Joyland Review: Joyous, Groundbreaking Cinema

Oscar-shortlisted Pakistani film is a landmark for queer storytelling

“Falling in love means death,” Haider (Ali Junejo) tells Biba (Alina Khan) in Joyland. Haider offers Biba a tale about chickens and bugs, but it’s a thinly veiled parable for their relationship. Haider, a married man in Lahore, Pakistan, finds himself unexpectedly smitten by Biba, a transwoman he works for as part of her dance chorus. Their cautious courtship is a dance with death, especially since audiences are primed to expect a dire outcome in queer stories.

Joyland delivers a story of star-crossed lovers in Saim Sadiq’s revelatory first feature. The film pushes against the status quo with an invigorating tale of forbidden love. Famously the first Pakistani film to screen at Cannes—where it won the jury prize in the Un Certain Regard competition and the festival’s Queer Palm (over heavy hitters like Close and Moonage Daydream)—and then infamously banned in its home country, Joyland boldly, beautifully, and defiantly makes a giant stride forward for onscreen representation. This heartfelt film is ground-breaking cinema and you can feel it in every frame.

As it puts Biba, a transwoman played by an actor who shares her experience, intimately close with Haider, the film brings its characters out into the open in a society that remains defined by patriarchal mores. More notable, though, is the agency and depth it affords Biba. Joyland breaks the mould for trans stories. It gives its star an inner life and a story. There’s no surgery here and no coming out—just life day by day. Joyland, however, ends in a tragedy, but not in the way that movies with transgender characters usually do. Sadiq smartly uses Haider’s feelings for Biba to interrogate a society that denies anyone the right to love. It’s a film of pure joy that yields to incredible heartache.


Family Ties

Sadiq deftly contrasts Haider’s relationship with Biba with those in his family to evoke the fragile nature of love. He lives with his wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), who is the breadwinner in an arranged marriage that has yet to produce children. They share a home with Haider’s old-stock father (Salmaan Peerzada) and Haider’s joyless brother, Saleem (Sohail Sameer) and his trapped sister-in-law Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani). The latter duo has three kids with a fourth on the way when Joyland begins. As Nucchi delivers another girl and the doctor apologizes to the disappointed father, the film situates the story almost imperceptibly as the tears roll down Nucchi’s exhausted, defeated face.


A different sense of defeat hangs over Haider when the film cuts back to the household. His father emasculates him for not providing for his family—nor having a family of his own. Haider and Mumtaz, though, don’t really mind their role reversal until their elder focres Haider to “man up.” Mumtaz loves her job and isn’t the maternal type. Playing caregiver to her nieces isn’t her ideal chore. Her preoccupation with the kids, however, forces Haider to find a job. He lands a gig shaking a leg at a risqué revival at the local fairground. He hides the details of his job from his family, but Khan just lights up when the lights go out on stage. It’s at this show that he meets Biba and finds himself immediately entranced by her beauty, charm, and aura.

The other chorus boys in the show whisper and giggle backstage about the lead dancer, but Haider refrains. He and Biba hit a natural groove as she performs a rocking lipsync and he shimmies around her. Haider isn’t the best dancer, but that helps Biba notice him. They hit it off quickly. They just click in the way that some people do. There’s an effortless comfort to their presence, whereas things between Haider and Mumtaz feel awkward and strained.


Junejo: A Future Star

As Haider grows closer with Biba, his circles fall apart. Mumtaz becomes aroused by a neighbour who enjoys phone sex in the alley. Haider’s father is unforgivably cruel to a neighbour whose devotion defines unrequited love. Saleem dominates Nucchi with near-comical patriarchal machismo. Haider and Mumtaz grow distant. Nobody in Joyland seems particularly happy except for Haider when he beams in Biba’s presence.

Through the natural unfolding of this relationship, Joyland interrogates why one relationship—or person—is taboo. Sadiq intersects Haider and Biba’s friendship with the reality of their social surroundings to situate one story among many. The political reality for transpeople in Pakistan informs Joyland and injects it with urgency. Equally palpable is the sense of loss elsewhere in the film. Particularly in Farooq’s devastating portrayal of Mumtaz does Joyland find a counterpoint to the hunger of Haider’s interest in Biba. This film reflects the consequences of refusing to let people follow their hearts.


Junejo and Khan have natural chemistry, too. As Joyland zeroes in on their relationship, which feels doubly intimate with the film’s tight Academy framing, one gets the sense that there’s nobody in the world but them. There is comfort, security, and closeness that one doesn’t feel elsewhere in the film. Sadiq’s cinematic eye accentuates this tenderness with vibrant colours and dazzling lights to evoke sparks that fly between the leads.

Khan, moreover, is a revelation full of energy and vigour. But Junejo truly gives a breakout performance. He has magnetic screen presence and a personality that conveys myriad emotions swimming amid Haider’s desires. Through his performance, Joyland heartbreaking navigates questions of identity, masculinity, and queerness. One senses that love won’t be in the cards for Haider as Joyland progresses. The tragedy of the film is trying to spot the chicken before it’s too late.


Joyland opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on April 21.