Joyland: An aching depiction of living in quiet oppression
Where do we find ourselves when our desires cannot be matched or acted upon by the world around us? When systems of patriarchy become so ingrained, we end up living a life that feels like it's meant for someone else, what happens to the stories of our inner selves?
These are some of the many themes depicted through the characters of Joyland, a stunning piece of cinema by Pakistani writer-director Saim Sadiq. In his debut feature-length, he has created an unshielded narrative of very tender characters wrestling against themselves in a world where conventional roles of gender, family, and sexuality mean everything.
The story focuses primarily on the joint family of the Ranas, with Rana Amanullah, the ageing patriarch, commanding the family's every decision despite his own feeble stature. We are also introduced to our protagonist, Haider, along with his sister Nucchi, her husband Saleem, and Haider's wife Mumtaz.
From here, the story branches off into two major paths.
We follow Haider as, in an attempt to fulfil his role as a man of the house, he manages to get a job as an erotic background dancer for a transgender performer, Biba, played with grace and a stormy spirit by Alina Khan. The two characters soon develop an intimate, erotic, and rather magical relationship. Fueled by the backdrop of Sadiq's world where the lighting is always more saturated and brighter than in reality, all emotions are heightened. But never to an extent where they feel overbearing.
Every movement in the story is subtle until it isn't. We also follow Mumtaz's story as she is now made to stay at home after her husband received a lucrative job offer. We see her desires pushed aside to meet the requirements of the family, and we see the romantic division between her and her husband grow wider. Their dynamic is not void of love, but at no point does that ever feel romantically or sexually charged.
The story continues on with achingly beautiful writing, bringing out the emotional truth of characters of all ages and genders. Ultimately, we are left with humans struggling with themselves in a world where the freedom to do what you want is a pipe dream. No one here is vilified, and nothing here feels exaggerated.
And amongst all of the heaps of praise I can throw at this film, what truly stands out to me in Joyland are the score, sound design, and cinematography.
Every bit of ambience adds layers of texture to the experience of watching these characters. The score is used sparingly but makes a point to stand out and induce chills with its drone-y and melancholic melodies. The cinematography and shot composition feel incredibly closed in, forcing us to pay close attention to the characters, putting them on the spot for us to try and understand their situation.
What all this culminates into is a sweeping experience delving into so much more than what meets the eye on initial impressions. The buzz around the film in international festivals is almost certainly warranted, as this will go down as one of the landmark films of Pakistan, and may even make waves for the rest of South Asia.
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