Joyland: About being human and having dignity

Joyland, Pakistan’s first feature film to be shortlisted at the 95th Oscars will be released in UK cinemas on February 24 in the UK. Director Saim Sadiq talks to us about the intricacies of the film.

Shefali Saxena Monday 06th February 2023 17:51 EST

Saim Sadiq’s Oscar-shortlisted film ‘Joyland’ holds a mirror in your face, and is most likely to resonate with South Asians because the characters and story are set in Pakistan. In the heart of the metropolitan yet conservative city of Lahore lives the Rana family, a lower middle-class joint family comprising of the old patriarch, the elder son and pregnant wife with three daughters, and the youngest son Haider and his wife Mumtaz. As the Rana’s eagerly anticipate the birth of a baby boy to continue their family line, Haider secretly takes up a job as a background dancer at an erotic theatre where he is drawn to an ambitious trans starlet, Biba. Slowly yet suddenly, Haider and Biba are engulfed in a secret summer romance which surreptitiously takes over his home, unravelling the dichotomy between desire and morality for the entire Rana family.

Speaking exclusively to Asian Voice, writer-director Saim Sadiq elaborated on how he wrote the film and said, “It was a process. I took five years to write and rewrite the script over and over again. I really changed a lot of things during the course of writing, but the core of the film remains the same. I don't know, interesting or elegant ways of going about it, but I was trying to find the truth of all characters, I had the time to even flesh out smaller characters, which didn't remain so small anymore. It was like giving them all an opportunity and being human and having dignity.”

The beauty of Joyland is in the intricacy of how its character arcs are never incomplete. The film delves into sexuality, love, infidelity, justice and pain all at once, where Saim and his co-writer Maggie Briggs bring alive a very contemporary south Asian household from a lower middle-class family that has its hidden secrets and vices. 

Saim added, “There's a lot there to love. There is love there, which is why the toxicity hurts even more. You know, it's not without love.” Saim also explained how as a first-time filmmaker, he didn’t really have anything, but he was sure to start the shoot in September 2021. “We had zero money. Back in 2020, we decided we're going to the start in September 2021 and at the time, me and my producer, had one actor on board, Alina (Biba). On some level, that kind of sheer cockiness of being young and naive, that we're gonna create our own movie because you just come with that kind of attitude that we're not going to give up. I knew from the beginning where it came from, I knew that it was dramatically exciting enough, you know, this, this idea of this family?” Saim told the newsweekly. However, the director admitted that at some point while he was developing the script, the writing wasn't so relevant. He said, “It became more relevant in the second or third draft.” The upsurge in advocacy of trans rights was beginning to increase on the web back then. 

Saim further added, “From the beginning, the first idea of the film was this very exciting romance between this guy and a trans girl that kind of takes you along - this summer romance, and it's exciting. And the characters in the film sort of forget about this girl, who's always been there and perhaps has more scars than anybody else in the film. And I wanted to structure the film in a certain way, where we, as audiences were as comfortable in her invisibility, we also almost forget about her, we also are to join the idea and the sort of sexual tension of these two people having this romantic way too much to forget that way, it's coming out of somebody, and are we okay with that? Even just generally speaking, on a political level, when people speak about in movies, especially about sexuality, and coming of age and finding your identity, they almost speak about it as if, you know, freedom is the only and ultimate goal. But it's really not, especially living in a society like this, you can't say individual freedom trumps everything else. It should be equally important to people who are going to continue to live in a society that's like a collective, so you get the freedom in the end that you want, but at what cost is the term and are you okay with it? There's a big heaviness that comes with losing your innocence and coming of age.”

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