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Movie Reviews

Joyland ★★★★★



Director: Saim Sadiq

Cast: Ali Junejo, Alina Khan, Rasti Farooq

Release Date: February 24th 2023

In the UK alone, the vilification of transgender people has been at the forefront of many a news headline or needless political debate recently. Whether it’s dumbing down issues specific to transgender people simply to what genitalia they have or their basic human rights under threat, no thanks to a largely heteronormative society with a vetoing of a gender reform bill. Trans people have as much a right to freedom of expression and live their authentic truth as anyone else. That commonality, of course, extends across the world in other societies where rigid gender roles constrict, and repressed desire runs rampant—initially banned in its homeland Pakistan by its government, believing that the glamorisation of transgender people was against Pakistani values, Saim Sadiq’s Joyland feels like a minor miracle.

The gentle simplicity of the opening sequence. A down-on-his-luck Haider (Ali Junejo) wearing a white sheet resembling a ghost as he plays hide and seek with his domineering brother Saleem’s (Sohail Sameer) children. Encapsulating how haunted many of Joyland’s characters are in the blunt upholding of tradition—struggling to carry out the sacrifice of a goat, seemingly an indictment of their masculinity. An unlikely link to the alarming sight of Haider spotting performer Biba’s (Alina Khan) stained dress in a hospital, where cis men treat trans women like cattle and swiftly sweep up any of the bloodshed. Little does Haider know of the sheer impact this woman is about to play in reconfiguring the thought process of his manhood.

They offered a chance to escape the squabbling of the Rana family, who emasculated him at an alarming rate. Haider finds unlikely solace in being a background dancer for Biba’s erotic theatre show who is ferocious in her ambition, especially in the face of the obnoxious’ headline act’ she begrudgingly shares the bill with. Quite tentative at first in his movements (think Zayn Malik at X Factor boot camp!), his quiet demeanour gradually catches up with Biba’s artistic expression’s sheer volume and clarity. He was stoking a fire between them that leaves his disillusioned wife at home, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), increasingly interested and would much prefer to retain the pride instilled in her work.

The early levity director Sadiq deploys in navigating the moral complexities of its familial dynamic is so skilful in its subtlety, establishing the ‘performance’ element in how we undercut or laugh off the demands of our elders. Allowing the intensity of those emotions long suppressed to get the spotlight they’ve craved in a full-blown stage show through a dazzling explosion of vibrant colour and wild abandon, only for the heady euphoria to be rapidly decompressed as the oppressive melancholia and shaky ground of the outside world knock you off balance, unable to avoid the cracks in the foundations of this family unit.

Sadiq’s deft choices in where to position the camera elevate the yearning these characters have. It is just above eye level or shot from above as its ensemble pours their hearts out—wrestling against a traditional albeit silent higher being, potentially watching over you and your loved ones as you seek guidance, is a powerful theme that lingers throughout—the aspiration of finding a higher calling that properly speaks to you.

You may clap your eyes on an imposing cardboard cut-out of them paraded on the roads. But Alina Khan’s multi-faceted performance as Biba is bracingly human. Their sheer tenacity and toughness in this fractured world, as she refuses to be fetishised, make her every inch the star she strives to be. Whilst the nuances somewhat differ, the battle to retain ownership of her body is shared elsewhere by a heart-rending performance from Rasti Farooq as Mumtaz. Looking to escape the clutches of the patriarchy and their demands to birth a boy, their soul-searching to rediscover the independence stripped of them is enthralling to witness. Just as eager to discover a true sense of self. Much of Ali Junejo’s riveting turn as Haider sees his struggles conveyed mainly through silence or unassured figure movements that reinforce his ill footing in unearthing a more progressive form of masculinity that is at odds with the environment he’s sadly grown accustomed to.

A superior drama whose lofty waves of love and loss wash over you. Consider Joyland both a rapturous wonder of a film and a significant step further forward in on-screen trans representation.

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