'art is inherently political'

Joyland Had to Fight to Be Seen

A Cannes prizewinner banned (and then unbanned) in its home country, Saim Sadiq’s sublime Joyland finally comes to the U.S. Photo: Joyland

In November, the Pakistani government banned the public release of writer-director Saim Sadiq’s Joyland, a Cannes prizewinning drama that the country’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting declared in violation of “decency and morality.” The film follows an intimate love triangle among a man from a deeply patriarchal family, his wife, and a transgender dancer he falls for while working at a burlesque. Four days later, the government reversed the ban on the condition that minor cuts were made — “laughably random” ones, Sadiq later told the New York Times — though at least one province, Punjab, still moved to ban the film within its jurisdiction. The back and forth has clouded an otherwise celebratory time for Sadiq: Joyland was Pakistan’s official submission to this year’s Oscars and the first-ever Pakistani film to compete at Cannes. It won Best International Film at the Independent Spirit Awards and is now playing in select U.S. theaters.

The ban came as a surprise, Sadiq tells Vulture. “I wasn’t alone when I found out. I was with all the producers on a call. Then everyone started gathering at my house — the actors, the casting director, the crew. Suddenly, there were 20 to 30 people there, and we decided that we wouldn’t stay silent.” They launched a hashtag, #ReleaseJoyland, which helped bring media attention to the ban at home and overseas. “There was a bit of an assumption that we would cry about this and then just get over it because there is a long history of films being banned in Pakistan. But we decided we were going to try to set a new precedent. We were going to change things.”

Pakistan has banned 34 movies based on cultural and content criteria ranging from negative portrayals of Pakistan to depictions of black magic. But Joyland was the first to be banned solely for its depiction of queer and trans relationships — and the first to be unbanned as a result of public outcry. “Art is inherently political,” says Sadiq. “There are psychological, theoretical, and philosophical ways of looking at everything in the film, but I strongly believe every act in it has a political nature. However, I didn’t expect that the politics would step out of the art and suddenly become something bigger. I almost felt like I had to turn into a politician for a couple of days.”

Joyland is a first for Pakistani cinema in many ways, including how it challenges and interrogates taboos around gender and sexual diversity and their impact on Pakistani family lifestyles. In depicting a culture in which family members often struggle to speak honestly with one another and much can be expressed without saying anything at all, Sadiq finds unique ways to translate the weight of those silences for the screen.

In telling the story of Haider Rana (Ali Junejo) — a newly hired background dancer at the burlesque theater where Biba (Alina Khan) dances — and Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), Haider’s wife who is forced to quit her job to care for the Rana household, Sadiq expands the film’s scope to their entire community: Haider’s widowed father, his elderly neighbor, his brother, and their families.

The morning after the Rana family’s neighbor, Auntie Fayyaz, unexpectedly sleeps with Haider’s father, both widows’ families sit around the breakfast table in a collective, deafening silence. Fayyaz and Haider’s father have broken the strict cultural rules that forbid sex between unmarried people, though both deny anything of the sort occurred. Sadiq lingers on each family member’s face — Haider, his father, his brother, his brother’s wife, Fayyaz, Fayyaz’s son, and Mumtaz — for long seconds at a time, wordlessly communicating the ripple effects of the night before on each character.

Sadiq studied film at Columbia University, where he says he was taught to emphasize characters’ individuality in his scripts. But while writing Joyland, his first feature, the 32-year-old found that lesson limiting. “I started to understand that the three-act structure comes from an American society’s understanding of how families function, and it is very individualistic, whereas our society is just not,” he says. He wanted his film to be about a family rather than a single protagonist, and he wanted it to emphasize “how every individual’s decision has an actual impact on the other characters.”

“My whole film is about the fact that individualism is kind of a hoax — I can’t just fly off into the sunset after my nice coming of age,” Sadiq says. When Haider retreats to the beach in Karachi after a grave and sudden loss, it is not “a flowery, cute moment” of self-actualization, “it is a heavy, guilty moment.” That Joyland authentically captures a cultural sense of linked identity is a credit to its nearly all-Pakistani cast and crew, Sadiq says. “They understood and identified with that.”

Transgender people in Pakistan, known as khwaja sira in Urdu, have long been subject to institutional persecution, societal exclusion, and physical violence. A record number of 20 transgender Pakistani people were killed in 2021. (According to the Trans Murder Monitoring project, the country averages ten homicides of transgender people per year.) Joyland is one of few Pakistani films to feature a transgender lead. While it doesn’t ignore the realities of hate against trans Pakistanis, it also envisions a life where transgender people fall in love, get married, and experience joy. Still, Sadiq initially hesitated to call Joyland a “queer film.”

Saim Sadiq and the Joyland cast accept the Best International Film trophy at the 2023 Independent Spirit Awards. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

“There’s a lot of queerness in the movie, but queerness is not exclusively an identity,” he says. “It’s a term that encapsulates far more than just your sexuality and who you’re attracted to. The essence of queerness is a big challenge to patriarchy. It’s a big challenge to set roles that go far beyond just sexuality and gender. I see queerness everywhere in the movie, even in the straight relationships.”

Sadiq worked with consultants from a community-based organization in Lahore called the Khwaja Sira Society while writing, casting, and shooting the film. “All of the actors who played khwaja sira are khwaja sira,” he says. He asked them to make their own choices while filming, independent of the script. “I needed them to be comfortable because if they had an enjoyable experience onscreen, then we would enjoy watching them too.”

Joyland’s most vocal conservative critics admitted early on that they had not actually seen it. Among them was Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, a senior member of the nonruling conservative political party Jamaat-e-Islami who appeared on Pakistan’s Neo TV Network to deliver a charged and emotional outburst against the film. Sadiq admits that part of his reluctance to call Joyland a “queer film” in those early days of controversy in Pakistan was “because we live there and we know what it’s like.” But now “I’m at a stage where I’m quite happy about it. It gives me a great sense of joy when somebody who identifies as queer watches the film and connects to it.”

Khan, the 24-year-old transgender star of Joyland, told The Guardian that her family initially rejected her and called her a derogatory slur when she came out to them. But she says their attitudes changed following the film’s release, once they saw her in a light she had struggled her entire life to show to others: “They accepted me finally.”

Joyland kicked off its U.S. run at Film Forum last Friday, notching the theater’s biggest opening weekend for a foreign-language film in almost a decade. Its journey to the screen has been fraught — in November, there were threats of arson against Pakistani theaters that dared to show it — in a way that Sadiq says has forced him to “grow up a little bit more in a way that perhaps one shouldn’t have to.”

Then again, if the film hadn’t sparked such an uproar, would it have made the difference it set out to make? “We did lead to a first step in a very important conversation in Pakistan,” Sadiq says. “This conversation about trans rights and queerness is not a ghost conversation anymore. ”

Joyland Had to Fight to Be Seen