Joyland, Pakistan’s first film to have been shortlisted for the Oscars, initially faced a ban in its homeland. The film is a tale about a patriarchal joint family living in Lahore. The head of this family is a wheel chair bound patriarch – played by Salman Peerzada- who has two married sons Haider (played by Ali Junejo) and Saleem (played by Sohail Sameer). They have a widowed neighbor Fayyaz (played by Sania Saed) who often visits their house and in one act of courage expresses her need of companionship and desire to marry the patriarch.
The narrative is essentially a representation of how human existence is placed at the behest of society's conventions and expectations, and as a result, the makers want us to automatically reflect upon the question of how much of our life is actually ours. In other words, how much do we own our own lives. In Joyland, the interrelated topics of patriarchy, gender, sexuality, and desire are discussed at length. A critical analysis of this movie is presented in the following paragraphs.
Idea of multiple masculinities
The two brothers are symbolic of contrasting masculinities. The elder brother Saleem represents the hegemonic or dominant masculinity as he is macho, aggressive, assertive and a provider for the family. Haider on the other hand represents an alternative masculinity which is the subjugated one as he is gentle, submissive and has no qualms about doing domestic chores - basically he is more “feminine” in his ways of being. Haider’s manhood is therefore subjected to a lot of questioning by the men around him, who see him as not being man enough. Haider’s wife Mumtaz -played by Rasti Farooq- on the other hand is his antithesis. As compared to Haider, she is the more ‘masculine’ one. Mumtaz is independent-minded, assertive, ambitious and loves her job as a beautician. She doesn’t want to be reduced to just being a housewife. Through such a characterization, the film brings to the fore the constructed nature of gender identity - the very fact that humans whether male or female can have different qualities and the categorization of these qualities as manly or womanly is a socially created phenomenon.
Desire, sexual Identity and gender
After many years of being a home maker and facing the consequent taunts of his father, Haider gets a job as a background dancer in an erotic dance theatre. There he falls intensely for the lead dancer who is a trans woman named Biba (played by Alina Khan). Biba is a trans woman in a man’s world. Through the character of Biba the film shows the struggle of a trans woman in a patriarchal, conservative society. Through an empathetic lens, the film portrays the harassment, violence and marginalization faced by the trans women community, wherein they endure a stigmatized and deeply vulnerable existence.
It is through his encounter with Biba that Haider experiences his (repressed) sexuality. He feels the passion he never felt for his wife. In doing so, the film also explores the idea of ‘love without desire’. Haider loves Mumtaz, their marriage is characterized by mutual care, companionship and lack of any gendered roles but, he doesn’t desire her the way he felt for Biba.
The film also explores female desire. When Haider stays out in the night for long hours due to his kindled flame of passion for Biba, Mumtaz ends up pleasuring herself while looking at a man who is standing at the road doing the same. She is suddenly interrupted by her brother-in-law who rebukes her through his facial expressions, thus shaming her for her act.
Overarching structure of patriarchy
Saleem and his wife Nuchi (played by Sarwat Gilani) are expecting their fourth baby and desperately hope that at least this time it would be a baby boy. But the tragic manifestation of patriarchy unfolds in the form of Mumtaz’s self-estrangement and her eventual suicide. When Haider finally lands himself a job, his father- the patriarch of the family- orders Mumtaz to leave her job and do domestic chores like Nuchi and just focus on having a baby boy. Here on we see Mumtaz feeling claustrophobic as she struggles to fit into the new order, which has stripped her of her dreams and independence. And eventually, as a sign of protest, she silently commits suicide. This film thus shows how the act of suicide is an outcome of the social conditions of lives. As Durkheim rightly argued in his classic work, Suicide, a seemingly personal or individualistic act is more often than not shaped by the social forces or the social structures that an individual is a part of and embedded into.
This film essentially poses a pivotal question - how much agency/power does an individual have over his or her life? The classical question which concerns social sciences perennially. Saim Sadiq, the director of this film has successfully shown the deeply gendered nature of social reality. What is also praiseworthy is the powerful representation of a transgender. The actor playing Biba is a trans woman in reality. What is remarkable about Biba is that she absolutely owns her gender identity and fights the patriarchal, conservative world head on. The film humanizes Biba beyond her suffering. This film truly deserves all the accolades it has been receiving. If you like social commentaries Joyland is for you. It’s a land like ours, mired in hetero-patriarchal social norms!
Scholar & Writer