Hide And Seek: Pakistan’s Remarkable Joyland

The first Pakistani film to be shortlisted for an Oscar, Joyland is a defiant family portrait tackling gender expectations, finds Cici Peng

As Joyland begins, children chant a sing-song countdown as a close-up of a figure covered in a white sheet reaches forward in a game of hide-and-seek. From the very start, the tensions of being watched by those in the shadows are obvious, while you move carefully in search for a release from the blindness into the light. How do you seek out your own desires and liberation against the judgements of others? Set in Saim Sadiq’s home in Lahore, the director’s film introduces a traditionally patriarchal family that struggles against the new winds of a changing world.

The film begins in the family’s courtyard, where Haider and his sister-in-law Nucchi spend their days, taking care of the children and running the household under the watchful eye of the household’s wheel-chair bound patriarch, Haider’s father. He holds onto his hierarchical power, dictating and intimidating his family members despite his old age. He makes no effort to disguise his disappointment in Haider’s condition: a house-husband who’s content taking care of his brother’s children while his wife, Mumtaz, works as the chief breadwinner for the family.

When Haider gets a job as a back-up dancer for Biba, a Mujra trans female dancer at an erotic dance theatre, Mumtaz is forced to quit her make-up job that she loves, as Haider’s father urges Mumtaz to take on her role as a stay-at-home wife. When Haider starts his job, he experiences a renewed sense of self – through embarking on an affair with Biba and his newfound challenge as a performer. Sadiq reunites with Alina Khan as Biba, the transgender actress who starred in his 2019 short film Darling. She commands the stage with dynamism, as a diva with brash confidence that’s become her survival tactic in the face of daily dangers. Out of all the characters, she emerges most liberated.

Sadiq captures Biba’sfreedom and precarity in a montage sequence in which Biba is taunted by a group of men in a crowded club who trap her with their bodies. The threat of violence floods the scene as the camera zooms in closer, signalling the growing sense of enclosure as the men push Biba into a forced embrace with another man, her face full of emotion and subdued panic. However, in the next cut, a long shot sees Haider on the back of a motorbike holding onto a huge cardboard cut-out poster of Biba, his tiny head lost between the crotch of the behemoth of Biba. With one hand on her hip and her gaze facing the camera with Haider shrinking beneath her, Biba’s image is expansive and free, cruising through the midnight streets of Lahore, asking to be seen by the world. Juxtaposed against the prejudices and dangers she faces, Biba emerges victorious.

Although the film has been described as a trans love story, it encompasses more than just Haider’s romance with Biba. Joyland complicates an age-old story of male infidelity with a sprawling family portrait concerned with the corrosive effects of the patriarchy – both on the women and the men, from Biba to Mumtaz to Haider and his father.

When a neighbour sees a cut-out of Biba on the roof of Haider’s home, she comes over immediately to warn them about what the other people might think. Draping a white sheet over the cut-out to hide it, Joyland plays another round of hide-and-seek, between the fear of ‘Log kya kahenge’ (‘What will people say?’) and the need to avoid the gaze of others. Sadiq reduces the power of the patriarch to his fear of a tainted reputation.

The sense of fear emerges in a scene where Haider’s family is gathered in the living room the morning after a night of freedom – Mumtaz and Nucchi leave Haider’s father in the care of the widowed female neighbour to go to the amusement park Joyland, abandoning their daily chores for a night out; Haider stayed out late with Biba after a show together. As a consequence, the neighbour couldn’t travel home alone at night and had to stay the night. Her son arrives at their home in the morning, furious, telling off Haider’s father for letting her stay and damaging their reputation. While the neighbour’s son speaks of his horror of his mother’s sleepover, the camera cuts from a shot of the household in the four corners of the living room to a close-up of each member.

They say nothing – their eyes flitting away, lost in thought. Each member harbours secrets unknown to the others, a whole world hidden within themselves. Through the montage, Sadiq constructs the loneliness and tragedy of each character and their emotional distance from each other, despite their shared discontent. The tight Academy aspect ratio further entraps them within the square-like bounds of the image, exposing the conflict that exists within the minds of one who does not and cannot speak, trapped in a society that functions on a simulacrum of obedience to archaic laws. It’s not about what you do, but what you’re seen doing.

In a poignant moment, the neighbour speaks up defiantly to her son – the only one who speaks in the sequence: “I’m old, almost a ghost. I know that. I’m really not of much use anymore, I know that. But if I can be of use to [Haider’s father], take care of him, then why shouldn’t I?” Looking to Haider’s father for his support, there is conflict in his silence as he looks away from her gaze, responding meekly, “Haider should take you home.” Cowardice and patriarchal ideals are united paradoxically in Haider’s father’s inability to speak of his own needs.

Haider resembles a man waiting for someone to tell him what to do. He is inert in the face of crisis, a pitiful child of an unbalanced society, as he says to Biba, “I feel like I have nothing that’s my own. Everything feels borrowed or stolen from someone else.” Sadiq does not let him off the hook easily. Haider doesn’t feel self-ownership because he is self-involved and conflict-averse – turning a blind eye to the suffering of the people he cares about. Mumtaz, instead, emerges as the emotional focus of the film. Forced to stay at home and quit work, trapped in her passionless arranged marriage, Rasti Farooq imbues Mumtaz with a nuanced sense of self-knowledge in the face of her anguish, performing small acts of resistance that transpose her beyond the bounds of a “suffering wife”.

The film’s most poetic scene emerges towards the end of the film at Haider’s father’s 70th birthday. Haider’s father praises Haider for bringing another boy into their family to continue the lineage, while a pregnant Mumtaz stands to the side, unmentioned, just a vessel for his future grandchild. Pushing her way out of the crowd to play with the children outside, Mumtaz seizes control of her body, leaping and running wildly, as Haider and Nucchi warn her to be careful of her pregnancy. Yet here, she looks back at Haider’s father with a joyless smile as she runs even harder, laying claim on her body in her moment of play. Within the close-up of her empty laugh, the film’s tragic centre emerges, as those closest to her avert their gaze from her unhappiness. By choosing not to bear witness to Mumtaz, they ignore her cries of help ,and the possibility of mutual understanding and care.

Poetic, tragic and humorous in equal measure, Joyland is receiving its well-deserved flowers, as the first Pakistani film to not only appear at Cannes, but also win both the Un Certain Regard selection’s Jury Prize as well as the Queer Palm. After being selected and shortlisted for an Academy Award, its domestic release was barred by transphobic protests in Pakistan. The Minister of Information and Broadcasting said that the film contained “highly objectionable material which does not conform with the social values and moral standards of our society.” It has only now allowed the film to be released with several cuts while remaining banned in the Punjab region. Yet, Sadiq’s film should serve as a warning to the draconian censors – you can’t drape a sheet over the eyes of the public and feign ignorance – these issues will not disappear from an averted gaze.

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