beginning.

Still, Joyland remains a historic piece of Pakistani cinema with all its discussions of cultural and gender taboos, and also functions as a universal narrative on self-actualization. Moreover, it cements Saim Sadiq as a filmmaker to watch out for, whose sensibilities will be interesting to watch mature in the near future.

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