When Saim Sadiq’s debut feature Joyland premiered at Cannes last year, he felt overwhelming relief. “[It] came from a lot of trauma—of growing up and seeing things, from traumas that were mine or other people’s,” he says. “[Making it was a process of] finding a catharsis for that trauma and a reason for that trauma’s existence.” But such relief was short-lived. Despite its many international accolades, Joyland encountered months of pushback in Pakistan, narrowly escaping its ban in time for a domestic release.
Joyland follows a Lahori man, Haider (Ali Junejo), caught between his suffocating home life and the glamour of the Bollywood-style burlesque, where he secretly works and falls in love with Biba (Alina Khan), a transgender starlet. At once tender and heartbreaking, Sadiq’s debut feature broadens the world of his Orizzonti Award-winning short film Darling to explore the collective consequences of desire, the dual identities necessary for survival in Lahore, and the ways we quietly uphold patriarchal values.
Over Zoom, we speak to Sadiq about the complexities of making and screening his Independent Spirit Award-winning film. This interview has been edited for publication.
Projektor: Home is often depicted as a space of authenticity and the theater as a space of performance. But in Joyland, those dynamics are flipped. How did you flesh out those tensions and why was it important for you to interrogate these in the first place?
Saim Sadiq: I always wanted it to be an ensemble film because there’s something about telling the story that centers on these themes of gender and sexuality, but structuring it in a collectivist way because it comes from a collectivist society. Making a film that’s too protagonist-driven would just not lead to the kind of honesty and complexity that one was hoping for.
It’s almost about a family tree, where you are subjectively rooted in all of their individual experiences. But when you put any two of them together, there’s a conflict and a tension that you as an audience member can’t pick and choose whose coming of age to root for. In a society like that, is it even possible for a woman to have a coming of age compared to a man? You have this empathy for this male character, but you do question whether he is more worthy of that coming of age towards the end of the film.
There’s tension in all of those relationships but there is [also] beauty and a love that we really wanted to get at. The actors were instrumental in finding [that] because one doesn’t care about the tension between two people unless there’s a love that joins them together, that we want to save or hope that lasts.
Joyland challenges these Western concepts of individual desire and shows how protagonists’ actions have an impact on others, especially through the ending. Why was it valuable to incorporate that into not only the story but also the way it was structured?
I was bored with the idea of watching another film about sexuality and gender that had the same coming-of-age, individualistic story [where] you’re supposed to celebrate the freedom that this person gets at the end of a film. Even though what you’re saying is true, that may not be the reality for sections in Asian countries where families are interconnected in a deep way and actions will have consequences on other family members. I don’t think it’s true even for a family living in the United States.
But of course, it’s much easier to not go there—to pretend that way of life is far more individualistic in the West than in many Asian countries. But if you go down to the [American] South, a trans girl coming out or any sort of gender norms being questioned within a family will also have a big effect on the family. Maybe liberal art has negated all conservative elements as “bad” and “villainous” without trying to understand them as people as well. Our humanity is also rather selective when telling stories about these topics. We don’t really afford it to the conservative characters as much.
The biggest thing that happens when you come of age and when you get the freedom that you were looking for is weight, fear, and guilt that stays with you almost forever. What are you going to do with all that freedom? [Before], at least you had the backing of family and tradition. To be able to let go of that and be alone in the world is a very scary thing.
And who is to say that’s what we must all be aiming for? Tradition also gives you comfort, a safety net that you must rip up and let go of to attain that freedom and that may not be what everybody’s idea of happiness looks like. To question that romanticism was important for me because those are things that I’ve seen around me and have experienced myself just growing up.
I was bored with the idea of watching another film about sexuality and gender that had the same coming-of-age, individualistic story where you’re supposed to celebrate the freedom that this person gets at the end of a film.
The film is so compelling as a coming-into-identity, especially for Haider whose transformation and empowerment come from employment. The kind of working-class family they belong to, was it something you wanted to consciously explore?
It was. There’s a cruelty to the idea that, even if a family has limited means, they are still uncomfortable with the idea of the woman going ahead and working. Instead of being okay with the fact that we can actually move up when both of these people are working, they would rather preserve their morals.
That speaks to this self-destructive idea of patriarchy, which is held above not just desire but basic human needs. That was certainly important with Haider because [of the] pressure on men to be the providers. Even if their core characteristics are not well-set to be those providers to the family [and] they’re probably better caretakers than providers, there is no space for [that kind of] man.
Haider and his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) have [this understanding] in the beginning. Things are shaken up when they are fit into boxes. Class was very important, but another idea that was extremely important was a way to co-exist with some form of happiness. Haider and Mumtaz had found a way and they were happy to a certain extent. That is a romance that I was attached to, as much as the romance between Biba and Haider.
In your pre-TIFF screening in 2022, you talked about how, prior to Ali Junejo agreeing to the role, it was difficult to find a leading man. What was it about the Lahori man you wanted to subvert or challenge? And what qualities about Haider as a character may have intimidated other actors?
It was everything. There was nothing about him that screamed hero. Unfortunately, most male actors in Pakistan are looking for at least a bare minimum level of machismo when it comes to a leading role. Nobody wants to star in a romance with a trans girl and let that be the highlight and heart of the film. The film is very much driven by that romance and they were uncomfortable with that, with the questions that will be associated with that character’s masculinity.
This character needed an actor who was comfortable with being quiet and yet understood the challenge. Just because you don’t have a lot of lines doesn’t mean there’s not a lot to do. In fact, there’s actually far more because you’re responding to everyone. You’re the one who oscillates from one world to another, bringing in and creating chaos by being quiet. That silence is powerful, it’s complicity.
To be able to understand those layers would require an actor who was comfortable in his own masculinity but also his own skill. The women are always going to have the big moments. He’s always surrounded by women who are far more exciting to watch than he is. And yet, rightfully so, he is the lead because he is the thread that joins them all together. So I’m glad we didn’t find anybody until we found him.
Joyland challenges these binaries but also exists in duality—chosen by Pakistan as its submission to the Oscars, while also being banned in certain parts of the country. Where do you locate your work amidst that push and pull?
Certainly, I’m not gonna make a film about what happened with Joyland. But it did reaffirm this complex relationship we all share with our homelands. There’s love but there’s animosity, too. The duality that Joyland talks about was certainly highlighted in the way that it was treated back home. In a way, you’re telling me I spoke the truth because what I was saying was exactly what’s happening with the film.
So the irony is not lost. But in a way, you have a complicated relationship with your family or your homeland no matter where you come from. It fuels your work. In a pragmatic sense, it makes it tougher to work there. But creatively speaking and emotionally speaking, it charges you up and fuels you because it gives you things to talk about.
Joyland was part of the New Directors/New Films program at the Film at Lincoln Center and held screenings on April 1–2. It was followed by a limited theatrical release at Film Forum from April 7-12.
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