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An Interview with Joyland's Director Saim Sadiq: a woman's struggle under the transgender melodrama

October 12, 2022

(Joyland is about the youngest son Haider, who is from a conventional Pakistani household, falling in love with the erotic transgender dancer Biba)

As the first Pakistani movie ever selected by the Cannes Film Festival, Joyland is undoubtedly a landmark in the modern depiction of this Muslim country's generational struggles and conflicts. After winning Jury Prize and Queer Palm awards at the 75th Cannes Film Festival, the film started gaining more international attention.

I am very honored to have interviewed Joyland's director, Saim Sadiq, during the 66th London Film Festival to discuss a few complicated topics on this promising movie with a potential nomination in the 95th Academy Awards. 

The first half of the film pulls audiences' attention onto the melodrama between Haider, the unemployed son of a strictly traditional Pakistani family governed by a wheelchair-bound yet a severely patriarchal father, and Biba, the transgender erotic dancer in a crowdpleaser theatre facing hardships and marginalization in her career.

For Saim Sadiq, the world of the transgender dancer is not an unfamiliar topic, as he has discussed the same topic in his Columbia Film School thesis Darling, which won an Orizzonti Award at the 76th Venice International Film Festival.


(Saim Sadiq, born in Lahore, Pakistan)


Q1: 'In your movie, what is so significant about the motif of the transgender dancer?'

A1: 'For Darling, it is a bit different from Joyland where there is more joy inside this world of music and dance. It is a place that is slightly more open as opposed to the outside world, which is far more conservative, aggressive, and violent. I also explore this place in Joyland as the theatre is a big part of the setting in the movie.'

'In Joyland, I think the big fascination for me is because there is the family life, and I need another world where this guy (Haider) can start to feel things and explore things, which is not allowed in his real life. The contrast of the theatre and the erotic dancing enables me to discuss the topic of gender organically, desire, basically sexual aggression without having to put forward this discourse intentionally.'

(One of my favorite scenes in the movie: Haider with a massive billboard of Biba)

However, this taboo relationship only acts as a hook that unveils a more profound misery hidden and silenced by every individual living in crowded households. As the film progresses, the audience's focus gradually shifts from our unheroic hero Haider to a more vibrant character, his intelligent, free-spirited wife, Mumtaz. The intentional structure of this film, by putting all audiences' attention on the love and hate relationship between Haider and Biba, mimics the actual condition of how his wife is being ignored, both inside and outside the film.

Q2: 'As the final attention is drawn to Haider's wife Mumtaz and depicts her almost rebellious action, do you consider Joyland a feminist movie?'

A2: 'For sure. The thing that I am most interested in exploring is certainly the family, the family life, and each member of the family. For characters like the sister-in-law, a chill character who is okay with the way life is, not fighting or complaining, is the one who has the biggest break out at the end. She is speaking up for something which she will never speak up for.’

'For me, it's like how every member of the family is hiding something from the others. They could have had a chance to talk about it openly and to have a closer relationship, but it's hard because that is what happened in patriarchy.'

The movie flips the presumed gender roles from many angles. Mumtaz is the breadwinner wife, with her devoted career in a make-up salon. Haider serves as a softer husband with the secret occupation of being an erotic dancer–the object of being gazed at.

However, society's flashback is extra harsh for this unconventional couple, leading to the unexpected yet unresolvable tragic ending, and it seems to be the only solution within the suffocating environment. Given the shocking plot twist, the complications of the title 'Joyland' becomes equivocal.

Q3: "Do you think there is any irony in the title 'Joyland'?"

A3: 'No! A lot of people say that it's sarcastic or ironic, but I actually want to say that it's not. First, Joyland is an actual amusement park in Lahore. When Mumtaz and her sister-in-law scream on the roller coaster, it is the actual amusement park. It's a happy childhood memory that I have of the amusement park in my city, and I want to include this in the movie. To me, there is a joyland to find in life when you are living.'

'Primarily I think it's a good title because all the characters are trying to find a place where joy can be experienced without limits, almost like a utopian, nirvana-like space inside their head where they can do very basic things. For the female characters, even just being able to work is like being in a joyland. For Mumtaz, her dream is just to work and earn money, but in the environment, such small things turn into such a big desire. For me, it's really about those characters trying to find a joyland for themselves, and some are able to, but some are not. Like Biba, she's successful; she's able to get her face on the poster in the end.'

(Joyland, the amusement park in Lahore, Pakistan)

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Q4: 'I especially like the part at the end when there is a sudden flashback when Haider sneaks to the outside of Mumtaz's window, and the innocent couple shares a nervous smile together. I would like to hear your thoughts on that part.'

A4: ‘It's actually my personal favorite scene in the movie because we were so excited by that scene. In the end, after everything that happened, I didn't want to have a sense of completion, doom, or sadness; I don't think that's the emotion that I am interested in giving the audience.’

‘Secondly, for me, it was always a romance between Haider and Biba, but the love story is between Haider and Mumtaz. The audience is going to watch the whole movie thinking this is about the transgender romance, but they are going to be like, 'Oh no, we were knowing this other girl, who was always there, it wasn't sexual, but it always is a companionship'."

'They (Haider and Mumtaz) always know how to make it (their relationship) work, and if they are allowed to do things in their own way with reversed roles, it will make them happy, and they understand each other. It could have worked, perhaps, even though they may not be sexually engaged with each other. For me, the saddest part is they could make it work, and it is not their fault, but the world intrudes on their relationship and tells them how to have a relationship, how to be in love, what is the right kind of love, and how marriage should orientate. They could actually be friends and talk with each other, but this is, again, too progressive for the world where they lived in.'


(Mumtaz, Haider's wife in Joyland)

Q5: 'I heard that there are several difficulties in casting for Joyland. Would you like to share some thoughts on that?'

A5: 'Yes, it took me a long time to cast the film, especially for Haider's part, because I had a bunch of guys who auditioned and read the script but turned down the part. They will get scared, which is fair because they have their own reason. But I am so happy because then I found Ali (Haider's actor), who is incredible, an amazing actor. He has zero fairs but only excitement, and he is not afraid of 'what does it mean' or 'what we will do'. He is just a pure artist. I am very lucky to have Ali.

Q6: 'As the first Pakistani movie ever made into the Cannes Film Festival, it is very astonishing the work you have done. What do you feel about the future of Pakistani movies in general?

A6: 'I am quite hopeful because I think a couple of good things have happened this year. The industry is branching out. We used to have mainly television, the popular form in the industry. But now we gradually have more individual productions that are not very commercial, which can tell the story in multiple ways.

'I think the world is starting to take a little bit of notice, and there are some rooms. Although the commercial industry is still the majority, but hopefully we will be able to make more and more space so that we can make movies and put them on the screen/online. I think Joyland gave a lot of young filmmakers a kind of hopefulness: they can actually make a film that is not super commercial.'



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