Saim Sadiq’s highly anticipated “Joyland” follows Haider (Ali Junejo), who lives in a joint family that includes his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), his father (Salmaan Peerzada), his elder brother Saleem (Sameer Sohail), his sister-in-law Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani), and a total of four nieces. Saleem and Mumtaz are the earning members of the family, while Nucchi and Haider take care of household chores, the family patriarch, and the kids. In an attempt to get a job, Haider gets in touch with his friend Qaiser (Ramiz Law) and joins an erotic theater production as a background dancer. That’s when he sees Biba (Alina Khan), a trans woman who performs during the intermissions of the main show and wants to form her own group so that she can become the main attraction. This encounter leads to an unraveling on a personal level for Haider as well as for his whole family. And through this whole journey, Sadiq touches upon a lot of themes. So, let’s talk about them.
Major Spoilers Ahead
Championing the Trans Community
The biggest criticism against movies or shows featuring trans men or trans women is that those characters are played by cisgender heterosexual men or women. The usual excuse is that the casting directors didn’t find a talented trans actor to take on that role. And at this point, it just sounds like a blatant lie and the studios’ way of not allowing the trans community to represent themselves. Thankfully, “Joyland” prominently features Alina Khan in the role of Biba, along with many other trans actresses, and that too in a very celebratory and empowering light. Of course, Sadiq doesn’t shy away from the discrimination that trans women face and how they are demeaned by cis-het men and women for simply existing. But the larger focus is on Biba’s resilience, her expression of affection, her ability to stand up to anyone, her talents, her ambition, and her determination to never conform to the standards set by cis-het men.
It might be the case because I don’t come across a lot of films and shows centered around queer stories, especially ones that are set in South Asia. But, genuinely speaking, this is the first time I’ve seen a wedding between a trans woman and a cis man in a film. And that image of people celebrating this happily married couple just warmed my heart. In addition to that, the fact that the multiple sensual scenes between Haider and Biba outdo every single loud and obnoxious hetero-romance from 2022 makes me really happy. We have seen all there is to see in cis-het romances. The transgender community, which is an integral part of our society, should get the spotlight now. At the very least, they’ll have something interesting to say about love after partaking in romantic escapades under the watchful (and regressive) eyes of the law, the government, and self-proclaimed protectors of “civil” society.
The Tragic Victim of Patriarchy
The very first scene that we see in “Joyland” is of Nucchi’s three daughters, followed by Nucchi going into labor. When Saleem finally arrives to meet Nucchi after her delivery, it becomes apparent that they’ve so many daughters because Saleem wants a boy child. Later on, Nucchi talks about doing a diploma in interior design and then being convinced to become a homemaker by Saleem. She jokingly talks about how Saleem used to get intimate with her when she was pregnant. That’s an idiotic thing to do, but it has happened to Nucchi so many times that she has essentially normalized it. Now, while Nucchi is too lost in the sauce, Mumtaz still has a functional brain in her skull. She works as a make-up designer for weddings and is lauded for her resourcefulness. She prioritizes her employment over everything else. She wants comfort that can be afforded instead of toiling away for nothing. However, as soon as Haider gets a job, all of that is jeopardized.
Feminism and general craziness are blamed for Mumtaz’s desire, her decision to not have a child, and her urge to not be bound by the walls of that house. The moment right before Mumtaz’s death and the flashback to Haider and Mumtaz’s pre-wedding days are so telling of what Haider and his family view women as. As long as they are catering to the men or producing babies, they are visible; something that is pointed out by their elderly neighbor Fayyaz (Sania Saeed). These patriarchal families will never allow men to explore who they are and will plunge them into marriage with a woman who wants a man who is available for her, both spiritually and physically. And when they don’t get that, nobody has the basic decency to empathize with women like Mumtaz. That’s why Nucchi has to step outside the boundaries of civility to explicitly state that Mumtaz didn’t die by suicide. Saleem, Haider, the father’s patriarchal mindset, and Nucchi’s internalized misogyny are what killed her.
The Regression in the Younger Generations
Regressiveness from elders is kind of expected. It’s not acceptable, but nowadays, it’s not surprising for the boomers to say something absolutely bigoted but make it seem like they’re talking about daily soap operas. However, seeing it perpetuated by the younger generations is a whole different trip. Even in this day and age and in this economy, I cannot understand how the male members of a family can stop their female counterparts from seeking employment. Ultimately, it’s about money coming into the house, isn’t it? Why does it matter if it’s a man or a woman who is bringing it? Yet, in this movie, we see Mumtaz constantly bullied until she leaves her job and becomes a mother. And since that’s the state of progressiveness in the household, you can only imagine what their views on romance and co-dependence are.
Although the youngsters treat their parents with all the respect they can muster, they can’t see them taking a second chance at romance. Yes, they are okay with leaving the physically challenged father and Fayyaz while they go about their lives. But if they decide to start a life together because their respective spouses are dead, then they are apparently taking things too far. Haider is the only one who points out this regressive mindset. However, it doesn’t amount to anything because the patriarch, who is usually adamant about having it his way, fails to reciprocate Fayyaz’s intentions of living with him. And the funny thing is that the big reason for this regressive mindset is that society will shame them, which means that they’d rather die old and neglected than live with someone they love because of some mean comments. Just for the record, if your parents or grandparents are single at any stage of their lives and are willing to love again, let them.
The Various Forms of Masculinity
From the very first frame to the last, it’s clear that toxic masculinity is considered the norm. And it’s not just evident in the attitude but in terms of the physical presence as well. Although Saleem doesn’t resort to violence, he always has a frown on his face and looks intimidating. But when Nucchi raises her voice for the first time ever, Saleem simply crumbles. Qaiser and the rest of Haider’s colleagues casually partake in transphobia and sexism. When Haider pushes back, he is met with physical violence. However, when Biba tells Qaiser and the rest of the group to repeat what they were saying behind her back, they fail to even lift a finger. The men dancing around Biba are hell-bent on proving that they are cis-het men and scream and growl like Neanderthals, even though they don’t have to. All this just goes to show that machismo is a truly frail concept, and it’ll be better if men stray away from it and try to be more sensitive.
Speaking of sensitivity, Haider pretty much personifies that trait. Maybe even to a fault. The way he cares about his family, the moment when he ties Mumtaz’s hair with her scrunchie and his empathetic approach towards Biba are appreciable. But his submissiveness comes at a very high cost. There should be a balance when it comes to dealing with the situations that Haider faces. It’s good to be delicate and sympathetic because there’s a dearth of those sentiments in our society. However, when the time comes, we need to be assertive as well. Being assertive is always confused with being aggressive, but there’s a thick line that separates those two. Aggression amounts to just momentary fear. Assertiveness allows people to perceive you as the intelligent, observant, and tactful individual that you are. You have to know how to stand up for what’s right at the opportune moment while keeping your cool. Haider does it, but it’s too little, too late, and the damage done is irreparable. So, reject toxic and fragile masculinity and choose masculine sensitivity.