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Joyland – Gazing Back Through the Lens of Desire

A still from the film, Joyland.

Directed by Saim Sadiq, Joyland (2022) is not a film about trans rights or women’s rights. It is not even about one specific group or community of people. It is about the whole spectrum of human emotions. The film revels in the complexities of desire and embraces the jumbled mess that individuals and relationships become. It celebrates the never-ending negotiation between the urge to be true to ourselves, and the need to be socially accepted, as well as the conflict that arises when the two needs clash against one another. Joyland shows how men or women are not born into their gender, but rather, become their gender.

Unravelling masculinities/femininities

The film opens with Haider playing with his nieces when he is commanded by his father to butcher a goat. Haider tries to hold down the animal but shrinks from slaughtering it. Observing Haider’s hesitation, his wife, Mumtaz, snatches the knife and completes the task swiftly. Thus, the film’s premise is an evolving challenge to what comprises masculinity and femininity and to the binaries of gender. Haider and Saleem are the two sons of Rana Amanullah, the family patriarch who yearns for the birth of the grandson who would be the family heir. While Saleem has taken over the family business (or has other work), Haider doesn’t have a source of income. Not having a job, helping with household chores, being married to a working woman, and not having fathered a child make Haider less of a ‘man’ for his father and brother. Mumtaz works as an assistant at a women’s beauty salon and intends to save up to buy an AC. But when Haider finds work, Mumtaz is forced to quit her job and stay home with her sister-in-law Nucchi to take care of housework as well as Saleem and Nucchi’s four daughters.

Haider’s new job is as a background dancer for a dance company. He is selected by a transwoman, Biba, for her group. As Haider gets acquainted with Biba, he seems to enjoy dancing. He begins to come out of his shell, and the two start to fall in love. Their love is complicated by Biba’s need to feel complete as a woman by having gender-affirming surgery and Haider’s desire to be penetrated by Biba. For her, though, it is an insult to her womanhood. Does Haider’s desire for anal sex extend to a realization that he is attracted to men and that Biba was never really a woman in his view of the relationship? We don’t know. This film does not give the audience easy answers or neat resolutions.

Tracing the inextricable links between desire and grief

Rana Amanullah too, the family patriarch, is not immune to social pressure. Rana finds friendship and comfort in Fayyaz, a widow in the neighbourhood who is a frequent visitor to his home. One late evening, after Rana, who uses a wheelchair, is incontinent in Fayyaz’s presence, she stays back the night to assist him and sleeps beside him. In a poignant scene, the next morning when Fayyaz’s son berates her for her actions, she asks him why he had not noticed she was missing the previous night. She asks that if her presence at home was crucial, then why had he not come to bring her back home, however late it might have been. In the next few minutes, she talks of how invisible she has become in everyone’s lives, the warmth of her companionship with Rana, and the loneliness of age. She also tells Rana Amanulla that she would live with him and that notions of social propriety do not matter to her anymore. In reply to her softly emoted declaration, Rana is only able to respond that Haider would walk her back home, thus rejecting her companionship and the comfort of their relationship in favour of acquiescing to the norm. Again and again, desire attempts to break free only to be squashed down by social rules.

In the meantime, Mumtaz becomes pregnant. She hates her life – the confinement of the home, the relegation to wifely duties, the isolation and loneliness that comes from her having given up work, and Haider being away most of the time. The pregnancy suffocates her further, and in numerous instances, she tries to induce an abortion. Joyland culminates in Mumtaz’s death by suicide. Saim Sadiq’s direction is guided by tenderness. He shows the specificities of grief – Mumtaz’s hair being washed, the shroud being knotted right below the pregnancy bump, the decoration piece on the wall that she kept jumping up to reach to cause a miscarriage. On their way to the burial ground, the procession is joined by the children of the family. The older one tells the younger one: “Don’t waste the flowers here… we have to throw them on the grave”. In the face of death, the world tries to conserve its tears and flowers.

Exposing the prisons of gender

At a certain point in their relationship, we see Biba telling Haider of an incident where a friend, also a transwoman, was shot by a drunk man at a party where the women were working as dancers. Biba recalls the numbness of the aftermath, where she kept repeating the same story to anyone who asked. As a continuing link from this scene, two other scenes explore the negotiations of gender – one, where Biba finds herself working unwillingly at a similar kind of party, forced to embrace and kiss a man who held a gun. In that moment, Biba’s fear, disgust, and helplessness are all palpable to the viewer. In the other scene, Biba talks down a man from the dancing group who wants to know “what’s between her legs in her pants.” Here, she exercises agency, refusing to be belittled in her workplace where she is also the boss.

There are moments in the film when the order of gender is upturned, but only almost. When Mumtaz went for a routine ultrasound, the doctor had announced the sex of the foetus. While Mumtaz did not want the male foetus growing inside her body, Nucchi had borne four girls in an attempt to birth a boy every time. In a scene after Mumtaz’s burial, Sadiq shows how social structures and conforming individuals are responsible for the destruction of the lives of many women like her. Saleem accuses Mumtaz of ruining his younger brother’s life by killing the foetus, who would have been born as the heir to the family. He goes on to say that she could have done whatever she wanted to after giving birth. At this, Nucchi accuses her husband, her brother-in-law, and the whole family of murdering Mumtaz by forcing her to live a life she did not want to live. Nucchi holds everyone accountable for their part in Mumtaz’s decision, but as a response to her screaming rage all that Saleem can muster is, “This is a home in grieving… don’t scream… what will people say?”

Joyland is a film of infinite empathy and sensitivity. Its success lies in making the viewer find empathy with some characters and sympathy for everyone. The storytelling comes through best in the places where Saim Sadiq paints the fault lines of gender and sexuality in vibrant colours. In a world where mainstream cinema is too afraid to deal with the messiness of desire, Joyland is a work that never shies away from the chaos of emotions.

Cover Image: Still from Joyland (2022).