Joyland: Extraordinary, unmissable tale of unexpected attraction

Pakistani director Saim Sadiq’s Cannes-winning debut has huge heart and beautifully drawn characters

    
Director: Saim Sadiq
Cert: 15A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Ali Junejo, Rasti Farooq, Alina Khan, Sarwat Gilani, Salmaan Peerzada, Sohail Sameer, Sania Saeed
Running Time: 2 hrs 6 mins

This extraordinary debut feature from Saim Sadiq became the first Pakistani film selected for Cannes last year. It left the Croissette with the Jury Prize, the Queer Palm and hatfuls of swooning, richly deserved notices.

Set in bustling, inner-city Lahore, Joyland concerns a very traditional family headed up by stern patriarch Rana Amanullah (Peerzada), a widower who is put out by the fact that his older son Saleem (Sohail Sameer) and daughter-in-law Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) have only produced daughters thus far.

His younger son, Haider (Ali Junejo) is intelligent, sensitive, and helps around the house. Haider’s wife is a self-sufficient make-up artist, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq). The younger couple is childless and the daydreaming Haider hasn’t had a proper job in years until he improbably lands work as a backing dancer for trans woman performer Biba (Alina Khan) at a local variety club. Haider’s unexpected attraction to Biba kick-starts a melodrama of Sirkian dimensions.

Khan blazes up the screen by elaborating on her performance in Sadiq’s Venice-winning 2019 short film Darling. She makes for an electrifying presence even while sitting around. Khan driving down the street on a moped makes for an indelible image. Her alternately bitchy, tender and cynical Biba is well met by the quiet passion of newcomer Junejo.


The script, co-written by the director and Maggie Briggs, ensures that each supporting character is beautifully drawn in miniature strokes. A short exchange between Haider and Mumtaz in their crowded bed doubles as a masterclass in screenwriting.

The visuals are as impressive as the cast, as cinematographer Joe Saade finds colour and luminescence in darkened interiors. Fairy lights and fake fireflies make dreary rooms as splendid as the fairground rides and Bollywood-style musical numbers found in the film’s louder moments.

Mostly, Joyland is a film of huge heart and empathy. Mirroring the hapless hero’s journey, it’s an unexpected romance.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic