The first thing that struck me while watching Saim Sadiq’s Joyland (2022) is the sheer sense of its characters’ dynamic alive-ness, to the unique and not-so-unique demands of their circumstances, how they are vying with harsh parameters of justifying their existence, the ultimate plummet to acceptance.
Characters in Joyland are constantly negotiating a common seesaw between despairing compulsions and railing against them with all the fortitude they can summon till everything closes in, hope out of reach. They also deal with the possibility of identity being stripped and reconfigured to complete unrecognition. This terror and disorientation ensuing from a failure to latch onto functional, imagined constructs of behavior forms the central emotional radius of the film, within which people define their essentials for self-preservation.
The women, especially in Sadiq’s film, are fuelled by this robust appetite for life and aspiration, not easily reluctant to embrace the consequence of their decisions or wilfulness. For example, Nucchi, the eldest daughter-in-law of the Rana family, for whom childbirth has become so mundane that she keeps casually instructing her kids in usual daily matters when her water breaks. She adjusts the hem of her kameez, fixes her hair, and hops pillion onto a scooter.
The women of the Rana family and elsewhere in the film exhibit strength and vitally active selfhood within a consciously discerned entrapment of societal and familial structures. They assert what they can within the pre-existing constraints.
The design of Joyland exists in a sprawl of desires that splay their reach across the constituents of the central Rana family, their neighbors, and others they brush past, effecting a radical re-arranging of who they think they are and what they wish for. Each one seeks to establish a clear sense of their personhood, which only gets upturned by the tangles of newly awakened fresh, unfamiliar, or old desires.
Joyland (2022) opens with the youngest son in the family, Haider’s heightened sense of vulnerability exacerbated by the imposing expectations of his father, the sedentary reigning patriarch under whose command the Rana family mindfully lives. All operations in the family have to be undergirded by his tacit approval.
When there’s some restive confusion among some family members regarding the performance of duties, it is Abbaji whose intervening word decides what must be done for the family’s well-being. His father’s diktats constantly buttress Haider’s need for a more domineering male performativity. The goat must be slaughtered by him on account of his manhood when the butcher doesn’t show up. He fumbles with the goat. Sensing his discomfort, his wife, Mumtaz, swiftly makes the cut.
Joyland revels in the tactility, lusciousness, and richness of color. Redness seeps through many scenes, in a gush of streaming blood washed away, the sparkliness of coruscating dresses worn by dancers in the mujra theatre, which becomes the central site of the film, birthing several tensions. Sadiq plays vibrantly with color, and a textured earthiness pulsates throughout. The kneading of turmeric onto someone’s back assumes a most spectacular yellow in its lush agile strokes. Note also the way Sadiq orchestrates the dance sequences.
The leading dancer, Shabbo’s dance scenes are filmed with a grimy, slack, and extravagantly colorful sense of bombast. Shabbo capitalizes on inelegant energy to capture the attention of those watching her. She heaves and throws her weight around a panoply of sleazily ornate background dancers.
Our first encounter in the space is directed through Biba, a trans dancer who dreams big and of moving up the ranks in the theatre. Biba craves more than just being relegated as an entertainer during the intermission. There’s tart bitchiness aplenty in the tiffs between Biba and Shabbo. We see Biba straining desperately to land the big buck and seal some space for herself by which she can demonstrate her potential to the visitors.
An unemployed Haider takes up the gig of a background dancer in Biba’s troupe. Sadiq shrewdly evokes an auditory impression of music tapering off into uneven fragments in an early scene when Haider first sees a bloodied Biba. In a fleeting span of a bare minute or so, Sadiq conveys with fantastic perceptive minuteness the sparks of the ensuing pull between Biba and Haider, a jolt to comprehension, a slanting of one’s fairly balanced equipoise in everyday matters.
The beauty of Joyland is that it always keeps gliding along variant paths all at once without significantly tripping off a specifically intended tonality. It refuses to settle into any comforting trajectory of the multiple tangents it straddles but muddies up a complex of counter-responses and stirred impulses. Haider’s growing intimacy with Biba becomes an engine to accelerate his withheld apprehensions and anxieties about gendered behavior and the nature of sexual orientation.
Sadiq keeps shifting from one track to the other, from Haider and Biba’s finding trust and refuge in one another to Mumtaz’s splintering anchorage, which her work at a salon provided. Rasti Farooq is so luminous she becomes the beating heart of the film. Watch her in the scene when she’s let in on the compromise she has to make, as do most women. She suggests multiple things that imply her need to function as an independent self; everyone out-talks her or shuts her down. Bristling in her seat, she tries to contain herself, the messy, fractious bundle of anger and betrayal at having brutally snatched what she wanted as a pre-requisite for marital life.
Gradually, through a final rear shot of the scene, she quietens internally, shoulders slackening, head drooping, utterly defeated, communicating a sense of a huge force that’s been abruptly dulled. You feel her crumbling under the glaring weight of what she feared her life would become. The burden of producing a male heir looms large.
Over the course of the film, we observe her spirit, her conviction slowly denting irreparably. Farooq makes Mumtaz a richly full-bodied creature, replete with a sense of decay and sexual hunger. Stolen glances at a fair throb with sexual tension. Her dynamics with Sarwat Gilani’s Nuchhi are so excellently authentic, layered, and instantly believable that it leaves you waiting eagerly for their scenes. Gilani is extraordinary in the climax and another scene as she registers what might or might not be an amusement. She’s lively, but you also fathom a hollowing sadness drifting past every now and then.
Cinematographer Joe Saade frames a lot of Mumtaz in the dappled glow of yellow streetlight trickling in through the windows.
Joyland locates ample sensuous heat in Mumtaz’s unfulfilled yearnings, Biba and Haider being drawn to each other. Sadiq shoots a scene where they establish some of their intimacy in a playful circular plethora of the glow of fairy lights. There’s an exquisite series of shots when their faces come close, and we see the lights snaking in teasing patterns across them.
Alina Khan is magnetic; her Biba is imperious, no-nonsense, and wholly ferocious. She exudes a brittle exterior but also reveals the necessity for the coarsened shell that she puts on. She effortlessly renders an absent backstory which helps us understand how much she’s been through with numerous people. We can make out the hurt she has endured and why she cannot afford to hear yet another overfamiliar anguished explanation from people who foist their confusion onto a misplaced want from her.
But there are scenes that feel designed in their writing, veering close to PSA. A scene where Biba unleashes her rage at the boys of her troupe comes off as insecurely over-illustrative. Occasionally Biba feels like she’s written with a rehashed notion of a spunky trans woman in mind. I wish we saw more of her inner world. Still, Joyland is more interested in using Biba to refract a broader understanding of desire, masculinity, and repression that ignite the fault lines through the entirety of the Rana family.
Joyland builds a stunning dance sequence of Biba and Haider. Sadiq stages it thrillingly; a sea of twinkling phones’ flashlights illuminates the dancers as they spin around. It’s such a rousing moment set to Farasat’s pounding Biba that you feel an electric burst zip right through the audience. At the Dharamshala Film Festival, where I watched the film, people cheered, vigorously clapped, whistled ecstatically, whooping. The euphoria surged even more during the second screening. Biba is all geared to be the next veritable party anthem if it isn’t one already.
In fact, Sadiq has a consistently sharp sense of scene choreography while peering long and hard into the dynamics among women compelled to bend to the male demands upon them. Sadiq and Jasmin Tenucci’s editing creates this mesmeric swaying effect in the film; scenes coalesce gracefully into the next, a smartly conducted symphony of image, shade, color, and sound.
Abdullah Siddiqui’s music lodges an alert emotional resonance. There’s marvelously intercutting between the central dance sequence and a visit to the eponymous Joyland. Watch out for the scene where Haider practices his ‘stepping’ for Biba. As he performs his dizzying spins, we hear a wild, rapturous flutter of a pinion. Ali Junejo’s presence has a distinctive pure innocence, carrying a beautifully honest sense of being somewhat lost in all the trappings of his family, the due demeanor expected, negotiating all that Biba gives expression to.
However, there are moments when one feels that Sadiq is overreaching his grasp as he tries to take on a largesse of critical commentary on women’s duties and their imprisonment under the ambit of their sons and partners’ inconsistent moods. The bright patches of humor in the dialogue, especially those between a razor-sharp Nuchhi and Mumtaz, are offset by instances of trite, over-showy dialogues relating to a neighbor closely attached to the Rana family. The emotional crescendo when it arrives also feels strangely mellowed in effect. One can also predict from a mile the route the film takes.
Maybe I’m nitpicking here. What’s especially admirable is Sadiq isn’t hesitant to present Haider’s sexuality as fascinatingly ambivalent; a later scene with Biba only tumbles out of a tinderbox of complicated debate. Joyland is powered by a canny, precise realization of moments when its characters stray from internalized grounds or excavate new truths. In the wake of either, nothing is left entirely free.
Joyland had its India Premiere at the Dharamshala International Film Festival 2022 (3-6 November).