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First Pakistani film to appear in official Cannes for a long time is impressive family drama that questions gender roles…
By Sailesh Ram
TOLD with great style and no little flair, ‘Joyland’ – the first Pakistani film to be in official selection for some years here at the Cannes Film Festival – delivered on its rich promise.
Screening on Tuesday afternoon (23) in the Un Certain Regard Section, writer-director Saim Sadiq’s is a tale that certainly isn’t for the squeamish but nor is it one that will have you weeping for long – for in its darkness there is hope too – even if the outward story arc is a little bleak.
Sadiq’s first feature length effort is essentially a family drama – there are two married sons, an elderly father, and three girls who belong to one of the son’s and his wife.
The central character is Haider (Ali Junejo) – he is physically small but striking and is married and childless. Right there, there are questions in a South Asian culture that associates marriage with procreation and producing a son and heir. Opening the film is the ‘disappointment’ that comes with the birth of another girl to Haider’s older brother. Haider is jobless and drifting – he appears to love his wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), but something more than an income seems amiss.
Mumtaz appears happy enough and enjoys her work as a bridal make-up artist.
Sadiq’s women are far from simple decoration in a film which is mostly about identity, gender roles and alienation and is centred around the gaps or fissures in an assumed masculinity. Sadiq takes gender stereotypes and subtly subverts them in ‘Joyland’.
At all times clear roles for the sexes in traditional South Asian societies are questioned, examined and found wanting. That is one of this film’s huge strengths.
Haider finds himself working as a male backing dancer in an erotic theatre group – that is its description but it isn’t terribly risqué or erotic. The edginess comes in one of the performers – Biba who is transgender and not everyone, as we all know, is ok with that.
Within a little time, Haider finds himself drawn to Biba (Alina Khan) and they begin an affair.
Haider’s new job is a source of joy for his father – though he says that dropping the erotic description when telling others might be best.
It’s his insistence though that Mumtaz give up her job and look after the household that really rankles with her.
It is obvious that all of the main characters are struggling – the father is wheelchair bound and finds himself in a pickle and leaning on the support of a kindly widow – but even this goes awry when she has to stay over and her son is indignant that something untoward has occurred.
Sadiq offers no easy answers – just as it is should be – and his skill is in the visuals and way he lets his characters breathe their roles without saying very much. The framing is tight, there is little light and everything has a slightly dilapidated feel.
What perhaps is most surprising and welcome is that Haider and Biba are not the focus – the last third becomes about another character and her issues have been there for all of us to see but no one is really looking.
That is the larger metaphor running through Sadiq’s ‘Joyland’ – people are forever looking but no one is quite literally seeing what is going on or trying to understand and address real issues.
This deserves to be widely seen.
Sadiq has announced himself – now his challenge is to maintain the high standards he has created with ‘Joyland‘. Bravo.
Rating: **** (out of five)
Picture: Biba – Alina Khan in ‘Joyland’
There are several more screenings of ‘Joyland’ CANNES FILM FESTIVAL, please see the programmes on the Festival de Cannes app and https://www.festival-cannes.com/en/