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Joyland, 2023(Film still)

Joyland: the story of Pakistan’s controversial trans romance film

Saim Sadiq discusses his dazzling debut Joyland, the first Pakistani movie to reach the Oscars shortlist, which charts a love story between charismatic trans performer Bibi and her married backing dancer Haider

“Hollywood has a weird way of shooting any Muslim country,” says Saim Sadiq. “When you get to hold the camera yourself, it’s like, ‘No, we’re not just a mosque in the desert, or someone walking around in a headscarf.’ What you see when you come to Pakistan is a very colourful country. We’re obsessed with prints and patterns!”

Sadiq, 31, who’s usually based in Pakistan, is speaking to me in February during a visit to London for his dazzling debut feature, Joyland. The cis-transgender love story premiered at Cannes, was banned and partly unbanned in Pakistan, and is taking the world by storm: in France, for instance, the low-budget indie grossed more than $1 million within the first three weeks of January. While not reaching the final five, Joyland became the first Pakistani movie to reach the Oscars shortlist, and, besides, at Cannes, it won the Queer Palm, even beating Lukas Dhont’s Close.

Shot in Lahore with glowing, expressive cinematography, the poignant drama follows Haider (Ali Junejo), the unemployed husband to his teacher-by-trade wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq). Amid patriarchal pressures, Haider is a disappointment to his old-fashioned father: unlike his siblings, Haider has no children and as a homemaker, he endures deep shame. In secret, though, Haider nabs an improbable job at a club as a backing dancer to a charismatic trans performer, Bibi (Alina Khan, a trans actress in her first feature). In a flurry of heart-stopping, moonlit emotions, a love triangle emerges.

While it would be “filmmaking 101” for Sadiq to shoot Haider’s domestic life as drab and grey, all to build a contrast with Bibi’s kaleidoscopic world, he instead lenses both environments as bright and alluring. “There’s an inner vibrance that exists in the theatre but not the house, ” Sadiq explains. “Visually speaking, there’s no contrast, but that makes you feel the emotional contrast more.”

What’s since emerged as the shot often used for promotional purposes is Haider riding a motorcycle with a gigantic cardboard cut-out of Biba posing and staring at the camera. “It’s a visually arresting image that brings the two worlds together in a cheeky way,” Sadiq says. “But the film’s defined by the two female characters of Biba and Mumtaz. Those two women were so clear in my head from the very beginning, and they stayed their individual selves.”

Khan had previously starred as another trans dancer in Sadiq’s 2019 short Darling. In the intervening years, the Pakistani director would phone up Khan and send her the Joyland drafts he’d co-written with Maggie Briggs. “We would discuss many, many things,” Sadiq says. “Alina was a consultant, particularly in relationship to the dance experience of her character. Because, of course, she’s many things, not just trans. And, for me, it wasn’t just a responsibility, it was an opportunity. Why would I not make the film more nuanced, interesting, and authentic?”

When asked to name Khan’s more specific input, Sadiq rattles off a few examples. One is that, in Pakistan, trans people use a specific lingo when speaking Punjabi. “She was very much in charge of her own dialect. If there was something I felt unsure about, I’d call her, like how she’d react to a certain situation… I had to figure out overlapping things between Biba’s and Alina’s trans experiences. Alina’s not a trained actor, so I knew it would give her ground to stand on.”

Even so, Sadiq is keen to point out that Biba isn’t Khan. “Alina is a very sweet and docile. Biba is the opposite. You have to take the lived experience of a trans person, but, at the same time, retain the originality of the character.”

Haider and Biba’s relationship develops, romcom-style, with Haider as a stoic figure observing Biba in her limb-swinging, hip-shaking element on stage. Soon, there’s heart-to-heart conversations, a display of allyship when Biba receives transphobic abuse on a train, and a total surrender to desire. A kiss unfolds at night on the street. To protect the actors, it was partially shot away from public attention.

“When he walks up to her, that’s all shot in a real alley,” Sadiq says. “When he holds and kisses her, that’s a set we had to create. I refused to shoot it that day, because I was like, ‘I don’t think this is safe enough.’ I’m very happy with that decision because the actors were more comfortable and freer indoors. Every time I look at it, I’m like, ‘It’s really sexy.’ The chemistry is natural and real. For me, it’s because they’re feeling safe. I would do it indoors every time if I could, just to give the actors their safety – as long as it looks correct.”

I bring up the breaking story (it could be debunked by the time you read this) that Jonah Hill and Laura London’s pivotal, and only, kiss in Netflix’s You People was CGI-generated. Sadiq doesn’t quite understand. “Why?” I’m unable to explain. “Come on, guys. We did it way back in Pakistan!”

After Joyland’s success at Cannes, where it won Un Certain Regard’s jury prize, a flurry of international deals and festival invites followed. However, on November 11, Pakistan’s government halted the film’s November 22 theatrical release, claiming it “contains highly objectionable material which do not conform with the social values and moral standards of our society” and is “clearly repugnant”.

With #ReleaseJoyland and #Joyland trending on Twitter, the film’s ban received international coverage and fury. On November 16, the ban was reversed for Pakistani cinemas outside of Punjab. “In matters like these, Pakistani politicians don’t really care about the international outcry,” says Sadiq. “But when there’s enough people in Pakistan against it, they feel the pressure.”

The director was pleasantly surprised that even in a conservative country, the public rage was palpable. “Many thousands weren’t just supportive, but actively supportive. They would wake up every day and make calls to the ministry, or tweet and put up Instagram videos. People did graffiti on the walls of Lahore. I don’t know if we can take credit for it – it was a bunch of people who took this very personally, and made sure it was undone.”

Several months later, Joyland continues to play in cinemas in Karachi and Lahore, but it’s still banned in Punjab. Sadiq sighs. “The government in Punjab fell, and there’s a new government. It’s a shitshow in general. We really fought for two-and-a-half months. We went to court. We did everything. But there’s fatigue. A couple of days ago, I was like, ‘I don’t have the fight in me at this point in time. I need to conserve the energy and put it somewhere else.’”

Still, Joyland’s impact is undeniable, with Sadiq speaking proudly of the trans response in Pakistan. Several have told him of their repeat viewings. “Alina’s one of the most prominent trans people in the country, if not the most prominent trans person in the country. Just seeing her life, it’s such a success story for them as a community. They go, ‘She was sitting with us, and now she’s on the red carpet of Cannes.’”

Joyland is in UK cinemas on February 24