In Free Fall: Watching “Joyland”

“Joyland” joins a resurgence of Urdu films in recent years whose social realist orientation it both shares and disavows.

In a marked moment near the opening of Joyland—directed by Saim Sadiq and the first Pakistani film to be shortlisted by the Academy Awards—Haider meets Biba in a hospital in Lahore, looking dazed in a blood-splattered shirt. Though this is the first time they’ve met, we’re given no narration, just Haider’s wide-eyed, fascinated gaze. Later, in an intimate moment in her room, Biba tells Haider more about that night: about seeing her friend, also trans1, shot dead, and then finding herself unable to narrate the murder to the police. As she tells it, she gets stuck on a sentence—“I was with her at dinner”—glitching out in the face of representing the impossible.

She does, however, tell us her friend’s murder is the subject of a new documentary, for which a vulturous crew of German filmmakers have been poking around Lahore. Biba and her friends talk about the documentarians with open derision, knowing the exact flavor of international acclaim that awaits their contrived narrative of the tragic Third World queer.

Even so, the international acclaim for Joyland itself is noteworthy. Beyond its nod at the Academy Awards, the current count is 16 wins and 16 nominations, crowned by the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize as well as the Queer Palm at Cannes. It also claims Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai as an executive producer.

Joyland joins a modest resurgence of Urdu films in recent years, whose social realist orientation it both shares and disavows, turning the mirror of conscience back onto its own representational acts. If it’s a film about finding sexuality and self, it’s also about the no-less-risky acts of finding yourself finding these things in a film. Pairing overt, socially conscious themes with a reticent visual grammar, explosive narrative with quiet cinematography, Joyland comes across as acutely aware of the overdetermined field of reception that it enters. With all its complex attachments both to intimate narratives and to the rejection of a fetishizing excess, Joyland is confounded from within, trapping, trapped—and undecidable, flying free.

The plot of Joyland fits into the subcontinent’s storied Marxist and anticolonial literary tradition. In the 1930s to roughly the 1960s, seeing India through independence and Partition, the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) inaugurated an aesthetic revolution with their wedding of narrative to social struggle.2 The PWA continues to be the (some might say outsized) lodestar of Pakistani cultural production and Joyland is, in this respect, no exception.

Its protagonist, Haider (Ali Junejo in a breakout role), falls in love with an erotic dancer named Biba (played by Alina Khan, also in a debut feature role) whose troupe he joins as a backup dancer. Haider lives at home with his family, including both his wife (Rasti Farooq) and his cruelly patriarchal father (luminary of Pakistani arts, Salman Peerzada). It’s a packed house, and the alternating joy and claustrophobia of ordinary domesticity is a texture the film nimbly renders. But Haider is constantly under fire for his gentleness and lack of machismo, so when he finally lands this particular job he lies about it; involvement with a mujra (the genre of erotic dance that Biba and her crew perform) would be absolute abjection in his family’s eyes. Arriving at its heartbreaking finale, the film palpates the web of desire, gender, power, and the city it’s set and filmed in—Lahore—with a beauty and virtuosity that’s breathtaking.

With its casting of trans actress Alina Khan as Biba, the film stakes a claim to the legal debates that played out over much of this year and the last over Pakistan’s 2018 Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act. Celebrated as trailblazing in its protections, the act found itself at the receiving end of renewed attempts to dilute its ambit. Many heated debates both in and out of the Senate erupted over a proposed amendment,  passed this May, that would narrow the act’s construction of transgender on the basis of “self-perceived gender identity” to those medically verified as intersex. Joyland, whose release coincided with this struggle, stands as its cinematic marker. And yet it is also—as a festival circuit film with a limited domestic footprint—susceptible to the inevitable short-circuiting of meaning that Deleuze and Guattari ascribe to minor literature.”

The “cramped space” of minor literature, they contend, distorts every utterance. Individual stories become, within this distortion field, necessarily collective utterances. For Deleuze and Guattari, this functions as an enabling condition, an activation of potential (minor literature as “the relay for a revolutionary machine-to-come.”) The insight that Joyland can give us is that this revolutionary machine can rather easily be reterritorialized (to continue with the Deleuze and Guattari terminology) by the gaze of the other, hacked and put to quite other ends. As an example of this sort of distorting gaze, consider the strange case of a New York Times blog entry from 2010. Titled “Risqué Writing in Pakistan,” the article is at least superficially a literary review. It describes an author’s quest to translate an Urdu pulp fiction series from the ’70s, Challawa, that happened to be the adventures of a spunky lesbian detective, Sabiha Bano. The kicker is that the article appears not in an arts, culture, or literature section but under At War: Notes From the Front Lines, “a reported blog from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and other conflicts in the post-9/11 era.” As reporter Adam B. Ellick’s3 salacious language makes even more evident, this is less about celebrating queer ephemera than about reading Pakistan in terms of 9/11, fixing it within the frame of an Orientalized terror (to borrow language from Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages) that becomes the measure of everything else, from the statements of politicians to subcultural marginalia.

Joyland knows that these are the terms with which it, too, will be read. It’s this knowledge that makes a PWA-style optimistic politics of visibility impossible for it. Not to drag Lacan in for the fun of it, but his pithy insight that “visibility is a trap” can serve as a kind of key to Joyland’s visual grammar—grammar which can only be described as obstructed. Scene after scene features characters pushed to the frustrating edges of the frame, given too much headroom, standing with their backs to the camera. Shots are often filmed just outside windows or doorways, bringing the act of looking, of seeing a scene, pointedly to the fore. Representation becomes unstable.

Stack the economy of vision and narration in such scenes against the tell-all commitments of its social realist drive, and you find yourself fully within the distorted force field of a trapping and trapped—yet, somehow, necessary—visibility.

The alternating joy and claustrophobia of ordinary domesticity is a texture the film nimbly renders.

What then? How does the film exist in a space that confounds it from within? By attaching itself to the messy visuals of a cultural form not yet captured by a distorting foreign gaze: the mujra.

Outlasting the Mughal royalty with whom it was once associated, the Pakistani mujra is now a massively popular genre of sexual entertainment, frequently written off as morally repugnant for its association with (large crowds of worked-up) lower-class men.

As Joyland amply understands, the mujra is spectacle writ large: electric, campy, alive with desire. It’s during mujra lessons with Biba that Haider comes, astonishingly, to inhabit his skin with grace. It’s on the mujra stage that the camera settles into its own, keeping up with the kineticism, glitter, sweat, and flesh with neither reticence nor obstruction.

The film opens a line between itself and all the worlds of visual pleasure that will remain below the radar of international scrutiny. We could consider it a kind of summoning, a spell the film casts to protect itself. And extends with its casting of Salmaan Peerzada, giant of the Pakistani arts scene. If Peerzada is synonymous for many with local cultural production, then his presence in Joyland signifies on more than one level.

Like the film’s full-bore engagement with the mujra, Peerzada’s screen presence brings the extracinematic into the frame, puts it in dialogue with the long arc of Pakistani cultural production which is, despite setbacks, the context in which it most resonates.

Writing over twenty years ago, film theorist Laura Marks nimbly described a genre of films she called intercultural cinema as embedding “a critique of visuality” within themselves. The contradiction she diagnosed is a striking one: some works of cinema, despite the commitment to visual representation that is basic to the medium, adopt a self-protective grammar of reticence, obfuscation, and concealment. Joyland might not be an instance of Marks’s intercultural cinema—her focus was on artist videos, most often designed for gallery viewership—but it shares their suspicions and strategies. Marks’s account was an ultimately hopeful one; through innovative techniques, artworks could resist the fetishistic gaze that awaited them. Whether or not Joyland shares that hope is less clear. Like any show worth the price of admission, it holds some secrets in suspension. icon

  1. While the word transgender has grown in popularity, especially in legal settings, the Urdu word for gender deviant individuals, Khwaja Sira, remains distinct from and irreducible to the idea of a transgender subjectivity.
  2. For a compelling account of this movement, see Neetu Khanna’s The Visceral Logics of Decolonization.
  3. That Ellick would later go on to win an Overseas Press Club Award for a series of videos that gave Western audiences “a riveting look at life in modern Pakistan”—including one about transgender tax collectors—brings the contours of this tainted gaze into ever-sharper relief.
Featured Image: Film still from IMDb.