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‘Joyland’: So much more than a trans love story

The theme of repression in a regimented society percolates throughout this melancholy and lovely Pakistani film

Ali Junejo, left, and Alina Khan in “Joyland.” (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
4 min
(3.5 stars)

A gentle man falls for a brassy trans woman in “Joyland,” but that’s not exactly what this lyrical, well-acted Pakistani drama is about. With its multiple intersecting narratives, writer-director Saim Sadiq’s debut feature takes an almost novelistic approach to its central theme: the repression of human individuality by a regimented traditional society.

At the center of the several stories is Haider (Ali Junejo), who lives with his wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), in a cramped Lahore household. Also resident are his father (Salmaan Peerzada), brother (Sameer Sohail), sister-in-law (Sarwat Gilani) and the latter couple’s three daughters, who are about to expand to four. Haider is unemployed while Mumtaz works as a makeup artist for brides, an arrangement that doesn’t please the family’s hidebound patriarch. Haider is comfortable in a domestic role — he’s introduced while playing a game with his nieces — but hesitant about such supposedly manly duties as sacrificing a goat to celebrate the birth of that fourth child.

When a friend steers Haider toward a possible job, it’s not one he can tell his father about. There’s an opening for a backup dancer for Biba (Alina Khan), a transgender performer who gyrates to Bollywood-style music at an “erotic theater.” (The talent bumps and grinds but doesn’t strip.) Haider is not much of a hoofer, but his eagerness to perform simple tasks endears him to Biba.

Early in their relationship, Haider accepts an assignment that also serves as a metaphor: He picks up a massive cutout photo of Biba, more than twice her actual size, and transports it awkwardly on his motorbike. The photo looms over him physically as Biba does emotionally.

Meanwhile, Mumtaz is increasingly unhappy. Now that her husband has an income — he tells the family he’s working as a theater manager — Mumtaz’s imperious father-in-law has decreed that she must quit the job she loves. She’s stuck at home while her husband is out late almost every night, whether rehearsing or performing or otherwise catering to Biba. When Mumtaz learns she’s pregnant, the other members of the family are much more pleased than she is.

Joyland, by the way, is not the name of the theater where the ambitious Biba is trying to supplant a better-known performer. It’s a nearby amusement park that Mumtaz and her sister-in-law like to visit, which one evening leads to an unfortunate and telling incident with a neighbor while they’re at the fair. The place is hidden behind a high, thick wall, as if to protect the residents of Lahore from the faintly disreputable sight of people having fun.

Sadiq, a Lahore native who studied directing at Columbia University, seems to enjoy mystifying the viewer. He keeps expository dialogue to a minimum and doles out information slowly, or not at all. (It would be nice to know, for example, why the shy and clumsy Haider even gets hired as a dancer. Is it just because so few Pakistani men are prepared to cavort behind a transgender entertainer?) But most of the small incidents and offhand anecdotes are gradually revealed to be part of a grander design. For instance, a comment about someplace Haider has never been points to the melancholy but lovely ending, which is as hushed as Abdullah Siddiqui’s ambient score.

Cinematographer Joe Saade shot the film in a near-square format, ensuring that facial close-ups nearly fill the frame, and mostly employed available light. Bright outdoor episodes convey Lahore’s heat, but most of the sequences are shadowy. Twice, power failures require people to light a room with just their cellphones. More showy is a nighttime love scene in which twinklings cast by green lasers play across Haider’s and Biba’s faces.

It’s a moment of enchantment that can’t last, partly due to Haider’s and Biba’s own personalities but also because of the society in which they uncomfortably live. After a few cuts, “Joyland” was eventually released in most of Pakistan. Yet it remains banned in Punjab, the province where it was made and where its director grew up.

Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the AFI Silver. Contains sexual situations, strong language, smoking and simulated animal sacrifice. In Urdu, Punjabi and some English with subtitles. 127 minutes.