.Ladies’ Choice

Sexual morality melodrama Joyland stirs the cultural taboo cauldron

Haider, the protagonist of Joyland, is a mild-mannered 30ish man who looks like life is passing him by. At home in Lahore, Pakistan with his wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), their four daughters and various in-laws, unemployed Haider (Ali Junejo) is clearly the family’s odd man out, especially in the eyes of his white-haired father (Salmaan Peerzada), who sits immobile in a wheelchair, passing out stern edicts to all assembled. 

Bashful Haider is such a wimp he’s too squeamish to perform the fatherly duty of slaughtering a goat on the tiled floor of the courtyard—his sister-in-law Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) has to grab the knife and do the job for him. Worse, wife Mumtaz already has a regular job in a beauty parlor. Thus, Haider and the kids live off her earnings. All that, plus he and Mumtaz have not yet been able to produce a son to carry on the family name. Oh, the shame.

Desperate to repair the familial honor and raise some cash, Haider more or less accidentally wanders into a local burlesque club and hangs around like a hungry dog. He immediately becomes intrigued with the entertainers, especially a transgender diva named Biba (Alina Khan), the headstrong star of the show. Mooncalf Haider finds sex bomb Biba irresistible. Before anyone can say “Beyoncé,” the club’s boss offers Haider the princely sum of 20,000 rupees (about U.S. $71) per show as a backup dancer in Biba’s troupe of chorus boys. That’s where Haider’s troubles really begin. 

Over and above its antique cautionary-tale framework, writer-director Saim Sadiq’s drama (co-written with American scenarist Maggie Briggs) is a mini-treatise on Pakistani society in the 21st century, particularly in the gender-role-playing arena. If a guy has no work and lives off his wife’s earnings, he’s already less than a man in that traditional environment. 

Haider might conceivably feel at home in Oakland or Berkeley, but in Lahore he’s a weak sister even before he begins playing footsy with bossy faux-femme Biba. (In one ripe moment of candid characterization, Haider reveals that he played Juliet in a school production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.) There are consequences. Joyland is not at all a frivolous, playful movie, despite its whimsical androgynous setup. 

The predicament of Haider is interesting up to a point, but when Khan’s bumptious Biba goes into her routine, everything revolves around her. There’s a pent-up demand for performers like Biba in Pakistan. There, as everywhere, most people are glued to their phones, but she offers something special. The scene in which Biba energizes a disco dance floor full of sweaty, horny men might be something of a revelation to American audiences—but of course in Lahore, virtually all the night spots are men-only, off limits to respectable women. 

At the Joyland club, where the revue is titled “Shut Your Mouth,” the audience is entirely male. The inexperienced Haider gets swept up in the carnal excitement and courts disaster. Compare and contrast Joyland with Lino Brocka’s socially conscious Macho Dancer, a similar stick of gay nightclub dynamite set in 1988 Philippines. In both movies, the chorus-boy sex objects are mostly straight guys from poor families trying to make a living. Just like gay-curious Haider.

Actor Khan pretty much destroys everyone on screen with her, as Biba forcefully makes her way in show business—the definition of a domineering queen, squelching her rival Hafiz and reducing the club’s owner to befuddled speechlessness. On stage, she’s a by-the-book trans parody of “shocking” chantoozy-ness, nothing more or less. 

One scene in particular provides some socio-political perspective. On a crowded city bus, after Biba sits down next to a senior woman, the older woman berates the drag queen for sitting in the bus’ women’s section, accusing Biba of “public vulgarity” that shouldn’t be put “in front of our kids.” The outburst might have been lifted from the Ron DeSantis playbook. Are we in Pakistan or Florida?

In theaters

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