Navigating Gender Roles in ‘Joyland’

Saim Sadiq's banned-at-home debut has a tender touch and plenty of empathy of go around.

by Nick Kush

Saim Sadiq’s debut feature has that creeping sense of profundity that is usually the mark of an experienced artist. Never rushed, living in each scene until the proper moment. One can gather that Joyland is probably close to what Sadiq had in mind when he began the creative process. Or, tangentially, the idea has been germinating in his head for some time, at least back to 2019 in his short film Darling, which in retrospect is clearly a proof-of-concept for this film given its nearly identical subject matter and shared star Alina Khan. It all adds up to a feeling that you’re constantly in good hands as Sadiq snakes between various perspectives in one Pakistani family and slowly peels back the layers of each person.

Haider (Ali Junejo) lives with his entire family in Lahore, Pakistan. He’s been unemployed for some time now, while his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) works as a hairdresser to care for him and everyone else. It’s a fairly conservative family, one in which Haider and Mumtaz’s “reversed” duties often stick out. Dynamics begin to be challenged once Haider gets a job as a background dancer for a burlesque theater act led by a transgender woman named Biba.

Joyland introduces Haider as a fairly passive character. He’s well-meaning, but maybe a little too willing to fade into the background. Upon meeting Biba, something unquestionably awakens in him. Sadiq encodes plenty of meaning into their longing stares. There’s clearly a desire from the start, but Sadiq allows for each look to speak volumes with how he naturally hangs on their faces. Especially in Alina Khan, who is absolutely magnetic.

For all the rich, natural depictions of Pakistani culture, I couldn’t help but wonder for a majority of Joyland‘s first half if it would slide into a less interesting interloper story, wherein a less interesting main character acts as an audience bridge into a vibrant subculture full of people who are far more deserving of being main characters themselves. Haider’s passivity initially reads as an underdeveloped, wide-eyed audience stand-in. But patience is key with Joyland, as it consistently unfurls into something more than you’d expect.

Characters who initially come across as two-dimensional or perhaps slightly underwritten become wonderfully nuanced in Joyland‘s second half as it slyly shifts from a story about Haider and Biba’s will-they-won’t-they romance to a larger story about gender roles within the entire family and, more holistically, this entire community. Even Haider’s father, the seemingly straightforward, domineering patriarch, morphs into a more sympathetic person — someone who needs near around-the-clock assistance but feels forced to appear strong-willed.

Aided by the film’s 4:3 aspect ratio and establishing shots with a deep focus that allow the eye to wander and focus on the life occurring in the background, each family member feels boxed in, desperate to escape the constraints put upon them. Haider sums it up with the heartbreaking line, “Sometimes, I feel like I have nothing of my own.” It’s quietly gutting moments like that one that can help audiences deeply empathize with Haider despite his troubling actions.

Often, despite its calming exterior, Joyland functions as a cry for help, focusing on people who desperately want more out of their lives but fear those outcomes may never come. How Sadiq rounds out Mumtaz’s arc is particularly tragic, and is the thematic heart of the film in many ways.

It’s a deeply humane work, one that never lectures, but still manages to enlighten with every passing moment.

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Dildo schwaggins May 1, 2023 - 10:55 pm

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Upon being cleared by a doctor, i tried my hand at reading again. Unfortunately i made the grievous error of reading something written by you. It made me full blown retarded again. I think its permanent. I am currently dictating this comment to my in-house nurse who has to type it for me because your thoughts made me too retarded. Thanks. I hope you get aids

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