In the month of May this year, Joyland directed by Saim Sadiq made history when it became the first Pakistani feature film to win a feminist-themed award at the prestigious the Cannes Film Festival. Since the project hadn’t been shown in Pakistan, it generated a great deal of curiosity among cinephiles about its subject matter.
Once the film garnered international recognition, it was almost certain that Pakistan’s Oscars Selection Committee would pick it as the formal entry for Oscars 2023, which it did. The next step was its release in Pakistani cinemas. Two months later, on Aug 17, the Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC) issued it the necessary censor certificate, and from Nov 18 the film was (supposed) to be screened in Pakistani cinemas.
But on Nov 11 (Friday), the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, through a notification, cancelled its license. Reason? Point two of the notification reads: “Written complaints were received that the film contains highly objectionable material which do not conform with the social values and moral standards of our society and is clearly repugnant to the norms of ‘decency and morality’ as laid down in Section 9 of the Motion Picture Ordinance, 1979”.
The situation has evoked a strong reaction from the cast and crew of the project. They immediately took to social media with a note. Its director Sadiq issued a statement, saying, “we–as a team–are gutted by this development. I am compelled to say that this sudden U-turn of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is absolutely unconstitutional and illegal.” He said the ministry had gone against the constitution by asking provincial censor boards to follow its decision as the provinces had got autonomy after the 18th Amendment.
Sarwat Gilani, who plays an important role in the film, pointed out in her tweet: “They’re doing it again! There are smear campaigns to ban Joyland. We need your support to make sure we don’t let these violent, insensitive, extremists win again”.
“Shameful that a Pakistani film made by 200 Pakistanis over six years that got standing ovations from Toronto to Cairo to Cannes is being hindered in its own country. Don’t take away this moment of pride and joy from our people,” she added.
Talking to Dawn, Sana Jafri, the co-producer and casting director of the film, said they had got clearance from the censor boards of the federal capital, Punjab and Sindh where the film was to be screened.
“All the censor boards had made different demands (cuts) in the film and we obliged after which they had cleared it for screening in the cinemas.”
A source says it later transpired that a senator of a religiopolitical party was putting pressure on the Ministry of State for Information and Broadcasting to stop the screening of the film as he alleged that it was promoting the LGBT agenda.
Rejecting the allegations against the film, Jafri said there was nothing against Islam or the Pakistani laws in the film. “The transwoman is one of the three characters of the film which does not promote any LGBT agenda.” According to Jafri, Joyland is a film about the Rana Family that lives in the Gowalmandi area of Lahore. The family’s youngest son, Haider, is jobless and a target of his father’s constant taunts. Haider’s wife works at a salon. However, things take a turn when he gets a job as a background dancer at a Punjabi theatre behind a transwoman called Biba. A tragedy shakes the entire family and makes Haider realise his mistakes.
Jafri explained that the film humanised a transwoman and portrayed her as a common human being.
“She is shown as an independent working person with an agency, which may not be liked by certain people. If she had been portrayed as a victim of torture or in a negative way as transpersons are often shown in the media, nobody would have any objection.”
Jafri said that the movie took six years to complete and the labour of love of at least 200 was at stake now.
Aleena Khan, a transperson, plays the role of the dancer in the movie.
Transpersons rights activist Mehrub Moiz Awan tweeted about it, saying: “Had a cisgender woman or man instead of Aleena Khan played the role of khwajasira dancer, they’d have had no issues with it. But because it’s an actual khwajasira doing so, they have issues. They want khwajasira people to be just begging in the streets.”
Besides Cannes, Joyland has won several awards also at the London Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and Cairo International Film Festival while it has also been screened at the British Film Institute, Melbourne International Film Festival and Athena International Film Festival. Sadiq, in his statement, added: “A number of people have put in years and years of hard work and money behind this film and we cannot allow that to go to waste based on baseless rumours and complaints from a few individuals that have suddenly overridden the law and the system.
“I urge Pakistan Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to please review this decision and return the right of our citizens to be able to watch the film that has made the country’s cinema proud world over.”
The debate surrounding the ‘material’ of the film aside, it is mind boggling to know that it was three months after the censor boards had approved the film that “the complaints” began to rear their heads. All those who even have a modicum of interest in films and filmmaking knew about its content the moment it saw the light of day. Why the sudden barrage of objections? Why have the powers that be taken note of them now when Joyland has already been selected as the country’s formal Oscars entry.
Originally published in Dawn, November 14th, 2022