Joyland is as much a story about the crushing weight of society's expectations as it is about inner conflicts

Everyone I've spoken to has been able to relate to a character in the film and that's what cinema should be about.
Updated 22 Nov, 2022

There has been so much talk about and controversy surrounding Joyland that I think people may be missing the point of the film. Joyland is a film as much about society and its expectations as it is about inner conflict and relationships.

I went to watch the movie on Saturday night, urged on by the niggling thought that the censor board might just change its mind and remove it from cinemas. It was interesting to note that the film had an 18+ rating, something Maula Jatt didn’t have, despite the violence in the film.

I’m not interested in spoiling the movie for you. I would like instead for you to make up your own mind about the film but know that it’s about people and the human struggle with identity — yours, mine and ours. Our identities as children of demanding parents, our identities as members of a society that demonises women who work, our identities as wives, as husbands, as friends and as humans.

Joyland, Pakistan’s submission to this year’s Oscars, is about the Rana family — the patriarch, his two sons, their wives and his four granddaughters. His younger son, Haider (Ali Junejo), faces a crisis of identity when he begins working at a theatre under the wings of transgender dancer Biba (Alina Khan). He juggles his newfound fascination with Biba with his home life, and his relationship with his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) suffers, so much so that she turns invisible in his eyes. Mumtaz’s own life is, not to put too fine of a point on it, going to shit and her husband doesn’t seem to notice at all.

The furore about the film was sparked by the suggestion that there was an element of ‘LGBT’ in the movie. That enraged many people who instantly branded it unwatchable. To those detractors I would say, watch it for yourself to find out. Or don’t. It’s up to you, but you’d miss out on a damn good work of art. Just know that it’s not all about Haider and Biba’s relationship.

I believe different people will take away different things from the movie. What I took away was this — people are forced into boxes in our society. Women should stay home, men should provide. Your job must be ‘respectable’. You must want children. You must want a son. Those boxes were explored in the film and poignantly so.

To sum it up, Joyland is about a couple who love each other and would have been perfectly fine had society not come in the way with its expectations and judgement. Mumtaz never judged Haider, she knew what he was like and accepted it for him. Likewise, he knew her and let her spread her wings. They didn’t keep secrets from each other, they quietly supported each other’s dreams and allowed each other to just be. Enter his family and society’s expectations of what it is to be a man.

More than anything, I think Joyland was about Pakistani society and how it beats people down. I’ve seen a lot of opinions about the film on Twitter and I think what struck me was someone saying that different people will relate to different characters from the film. My favourite was Mumtaz — someone who is bright and happy and joyful and sad at the same time. I’ve spoken to other people and they related to Biba, Haider and Sania Saeed’s Fayaz Aunty. But they all related to someone and that’s what cinema should be about — creating characters that viewers can relate to.

Joyland is a sad film and if you go to watch it, prepare to shed a few tears — I did, despite my best efforts not to. Nucchi’s (Sarwat Gilani) dialogue in one of the final scenes really got to me and it hit me that this movie was as much about the plight of women as it was about Haider’s inner conflict, perhaps even more so. All the women in the film had my heart — Mumtaz, Nucchi, Biba and Fayaz Aunty.

What detracted from the film was the unnecessary blurring of some scenes — a hug between a husband and wife was far too much for our innocent eyes, it seems — and a couple of scenes that were cut out entirely and that were definitely needed. Without them, the end of the film felt a bit abrupt, as if you’ve been dropped into the middle of something and you’re wondering how you got there. I also found it rather strange that the censor board beeped out the word “khusra” but not the other virulent expletives characters used. At times it seemed almost as if the changes made were just to show that they had done something.

Nonetheless, I’m glad the board saw reason and allowed such a groundbreaking (for Pakistani cinema) film to screen in its country of origin. What a travesty it would have been if we weren’t able to watch it.