Joyland has been a breakthrough movie from the moment it became the first Pakistani film to play at Cannes. Its Queer Palm win, for the fest’s best LGTBQ+ movie, owed plenty to its perception-busting power – not just of gender normative behaviour, but also of the types of story told in this part of the world. Those expecting music, dance numbers, and the OTT acting associated with an increasingly out-of-date western idea of Bollywood are in for a big surprise. This is a movie full of nuance, where it pays to look out for the small gestures.
The movie’s successes to date – it’s also on the long list for an Oscar nomination – are down to the skilful storytelling of director Saim Sadiq. Born in Lahore, he studied screenwriting at New York's Columbia Film School and his short film, Darling, set in the world of trans dancers, was an eye-catching intro to his talents. There’s a trans dancer at the heart of Joyland too, but before we meet Biba (Alina Khan), Sadiq introduces us to what on the surface seems like a traditional Pakistani family, but it’s one where patriarchy is already in crisis.
That frequently wrathful patriarch (Salmaan Peerzada) is in a wheelchair but still feared by his children and grandchildren. However, the world he presides over is already shifted away from traditional roles. He's aghast that his daughter-in-law Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), a make-up artist, is the chief breadwinner, while his son, her husband Haider (Ali Junejo), is responsible for looking after the children. When Haider finds a well-paid job, Mumtaz is forced to quit hers, with her unhappiness unheeded. Haider hides the fact that his new career is with a trans dance troupe at an erotic theatre. His feelings of liberation manifest when he has an affair with Bibi, the trans group’s leader.
Those expecting music, dance numbers and OTT acting are in for a surprise
Joyland’s quiet power comes not through melodrama, which Sadiq scrupulously avoids, but its deep affection for its characters. It’s a modern tale of changing gender roles and the patriarchal crisis that could just as easily have taken place in New York.
In US theaters Apr 21.