Movie Review: A Bitter Trans Romance from Pakistan, “Joyland”

The wonder of “Joyland,” Pakistan’s contender for this year’s Best International Feature Oscar, is that such a marvel exists.

A more bitter than sweet transgender love triangle romance filmed and set in the Muslim world? How could this be?

Director and co-writer Saim Sadiq’s movie judges without judgement, a tale set in a Pakistan that acknowledges without really accepting that people like its big city drag performers exist.

That’s a fine line to walk in any Islamic state, and even this one banned the film before reaching an accord that allowed it to compete for an Oscar — grudging “acceptance” at last.

It’s a subtle and subtly-acted story told at a slow simmer, adding twists even as it takes an inevitable turn towards tragic. Many a transgender tale is cast in operatically-tragic terms. But here, anything less would feel like a cheat.

Permanently unemployed Haider (Ali Junjeo) spends his days helping sister-in-law Nuuchi (Sarwat Gilani) run the extended family household in Lahore City, having tickle fights with his young nieces, cleaning and cooking and helping look after his tyrannical dad (Salmaan Peerzada).

His wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) is happy enough to be a breadwinner, doing makeup for brides in a local salon, out of the house and challenged by the public every day.

All Haider has to do is turn a deaf ear to the judgement his dictatorial father and older brother (Sameer Sohail) pass on as they treat him like a servant.

Brother Saleem and Nuuchi have been trying to produce a male heir, but daughters have been the result every time. That’s another thing for Abba (Peerzada) to insult him about — no “man’s” job, living off his wife, no offspring.

Haider figures one way to take the heat off is to look for work. A pal sets him up with an interview for a dance gig. Haider can’t dance. The job pays well, but it’s at an “erotic revue,” where he’ll be a backup dancer.

And his boss and choreographer will be Biba, transgender, out and living her pre-surgery “best life” in a place where one wrong move, one misjudged encounter could be her last.

He’s hired, despite having no experience or talent. He begs his friend not to tell his father or family what he’ll be doing. “Theater manager” he’ll tell them.

But the disruption under their roof is as instantaneous and cruel as it is soft-spoken. Nuuchi’s just had her fourth child.

“Who will help her run the house?”

Saleem and his Abba decide. And Haider folds and goes along with them. Just like that. Farooq lets us see how crushed Mumtaz is, an enterprising professional woman with a job and a work life sentenced to the grind of caring for children “who aren’t even MINE (in Punjabi with English subtitles)” and tending house for her aged, tyrannical invalid of a father-in-law.

Cruelest of all, Haider becomes his boss Bibi’s fixer, her Man Friday, running errands, play-acting to get her into photo shoots, sticking up for her on public transit where traditional Muslim women bristle at Bibi, “a man” in women’s clothes, taking a seat next to them, staying out all hours.

Haider stays late at rehearsals, accompanies Bibi on her nightly rounds and neglects Mumtaz. The older brother’s family even imposes on their bed, parking their restless bed-wetter oldest daughter in there with them.

Whatever this movie has to say about transgender rights and transgender romance, Mumtaz is the one who won my pity. When she blurts that “I want to run away” at one point, we pray that she will.

Because Haider, the sibling too sensitive to slaughter a goat to celebrate the birth of his brother’s latest daughter, too meek to stand up to his brother and dad, is falling for bossy, sexy come-on queen Bibi.

Columbia U. alum Sadiq and his co-writer Maggie Briggs use their first feature to invite the world to see a Pakistan never seen on the screen. All male audiences lap up the drag revues. Bibi tempts fate by dancing and flirting with the rough trade in local bars, which may serve alcohol but also draws the line at not admitting women.

A romance is coming, and if we know one thing about love triangles, it’s that virtually nobody will survive that experience unscathed.

Sadiq lets his film carry on past its logical climax. “Joyland” seems to judge, but withholds judgement on Bibi’s callous pursuit of a man in a traditional marriage. Haider’s guilt is left mostly unspoken.

But Farooq sees to it that your heart just breaks for Mumtaz, in an arranged marriage (seen in flashback) and trapped in a house that has become her prison, an entire family cavalierly crushing her spirit and frustrating her every desire with no more thought they they think her status demands.

For all the eye-opening novelty and hoped-for “change” that “Joyland” — named for the carnival/club district of Lahore — provides, in Mumtaz we see the ugly reality of “the now” in a patriarchy that’s still just one bad election from being Iran or Afghanistan all over again.

Rating: unrated, sexual situations, profanity

Cast: Ali Junejo, Rasti Farooq, Alina Khan, Sarwat Gilani and Salmaan Peerzada

Credits: Directed by Saim Sadiq, scripted by Saim Sadiq and Maggie Briggs. An Oscilloscope Labs release.

Running time: 2:06


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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