A film that begins with its protagonist hiding under a sheet is bound to include some manner of unmasking or revelation. So it proves with Saim Sadiq’s Joyland, which won two prizes last year at Cannes and picked up Malala Yousafzai as an executive producer. Back home in Pakistan, it was a different story. The picture, named after the distant fairground glimpsed between the buildings in Lahore, was banned for being “un-Islamic”, before being permitted a meagre release once it was shorn of several offending scenes.
Haider (Ali Junejo), the man under the sheet in those opening seconds, may only be playing hide-and-seek with his nieces, but there is a more profound unveiling to come. As the namby-pamby son of a disapproving patriarch, he has a lot to prove. Can he slaughter a goat in the courtyard when requested? He cannot. Is he likely to give his father a grandson? It isn’t looking good.
When Haider finally does get a job, it’s not even one he can brag about. Only reluctantly he admits to his wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), that he has been hired as a backing dancer for Biba (Alina Khan), a glamorous trans diva at a nearby “erotic” theatre. Mumtaz and her sister-in-law Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) are curious enough to scroll through Biba’s Instagram account where – the horror! – they accidentally hit “like” on a selfie.
Haider is not a born dancer but Biba, who is brusque and prickly but encouraging with it, puts him through his paces. She also persuades him to peel off his T-shirt during a rooftop rehearsal – another uncovering for Haider, this one transforming him from timid to magically sexualised.
Enchanted by her, he goes the extra mile. When she orders a promotional cardboard cut-out of herself, he collects it on his moped late one night. The errand provides the film with its most dreamlike image, the camera travelling behind Haider as he drives while the giant replica Biba stares back at us, one hand planted on her hip. She could be a blingy pontiff stood upright in a popemobile.
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That scene, which recalls the obsessive hero of Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1970 Deep End lugging a cardboard Jane Asher around with him, has elements of both the comic and the poetic. This is a woman who meets opposition whenever she occupies the female-only seats on public transport; now here she is (or her double, anyway) completing a nocturnal victory lap of the city. The outsized standee also spooks one of the neighbours, who is taken aback when Haider stores it on the roof of his father’s home. What else to do but drape the offending object in (of course) a sheet?
The 31-year-old Sadiq (who also wrote and edited the film) knows how to weigh every shot, every cut. A heart-to-heart between Biba and Haider works perfectly well as a close-up of the two of them. The mood is intensified, however, by the cut to a wide shot revealing that they are, in fact, in the empty theatre, outnumbered by the rows of vacant seats extending in every direction. The surrounding space renders the scene paradoxically more intimate.
Advance word on Joyland suggested it was a trans story, when instead it is a movie in which one character happens to be transgender. Biba faces her share of prejudice, including playground-style chants from co-workers (“No milk in your bra, just blah blah blah”), but she is the most settled character here, and hardly the only woman under pressure. Nucchi feels a failure for not producing a son, Mumtaz is forced to quit the job she loves, and an elderly, overlooked family friend complains: “I’m old. Almost a ghost.” Perhaps she should be wearing a sheet, too.
Biba, though, knows exactly who she is by the time Haider starts falling for her. He is the one in flux, ambushed by his own desires, and prone to thoughtless remarks. When Biba reveals that she is saving money for gender-confirming surgery, his reply – that he likes her exactly the way she is – earns him a rebuke. She’s doing this for herself, she snaps, not for anyone else. He has mistaken her transitioning body for a provisional state of mind, when all that’s left for her in the matter of identity are formalities. Her refusal to play nice or pipe down is rather bracing. Nobody puts Biba in the corner.
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“Joyland” is in cinemas from 24 February
This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon