“Joyland,” directed by Saim Sadiq and written by Sadiq and Maggie Briggs, is initially centered around Haider’s journey of finding a job and standing up to the family patriarch. But as this process brings him across Biba, a trans woman who runs an erotic dance troupe of her own, Haider begins to question his sexuality. This tenses up the already shaky relationship with his wife, Mumtaz, as she gets torn apart in the tug-of-war between traditionalism and modernity. Apart from the three of them, there’s Haider’s brother Saleem and sister-in-law Nucchi, who are busy pumping out one kid after another, hoping to eventually have a boy child. And as if that’s not enough, there’s Haider and Saleem’s father, who is hellbent on applying 18th-century logic to his 21st-century children while dealing with his complex emotions about his neighbor, Fayyaz. So, let’s talk about these characters and understand the significance of their respective arcs.
Major Spoilers Ahead
Haider is the product of a patriarchal society. He inadvertently subverts gender norms by taking on a role that’s “traditionally” carried out by women—taking care of kids and doing household chores—something that Haider’s sister-in-law is doing. But the misogyny that has been perpetuated by his family and the people around Haider forces him to see Mumtaz’s ability to bring money into the family as something bad. Haider’s attempt to be the “man of the family” or “one of the men of the family” makes him Biba’s employee. However, it also opens up his horizons in terms of understanding his physical urges and figuring out what he wants from a romantic relationship. Now, although that allows him to break through the regressive atmosphere surrounding him, it comes at a heavy price. Since all this is new to him, he fails to relate to Biba’s needs. He demeans her by judging her gender-affirming surgery, and he assigns a “masculine” role in their dynamic, which is something that Biba hasn’t signed up for. That, of course, overwhelms Haider, thereby causing him to lose track of Mumtaz, who sinks under the pressure of being a good wife and a good mother while having personal and professional needs of her own.
Mumtaz’s character arc explicitly shows the repercussions of having progressive aspirations in a regressive society and an equally regressive household. She is berated for having a job after marriage. She is berated for not bearing a child. She is essentially berated for being the “man of the family,” even though, gender-wise, she’s “the wife.” Since Haider isn’t assertive, Mumtaz succumbs to patriarchy. And since that proverbial pit made of misogyny is essentially endless, she keeps sinking until she’s literally gone from this world. But giving such a broad reason for her death by suicide is incorrect. Haider is responsible for her passing because he is the one who assured her that her freedom wouldn’t be impacted by marriage. Yet he implicitly and explicitly forced her to go through the rituals of a “traditional” wife without even noticing the mental toll that’s taking on her. Saleem is responsible for her death because he’s the one who forced her to leave her job despite knowing how much she loved it. Nucchi is responsible for her death because, despite being a woman, she didn’t empathize with her plight and kept feeding her unhealthy doses of internalized misogyny on a daily basis. So, without taking anything away from what Mumtaz faces throughout the course of “Joyland,” she serves as a cautionary tale for every South Asian woman looking to enter a patriarchal household while dreaming of excelling in her workplace.
Biba is the archetypal “rags to riches” star. But the upward struggle is quadrupled by the fact that she’s a trans woman. We see that it’s already hard for a cis-gendered heterosexual woman to survive in the industry as an erotic dancer. Doing the same as a trans woman who has to perform during the intermission spots is truly insane. Yet she lets nothing stand in her way. Yes, Biba falls in love with Haider. However, as soon as she understands that maintaining a relationship with a person who doesn’t know what he wants is detrimental to her professional progress, she cuts him loose and focuses on her work. She doesn’t do it immediately and heartlessly, though. Despite facing judgment from transphobic folks and shouldering the responsibility of her job, she tries her best to educate Haider. She helps him understand his sexual orientation. Biba accepts his professional ideas so that they can be together on the stage as well. It’s only when she understands that Haider can’t be helped that she decides to sever their ties. That said, at the end of “Joyland,” we see that she doesn’t hold anything against him as she appears at Mumtaz’s funeral so that he has someone around him who he loves during such a difficult time.
Nucchi personifies internalized misogyny. She is a baby-making machine. She has trained her mind to love household chores. She doesn’t have cravings of her own, and she just knows that she has to cater to her husband, Saleem. She has a shadow of what she used to be buried beneath her. That’s hinted at by the look of despair on her face when she learns that she has given birth to yet another girl child and when she talks about having aspirations of being an interior designer. But she doesn’t really bring that to the fore because she wants Mumtaz to be like her instead of helping her to be something that she herself couldn’t be. I think viewers are going to remember her outburst at the end of “Joyland,” but that’s too little, too late. The damage has already been done. The person she could have freed from the shackles of patriarchy is dead, and there’s no point in crying about that. Yes, we can certainly hope that that outburst is going to quell every attempt at imposing traditionalism on her four daughters. Without an explicit protest against patriarchy, you can fully expect men to digest the death of a woman (who is the victim of their misogyny) and carry on. But since the fate of Nucchi and her daughters is far away in the future, and hence uncertain, we should learn to be vocal about patriarchal norms in the present and never partake in internalized misogyny.
It’s an understatement to say that Saleem personifies toxic masculinity because he’s literally made of it. Every fiber of his being oozes nothing but toxicity. He doesn’t love Haider. He has no respect for Mumtaz. He sees Nucchi as the person who’ll give him a boy child. He treats his father like a responsibility that has been forcibly put on his shoulders, because if he did care about him, he would actually help him out with everything, instead of focusing on his vague job and letting Haider do all the heavy lifting. I don’t think he really cares about his children because, well, they aren’t boys. Haider is more of a father to them than Saleem (and it’s possible that he hates Haider for that too). He has a permanent scowl on his face, as if he’s disappointed with life for not being misogynistic enough. But in reality, he’s probably angry at himself for being the hateful human being that he is. He understands the growing divide between Mumtaz and Haider, but he takes the most pathetic route to address it. Despite all this overt display of masculinity, when he needs to stand up for his father and Fayyaz, he barely utters a word because Fayyaz’s son is not as submissive as any of the other members of his family. We see him do the same when Nucchi stands up to him. And by doing so, “Joyland” underscores the fact that “alpha men” are nothing but cowards who are mean to those who are shy and reserved and afraid of those who are assertive and extroverted.
Father and Fayyaz
Father and Fayyaz are clearly from a bygone era. But since South Asian households are very slow in terms of both accepting new societal reforms and educating the elderly, they end up being sore spots. We don’t see what Fayyaz does in her household, but we can assume, based on her conversation with her son, that since she isn’t much use at her age, she is largely neglected. Her son thinks that getting her a Netflix subscription is more than enough. He doesn’t think that Fayyaz needs something “trivial,” like companionship. Haider and Saleem’s father is a different story altogether. Yes, he’s probably as old as Fayyaz. Since he’s a cis-het man, though, he still has the right to perpetuate his misogyny throughout the family. Despite his physical limitations, everyone is forced to accept his orders and follow through. That said, when nobody but Fayyaz is there to look after him, he realizes that they can lead a better life if they live together. They understand that they don’t have to wither away on their own while berating those who are younger than them. However, as the saying goes, “as you sow, so shall you reap,” both the father and Fayyaz face the consequences of perpetuating traditionalism for ages as they are forced to continue doing so and die alone and unloved.
Final thoughts On The Characters of ‘Joyland’
“Joyland” is a tragic tale, and hence its characters go through tragic arcs of their own. But the key difference between Haider, Mumtaz, Nucchi, Saleem, the Father, Fayyaz, and Biba is that the latter’s story is kind of inspirational, while the rest are walking, talking cautionary tales. Even though the odds are completely stacked against Biba, she’s the one who ends up being on the right track to fulfill her goals. However, everyone else ends up in a state that’s worse than where they started, despite having every tool for success at their disposal. And that shows how impactful societal conditioning is and what it takes to unlearn it if one has the urge to actually move forward. In addition to that, these characters are emblematic of Saim Sadiq and Maggie Briggs’ amazing writing, as they make them as human and relatable as possible while keeping track of their personal trajectories. “Joyland” has already won accolades across the world and is finally coming to India. Since it has become one of my all-time favorites, I highly recommend watching it.