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Movie Review: Joyland is Sublime
On Joyland, cultural amnesia, language and class, encounter with the West
Last week, I finally had a chance to watch Saim Sadiq’s Joyland, when it opened at Film Forum in New York to a sold out weekend. I had considered avoiding it, for the same reason I have so far avoided Succession, or Beautiful World, Where Are You, or Maula Jatt, all cases in which reputation precedes, and threatens to intrude upon, encounter.
In one of the scenes near the euphoric climax of the film, the aging patriarch of a middle-class Lahori family (Salman Peerzada) is shown calling for his neighbor, a respectable dupatta-clad woman played by Sania Saeed who is looking after him while his children and grandchildren go off for an evening at Joyland, an amusement park. He is seen trying to push his wheelchair over a low step dividing two rooms. We see only the wheels, which get more and more jerky and agitated, along with his voice. Then, right as the neighbor finally appears, we see a trickle of liquid hitting the floor, quickly turning into a stream, ending in a puddle. The neighbor looks on horrified. Our old man has peed himself.
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When we watch movies that affect us, we leave with scenes singed onto the curtains of our mind, images we keep returning to. To even the most cynical viewer, Joyland will offer a few such scenes, because besides everything, it is a stylistic masterpiece. I keep returning to the scene I described above. When I watched the movie in a New York cinema, I felt, with the self-righteousness of the native, that the audience kept laughing at the “wrong” moments, particularly in a couple of scenes where the women in the film stick it to the patriarchy. That, to me, was not the point. The old man wetting his pants because there was no one around to help him reach the bathroom was the point. His creased forehead, his desire for conformity and respectability, his helplessness in the face of a mutating world, were the point, as familiar to me as the younger characters’ rebellions.
Joyland is the story of a three-generation family living in inner Lahore. Haider (Ali Junejo), the second son of the above-mentioned patriarch, is hired as a background dancer for Biba (Alina Khan), a khwaja sira trying to make it big in Lahore’s dance theater scene. From the get-go, Haider is struck by Biba, entranced by her authority and frankness. Meanwhile, Haider’s wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), is forced to leave her job at a beauty salon so she can help her sister-in-law take care of the house and feed the eight people, including children, that live there.
As a result of a move towards more vernacular cinemas after the 60’s (with the rise of Punjabi and Pashto films aimed at a working-class audience), Zia’s repression against cinema in the 80’s, and the decisive triumphing of the TV serial as the dominant force in Pakistani entertainment after Musharraf’s 2002 media liberalization, a lot of new wave Urdu cinema operates in a space of amnesia.As my brilliant friend Harris Gondal has written, we live in an ahistorical moment, where every new movie is tasked with the insane / inane challenge of becoming the first truly great film, “without realizing that such a promise flourished on erasure and disrespect of our cinematic history.” Nevertheless, if I am to go through the list of New Cinema films that I have seen, from Cake (sexy feudalist apologia; a strong case, alongside the horrific White Tiger adaptation, for the blood money theme to be retired from desi cinema until we figure out what the fuck is going on) to Lal Kabootar (fun, mindless, Ahmed Ali Akbar is beautiful), to any of the ISPR productions that congeal into a single extravaganza with much monies and zero integrity, nothing has hit me the way Joyland did. Even now, when I look up the trailer or happen upon a random shot shared on social media, it evokes strong emotions in me. I remember exactly how I felt when Mumtaz and her sister-in-law Nuchi (Sarwat Gilani) screamed on top of the roller coaster (the relatable terror of screaming out for God and the relatable thrill of holding onto your companion when the drop comes). When Biba hastily rubbed off her nail polish before entering a house of mourning. In the long, masterfully held silence between Nuchi and Mumtaz after the latter revealed her desire to run away. When Mumtaz’s brother-in-law found her pleasuring herself while spying on a neighbor, and later obliquely told Haider, while they did wuzu at a mosque, that he needed to take better care of his wife.
There is no villan in Joyland. This is not to say that it is a muted, all-sides story, simply that every single character, from the quietly fermenting Mumtaz to the macho older brother Saleem (Sohail Sameer) to the screen-burning Nuchi , is drawn with so much depth and nuance that one stands with them, believes their majbooris, and sees the rectitude of their intentions.
One of the things I enjoyed most was how language was used to delineate class and gender in the film. Haider’s rough-around-the-edges friend, who gets him the stage-dancing job, speaks to him in Punjabi, but Haider, gentler and perhaps more educated, replies in Urdu. The entire theater world operates in Punjabi. The domestic scenes are in Urdu. When the parlor owner is frustrated with Mumtaz, she says to the client, “You can teach them skill, but you can’t teach them class.” This is perhaps the only English sentence uttered throughout the film.
Another wonderful scene is the climax of the film, in which Biba performs in a theater lit up only by cell phone flashlights (loadshedding, etc.). Dressed in a shimmering silver jumpsuit, she and her entourage of dancers shimmy to an electronic rendition of…Biba, by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Now, I know Nusrat is God, but like many Gods, he can sometimes be improved upon, and I don’t think I will ever want to hear the original Biba again. Here’s Farasat Anees’s electronic version, used in the film.
Not everything works. In Mumtaz, Rasti Farooq brilliantly depicts a certain loose, reticent mannerism that I recognize painfully from the childhood playground. Her acting is flawless. Yet, if plot is meant to reveal character, there is something about Mumtaz’s character that the film keeps veiled. Her fate seems unexplained, although perhaps hers is a decision that is impossible to explain. The flashback that serves as coda at the end of the film has been much lauded, but to me felt heavy-handed and unnecessary. The exquisite language politics I described above are not reflected in the subtitles when they easily could have been, the way they are done in My Brilliant Friend where the foreign viewer knows whether the characters are conversing in genteel Italian or in the more provincial Neapolitan dialect. But these are minor quibbles, akin to the stubborn ache of an over-achieving parent when the firstborn announces a 99% score on a test.
Unsurprisingly, the film has received some tone-deaf reviews in the US, a country whose provincial critics finds themselves with their feet firmly in their mouth any time they must encounter a sociocultural system different from their own. The director Saim Sadiq himself has expressed frustration at the movie’s treatment as a piece of Muslim LGBTQ activism. The New York Times’s Amy Nicholson calls it a “polite weepie” that benefited from the controversy of the ban, and wonders why the dance theater’s finances are not explained. If it had been Italian or French cinema, Nicholson might have chalked up her incredulity to her own parochialism, possibly even shut up about it; in this case, she confidently refuses to buy the story. Glenn Kenny at Roger Ebert is befuddled that the dance company is considered erotic, since “the dancers are all fully clothed, and their moves are only mildly racy by Western standards.” He’s also shocked that Haider’s monthly earnings amount to “less than $150, folks!” Far from cultural acuity, Americans might need to start off by learning of purchasing power parity.
The only review I have read so far that does the film justice is by the brilliant Saad Khan of Khajistan (as a rule, read whatever Saad writes). His detailing of the film’s nitty-gritties is astute and wonderful. I am at odds with the mild complaint that lingers throughout his review that Joyland has made concessions to render itself more palatable to the West. I don’t necessarily disagree with him; I simply find this line of critique puerile. We are past the point of encounter with the West. It is a simple fact of our lives, and we cannot wish it away by a return to any idyllic past. He mentions Iranian cinema, and how it has had to cater to a savior complex ridden Western audience since the revolution. Fine, so then? Satyajit Ray once noted that his work was made possible only though European film festival support. When has art been airtight, in its own vacuum-sealed container uncontaminated by politics and patronage? To me, what is far more interesting is something like Panah Panahi’s statement here, in response to being asked why car scenes are so prevalent in Iranian cinema. By law, women are not allowed to uncover their head on Iranian screens. Given that their cinema tradition is a highly realist one, this means that any domestic scene becomes immediately suspect. The car, Panahi says, turns into an effective intermediate space, a place where two characters can have a private conversation but where a woman will still, believably, cover her head. Limitations on art have always existed. The question is, how does art respond?
Regardless, it is worth restating that Saad’s review is sharp and illuminating in so many ways. Read it, and then read the rest of his work; his piece on growing up lower class in Lahore is possibly the best piece of English writing to come out of Pakistan ever.
Joyland is a sublime, haunting film that stays with you long after its final expansive shot, which can be construed as both elegy and catharsis. The most meaningful catharsis the film provides, however, is that of great art.