Saim Sadiq’s Joyland

The story of a young married man and a dancer having an affair in Lahore, Joyland was Pakistan’s first ever entry for the Cannes Film Festival—and a part of the nation’s exciting creative revival. Despite Lahore’s Khwaja Sira (or intersex) community dating back centuries, after the work cleared the country’s censors, it was prohibited in Pakistan last November for featuring a Khwaja Sira lead. Later, it was released with additional cuts and finally banned in the Punjab. Like a slow knife to the heart, the bureaucracy is its own tragedy: the Punjab isn’t only Pakistan’s most populous region, but the film’s starring location and home of the writer-director Saim Sadiq. 

Despite the adversity he has faced by his own government, when we talk, Saim’s voice lilts into rants, impressions and asides with a quick smile. Based on his own personal experience, he’s respectful of the film’s central characters and culture, accompanied by a not-so-quiet philosophy that life is too complicated for cheap definitions and defeats.

Yet fight by fight, as the oft-misunderstood culture of South Asia goes global, A Rabbit’s Foot’s Fatima Khan isn’t just transported home while talking to Sadiq. She’s thrown into the childhood, nuances, and memories of a shared Lahore—connecting, a million miles away with the young Pakistanis telling their stories.

On the Importance of Playing the Film in Pakistan

Lahore, right now is actually not playing my film: the place where I was born, where the film was shot, the place the film is about. I went to the hearing yesterday and nothing happened and the judge was very uninterested in doing anything with regard to our case. It was a waste of our time: I don’t feel so bad anymore, but at that time, I felt like if I was not able to fight and get something done, I would be very uncertain about my future in this country—as a person and as a filmmaker. We had done our due diligence, as far as the censorship is concerned, way back in August, because we wanted to release it in November. A week before that release, we found out that the Federal Ministry [censored it]. The Ministry then surpassed the censor board and banned the film—saying that they were pleased to ban the film, actually.

It was not very surprising, even though technically we had done our due diligence, because it’s Pakistan. There’s a long history of films being banned. We were just like: ‘Oh, we thought we were going to escape this, but now it’s happened.’

We decided to fight back. We found so many allies online to create an equal amount of noise in favour of the film, to almost overpower the noise that led to the ban. We were fortunate enough to get the Prime Minister to take notice and he formed a committee who reviewed the film and passed it back to the censor board again. On a Wednesday night, we received an official notification that the film was cleared again with a single change. Then, when we were preparing the film on Thursday morning for release, the film got banned in Punjab. On Friday, we learned that we are legally allowed to release in two regions, but nobody was willing to play the film because they were so scared. We literally had to call each theatre and make friends with them. It just grew from there, which is the strangest way to get a film to release—pushing every step of the way. On the day of the release, we tried to make amends with the Punjab government, but we failed. There have been at least five or six other cases filed by other people who are offended by the film in courts, which have been dismissed in all of them so far. So there’s good and bad. 

Saim Sadiq’s Joyland (2022)

On the Importance of Personal Experience

I don’t know if I would’ve made this film if not for personal experiences. From childhood, I didn’t really feel like my masculinity was the right kind of masculinity. I faced a certain amount of bullying for it in school.

Mine was really in relation to my masculinity, and just seeing the women in my family being treated by men in a particular way. And this was by good men, or otherwise decent men, which is why, in the film, you don’t really see men being ‘bad’. But it sort of takes a look at these micro-aggressions which have existed for so long, that are normalised. It feels like the only way to behave—like those are the only roles for genders that exist in our society and in our world. Those observations were very key to the film’s writing. But for me Joyland was about desire. There was a broader desire, of course, but also sexual desire, and then the patriarchy—and the consequences of when they clash together.

[The idea] that desire will eventually come of age, and you live happily and you ride off into the sunset, that’s more of an American template. In Joyland, there’s a clear sense of guilt. There’s a question of whether you want to experience this coming-of-age—whether it is actually a good thing.

I’m not saying that it is or isn’t. In an inherently patriarchal society, some people could live a happier, more blissful life if they remain ignorant and try to work with the cards that they’ve been dealt. The protagonist undergoes a full coming-of-age, but it’s perhaps not one that you can root for because of the cost that comes with it.

On the Role of Biba, the Film’s Trans Character 

I knew Biba [played by Alina Khan] would be the most exciting character in the film. Not because she’s trans, but because of who she is apart from her transness. She would be interesting even if she was just this female character, because she’s so bossy and annoyed all the time. She can actually control the men around her, and she doesn’t listen, she’s brash, she’s sometimes unlikable—but not totally. Because she’s funny too, and for me, it was very important that this character is likeable for reasons outside of her gender because I knew that her gender would probably find a lot of sympathy that would automatically make people respond with: “Oh, you just like her because she’s trans.”

That’s not a reason to like her. Maybe she’s an awful person. There are awful trans girls in the world. But we want to put them all on a pedestal: either as victims or as saints. It’s very much the case here, as well as in the West, and it’s equally as dehumanising.

The fact there’s a trans person in the film who is possibly the most empowered character is shocking enough. But it’s also exciting and hopefully it will tell a vibrant tale of possibility—one which has the violence and the vulnerability all taken care of in one character.

There’s the additional pressure of a Western audience, as well, because educating people on trans rights isn’t my fight. But I sometimes think: ‘Who am I catering to? What level of knowledge do they have [of Pakistan’s Khwaja Sira people]?’ If you liked this film, and you’re intrigued by the life of a trans person in Pakistan, you can Google it. If the film inspires a curiosity in you, that’s great. But I’m not going to explain to Western audiences the history of trans people and their inclusion in Pakistani society. 

On the Film’s Ending

When Biba enters Mumtaz’s funeral, it exposes an important part of our culture. If she showed up at their house, on a random day at a dinner table, of course, she would not be welcomed. But it’s a funeral and there’s an etiquette of how people behave.

For our funerals, we grieve in a very obvious way; in almost a theatrical way. It was a cultural decision to show how we choose to grieve, and there’s a niceness to that moment. Everybody is welcome. No one is creating a fuss about gender or trans-identity, or whether she was romantically involved with Haider. But do they want her there? No. Are they going to make a fuss about it? No. She is welcome. 

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