Looking for solace in stories that are often lost in the grand scheme of things…
akistani cinema has rarely touched the slice-of-life genre in the past few decades, and every time such a film has braved the rough seas, it has witnessed either massive applause – such as in the case of Cake – or a massive uproar that has motivated droves to stop it from releasing. Joyland has unfortunately been an example of the latter. A film brandished as a controversial narrative turns out to be quite the opposite.
Extracting its main story from the nooks of old Lahore, where it seems that time has stood still, Saim Sadiq’s Joyland explores the complexities of life. It does away with being big on grand narratives and instead focuses on the smallest ones. Things, that though quotidian, come forward as cerebral when blown up into bigger moments on the silver screen. Such is also the example of Haider (Ali Junejo) and his household, whose domestic life is put under the microscope in the film.
A ‘regular’ bloke from the Mughal city who struggles to find a job, Haider opens the story as one gets to delve deep into his patriarchal household – where an age-stricken conservative father (Salman Peerzada), an overbearing ‘alpha’ brother (Sohail Sameer) with a stereotypical mindset, a child-bearing sister-in-law (Sarwat Gilani) and his relatively independent wife (Rasti Farooq) all cohabitate a space where nobody seems to be happy but nobody seems to be doing anything to change that either.
Amidst all of it, things take a turn when Haider finds a job. Enter Biba. A transwoman who works in the mujra theatres of Lahore, we find Biba (Alina Khan) and Haider’s paths crossing when the latter, in dire desperation accepts a gig as a backup dancer for the former. As things turn out, however, both Biba and Haider, hardly find success. One fails to win fans or popularity due to her gender, and the other comes off as someone, who albeit hardworking, cannot dance.
As time goes by the story, weaves Haider’s household and its complementing stories with those of his now professional life, as he slowly finds himself falling for his ‘madam.’ Slowly their transgressing love acts as a catalyst for developments that would forever change the lives of all around them.
Joyland, however, is anything but a love story. Instead, the narrative takes Haider and Biba as two sides of a coin who drive the story forward. In reality, the film is more of an exploration of how each life is intertwined with the other at the same time as it is also highly individualistic. Mumtaz (Haider’s wife) is a perfect example of this. She, though the most impacted by her husband’s job - and unbeknownst to her, his love affair - is shown as someone who accepts him as who he is.
On the flip side, she also is the one who is negated the most – owing to her aversion to a typical domestic role. In another case, Haider’s sister-in-law, Nuchi (Sarwat Gilani) rarely gets to be more than just her husband’s submissive housewife, despite being a woman with ambition.
Such is Joyland. It shows the audience what each could have been but how instead they are stuck in a vicious loop of mediocrity with no escape awarded to anyone unless it’s through something of a grand nature. The nuances bring the claustrophobic lives of many around us to the forefront and in its intricate approach, let the audience be cognizant of this particular thread throughout its runtime.
The film suffers from its fair share of shortcomings too. Sadiq, who has been awarded at many film festivals across the globe for Joyland, does shy away from connecting each story to their end. Although understandable that the film has opted to create grey characters rather than constricting them in binaries and dichotomies, it makes the film feel disjointed at points and feels like a cop-out when it refuses to give the audience more clarity over the plots that it has built from the start. Biba’s journey is one such example, where it just feels more like a caricature than a well-rounded story.
On the other hand, inside Haider’s household, the folds of narrative, once again, do not go anywhere. Apart from one major turning point in the film, there’s hardly any place where any of them have a story that goes beyond just a few nuances of their lives. In that sense, films like Asim Abbasi’s Cake fared much better.
The drama courtesy of Pakistan’s many censor boards has not been kind to the film either. The unnecessary cuts to the film and the blurring of certain scenes take the audience out of the experience in a snap. Scenes that could have had much more impact on the viewer end up evoking annoyance instead as the cuts are erratic.
Overall, however, the cuts and censorship of scenes in the film aren’t as big moments of dissatisfaction as one would think they would be. Instead, the film’s cop-out at certain points is more the issue. But, having said that, by no means is it a bad film or one that should not have been shown.
Joyland, like its ironic title, is a strong entry for this year. It is also a type of cinema that should be ventured into more. There’s space for every kind of film, and it’s high time that Pakistani filmmakers take a gander at the slice-of-life genre and develop it into telling more such stories that are hidden in the back-alleys of cities across Pakistan.