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Joyland—a story of lives and love torn apart by strict gender norms

Highly entertaining, deeply emotional and reflective, Joyland grapples with the injustices of sexism and transphobia, writes Eddy Dalzell
Issue 2843
A man on a scooter carries a large cardboard cutout of a trans woman in a still from the film Joyland

Haider becomes a backup dancer for trans performer Biba in Joyland

Saim Sadiq’s directorial debut Joyland is a nuanced and complex film exploring themes of gender, conformity, identity and family. It is beautifully shot and packed with visual metaphors.

The film presents a deeply personal story of the ways that strict gender and cultural norms restrict people’s joys and freedoms. Set in the city of Lahore, Pakistan, Joyland follows the Rana family.

Family patriarch Mr Rana longs for a grandson following the birth of his fourth granddaughter, something seen in the family as a grave disappointment. Meanwhile, the quiet youngest son Haider stays and helps at home while his ambitious and independent wife Mumtaz works.

Following pressure from his father to get a job, Haider finds work as a backup dancer to transgender cabaret performer Biba. He has to keep the details of this quiet for the sake of his reputation.

Hearing that Haider is employed, Mr Rana insists that it would be only proper for Mumtaz to quit her job and become a housewife. The decision leaves her devastated, but she is powerless to resist it.

As Haider settles into his new job he grows closer with Biba, being introduced to the wider transgender community. He also sees first-hand the abuse and transphobia she is subjected to on a daily basis.

As a parallel to this, we see Mumtaz suffer as she is forced from a job where she is highly skilled and appreciated, to a life of unpaid domestic labour. It’s physically exhausting and emotionally draining.

Haider sits in the middle—torn between his loyalty to Mumtaz and his blossoming romantic feelings for Biba. He can see the injustices being done towards both of these women.

But he feels immense pressure from his father and society at large not to challenge these injustices. As Joyland goes on, cracks begin to form within the family, ultimately ending in tragedy.

Joyland is a film full of dualities—joy and tragedy, light and dark, birth and death. The film is at once wonderfully entertaining with highly memorable characters, and deeply emotional and reflective.

It paints a portrait of a society grappling with sexist ideas of gender roles, while also having some of the most progressive transgender legislation in the world. This includes the right for trans people to self-identify their ­ gender—a right still denied to trans people in Britain.

Joyland is an extremely timely and important piece of cinema—I highly recommend it.

  • Joyland is in cinemas from Friday 24 February

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