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Pakistani filmmaker Saim Sadiq makes his directorial debut with "Joyland," a picture of considerable integrity, passion, and bravery. The movie takes you into a stifling, patriarchal household in Lahore, Pakistan. While it keeps a sharp, neo-realist-influenced eye on the everyday lives of its characters, "Joyland" often gets so intimate as to discomfit the viewer to the point of exasperation. But the movie itself never judges.
We begin with an adult man with a sheet over his head, playing hide and seek with some young girls. The man is Haider, and the girls are his nieces. His sister-in-law Nucchi is about to have a fourth child, and you know the family is hoping for a boy. They don't get it. While Haider is at the hospital helping his brother and sister-in-law, he spies a striking woman ... who looks back at him with something less than indifference. Even though he's in Pakistan, what he's been struck by is often called the Sicilian Thunderbolt.
Haider at home, we learn, is generally on the ineffectual side. He stays at the claustrophobic house and looks after the cleaning and cooking, his wheelchair-bound father, Abba, and his nieces, while his wife Mumtaz is a makeup artist. Nothing in the family's world is reliable. The power goes out at a wedding where Mumtaz is fixing up the bride, and she has to use her phone flashlight to finish the job. The butcher called by the family to slaughter a goat doesn't show, so Abba, Haider's Mark-Twain-lookalike father (played by venerable South Asian actor Salmaan Peerzada, here making his first screen appearance since the 1984 mini-series "The Jewel in the Crown") orders Haider to do the deed. The quiet fellow really hates to wield that knife.
A friend offers him a job, and it's a doozy: as a backup dancer for an "erotic" cabaret. (Nothing too erotic about it; the dancers are all fully clothed, and their moves are only mildly racy by Western standards.) He can make 40,000 rupees a month—less than $150, folks!—doing it. The best part, arguably, is that he'll be backing up Biba, a transgender woman who's the same person who struck him with that thunderbolt in the hospital. (The show is near an amusement park that gives the movie its ironic title.)
Transgender rights in Pakistan are advancing, but they're hardly at 100 percent. And the frank and sometimes painful depiction of the shuddering romantic entanglement between Biba and Haider earned "Joyland" a temporary ban in its home country even as the movie was made Pakistan's official entry for the 95th Academy Awards. That's one factor that makes "Joyland" brave. Another is the commitment its performers bring to their work. As Haider, Ali Junejo physically puts across the super-tender interiority of the chronic schlemiel. As Mumtaz, the independent-minded wife suddenly tasked with bringing a boy into the family, Rasti Farooq shows a different kind of shyness, one that masks deeper troubles than she allows those closest to her to see. And as Biba, Alina Khan has an enigmatic hauteur and droll slyness, although this, too, is a character defined mainly by heartache.
"Joyland" wants to do a lot with its characters and situations, maybe too much. As the movie progresses, and the attraction between Haider and Biba grows and endangers Haider's home life, the narrative diffuses where a viewer might expect it to tighten up. Speaking strictly for myself, this threw me off a bit. However, the movie's unexpected coda, a flashback, pulls things together on a devastating note.
Now playing in theaters.
Ali Junejo as Haider
Rasti Farooq as Mumtaz
Alina Khan as Biba
Sarwat Gilani as Nucchi
Salmaan Peerzada as Father
Sohail Sameer as Saleem
Sania Saeed as Fayyaz
Ramiz Law as Qaiser