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Sunday, December 3, 2023

LFF 2022 Review: Joyland

Pakistani Queer film, Joyland received a standing ovation at Cannes this year. Then went to Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Now, it competes in the ‘First Feature’ category at BFI London Film Festival (LFF). It is set in Lahore, about a middle-class family.

A wheelchair-bound yet conservative father (Salmaan Peerzada) rules over his two sons and daughters-in-law. He wants his kids to give him grandchildren. But all changes when his younger but handsome son, Haider (Ali Junejo), falls in love with Biba (Alina Khan), a transgender dancer while working as a background dancer for her. Despite being married to Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), he continues this, but things start to spiral out at home. The feature also stars Aahat‘s Sania Saeed and Sarwat Gilani (of Churails fame) in pivotal roles. It is co-produced by Zindagi Tamasha’s Sarmad Khoosat. Directed by Saim Sadiq.

Joyland, filmed in the square 1.37:1 aspect ratio, progresses at a snail’s pace. From the first frame, it captures the viewer’s attention by painting a jovial joint family image. But very quickly, this visual is cut by a gruesome sequence of a goat beheading. Throughout the movie, we see several close-up shots and bird’s eye angles. These camera skills and frame size exudes entrapment. The audience’s attention is constantly fixed within the parameters of its screen ratio. Focus shots behind the characters’ shoulders also create a sense of isolation.

Lahore city is picturesquely encapsulated. Shots of the noisy neighbourhoods and bustling streets convey the commonality yet solitude of this family. They are one of many, yet their dysfunctionality and archaic norms have deserted them from the crowd, making their story distinctive. Kudos go to Joe Saade’s spellbinding cinematography, which shows a bleak narrative in a visually aesthetic manner. When it comes to technical aspects, the film certainly works very well.

In many ways, this movie seems to re-visit Khoosat’s socially dismantled world of Zindagi Tamasha. There, we see how a once-revered man is plunged onto the fringes of society. However, here, the plot goes further where a marginalised character like Biba is a window to highlighting issues of people within the conventional set-up. It is worth also noticing how there is a constant inclusion of light and dark to portray the duality of problems. Ironically, the complex issues within the movies are constantly seen between two people, yet there is no light for any of the characters. Even gender conventions are challenged in unexpected ways, making the plot unpredictable. In addition, it is admirable how the director addresses subliminal topics like mental health in a subtle yet hard-hitting and layered way.

Despite time progressing, it is extremely heartbreaking to see the story of a transgender woman who is dejected by society. There are certain scenes in the movie which highlight the transphobic/fetish attitudes of men. Double standards are neatly highlighted. At the same time, it exhibits how the Trans community fight the naysayers back in an unapologetic and dignified manner. Biba is sassy, self-respected, stunning and confident. Nonetheless, we get a glimpse of how compassionately broken she is within. All these strands are powerfully portrayed by Khan, who is on-screen dynamite. It is so progressive and empowering to see a Transgender actor play this role (and rightly so). She is an icon to look out for in subsequent works.

Complementing Alina in performance are Junejo, Farooq and Gilani. His bewildered looks and yet suppressed sexuality is portrayed marvellously. Junejo’s silence and expressions do the talking on many occasions. His maturity as an actor is palpable, especially in scenes which can be deemed as ‘bold’ in Pakistan. Farooq too is spectacular. She effortlessly presents a passionate worker who is suppressed in domestic confinement. There are scenes where one really empathises with her role and yet there must be so many figures like her in our society. Her character is an awakening yet shakes you from within. Gilani as a flamboyant and picky ‘Bhabhi’ displays greyness in a refined manner, which also has positive shades. She too is natural and effervescent.

As cinema connoisseurs, we are in a great space to see real, gritty stories explored in a candid and convoluted manner. Just recently, Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, a Trans-Cis love story released in commercial Hindi cinema and it is so refreshing to see Pakistan adapting a concept like this too. But by the end of Joyland, we are left in awe of the visual spectacle yet distraught by social injustices. Even after the credits roll, the characters and their life decisions are mulled over by viewers. This ruffles feathers in the aptest way and is one of the most exemplary South-Asian Trans movies. A revolution is created.

⭐⭐⭐⭐.5 (4.5/5 stars)

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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