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film The Folly of Censoring “Joyland,” a Sublime Film About Family

A new movie from the director Saim Sadiq, "Joyland", Pakisitan's 2023 Oscar entry, depicts queer love against the backdrop of a Pakistani household and feels as familiar as our families are to us here.The film follows a man who gets a job in a burlesque show and falls in love with a trans woman. Banned in Pakistan, “Joyland” earned accolades at the Cannes Film Festival.

"Joyland" (Ali Juenjo, Rasti Farooq) Movie Poster,Ebert

Last year, a film called “The Legend of Maula Jatt,” based on a 1979 cult classic, became the most successful Pakistani film in history. The opening scene depicts the grisly murder of the Jatt family; young Maula survives, and vows to exact revenge against the perpetrators, namely Noori Natt. The two men spend the rest of the movie hacking up each other’s associates. When the film first came out in the U.K., some of the gore had to be edited out; the British Board of Film Classification warned potential viewers of “frequent scenes of strong bloody violence,” noting that, in one, “a woman decapitates a man and holds up his bloody severed head. . . . In another scene a man buries a baby alive.” Nonetheless, the uncut film cleared censorship boards in Pakistan. It attracted hordes of moviegoers, some of whom presumably couldn’t even understand the Punjabi dialogue. Everyone who spoke to me about the film deemed it too much fun to resist.

Also last year, an indie film about a middle-class Punjabi family sent Pakistan into a moral panic. “Joyland,” a film directed by Saim Sadiq that won awards at Cannes and the Film Independent Spirit Awards, and which Pakistan submitted to the 2023 Oscars, had to be cleared by the country’s three censor boards in order to be screened in Pakistan. After a series of edits, the censor boards certified the film. Then, just before its release, it was banned. After lobbying by supporters of the film, Prime Minister Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif assembled a review committee, which recommended more changes. The carefully edited film was screened in the province of Sindh, but remained banned in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populated province and the film’s primary setting.

What was it about “Joyland” that made the arbiters of our social order so fearful? In the film, Haider (Ali Junejo), a young man, lives in his family home with his wife, Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), who works in a beauty parlor. Like millions of Pakistanis, surely, Haider is confused about his sexuality. Also like millions of Pakistanis, he is unemployed. His father (Salmaan Peerzada) is a garden-variety patriarch who wants his son to get a job and give him a grandson. When Haider finally finds a job at an erotic-dance theatre, he tells his family that he is the theatre manager; in fact, he’s learning to be a backup dancer for an ambitious trans performer named Biba (Alina Khan). In time, Haider falls in love with Biba. (When I watched the film in London, the audience fell in love with her, too.)

Maybe “Joyland” was banned because it depicts a queer love story, but I don’t think so. I think the ban was a misguided attempt to defend families, because, at the film’s heart, that is what “Joyland” is about: a family that is struggling, a family in which love and abuse intertwine so tightly that it’s difficult to tell them apart, a family much like any other in the world. The members of this family are constantly judging one another. But the film itself does not judge the lovers, and it does not judge the family.

About three-quarters of the way through the film, Haider and Biba share a subtle and intimate scene that was censored in Pakistan. When I talked to people who had seen the film, whether edited or unedited, they all seemed to ask the same question: Who was trying to fuck whom? The question seemed to come from a kind of voyeurism about queer and trans love. Maybe they missed the answer that’s underlined in many places in the film: it’s your own family that fucks you, with its preconceived gender roles. As Philip Larkin wrote:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
      They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
      And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn . . .

“Joyland” manages to feel as familiar as our families are to us—loving, ugly, full of secrets and laughter and false promises. When Haider’s father spends an evening with a widow who lives in the neighborhood, he is vilified and seems as hapless as his son. When Haider helps with the chores and lives off his wife’s earnings, his father and brother look down on him. Whereas the fantasy families of “Maula Jatt” hack each other to pieces, this family feels real. It suffers a thousand invisible cuts. These characters are normal, and we can’t stand to watch.

We never meet the family that Biba was born into—only the family of trans women that she chooses for herself. And, in this family, murder is on everyone’s mind. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province alone, at least seventy transgender people have reportedly been killed in the past five years. Biba seems to know this. She knows that she could be shot, because she has seen it.

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Westerners are sometimes surprised to learn that many Pakistanis are openly trans. In 2017, Pakistan issued its first passport that recognized a third gender, X, and the following year the government passed a mildly progressive transgender-rights law. In 2022, Sindh required the hiring of trans employees for one in every two hundred public-sector jobs in the province. But transgender Pakistanis are also some of the most oppressed in our society. Trans entertainers often perform at private parties, such as weddings and baby showers, but their families may refuse to accept them; they may be groped on roadsides or refused jobs as domestic workers, let alone in offices and shops. No legislation has been able to stop the kind of vilonce depicted in “Joyland.”

A few years ago, one of the producers of “Joyland,” Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, directed a sublime film, “Zindagi Tamasha” (“Circus of Life”). It, too, tells a family story. Rahat (Arif Hassan) is a bearded man who tends to household chores and cares for his bedridden wife. In one scene, this good-enough Muslim shakes his bum at a wedding ceremony, and the video goes viral. Some Pakistani mullahs who watched the trailer, however, concluded that the film was an assault on their image. They claimed that it maligned religious scholars and hence our religion. Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a far-right party whose members are known for chanting “Death to blasphemers,” accused Khoosat of blasphemy.

Making an independent film in Pakistan means choosing your family. Khoosat is a national icon, having produced some of the nation’s most popular mainstream TV shows. For “Zindagi Tamasha,” however, he hired a first-time screenwriter and editor, a relatively unknown group of musicians, and no bankable stars. He didn’t seek out any outside finance and instead sold a plot of land, his life savings, to fund the movie. It cleared the censors three times; the film’s release was halted after the blasphemy accusations; the government referred the film to the Council of Islamic Ideology, a constitutional body tasked with weeding the impurities out of public life. Khoosat’s producer and father, Irfan, went on live TV, practically begging that his son’s life be spared. Then a senate committee watched the film and cleared it for release. (There is still a ban in Punjab.) But, to this day, cinema owners in Pakistan are too scared to show “Zindagi Tamasha.”

This month, Americans will be able to watch the unedited version of “Joyland” in theatres. Maybe they will see the film for what it is: a sympathetic, even forgiving, depiction of family. Families are often anchored by people who go about their business quietly. In one scene, Mumtaz looks out a window at a neighbor who is touching himself, and she starts to pleasure herself, too. She is quiet enough that, at first, nobody in her household notices. She is a sexually frustrated woman satisfying herself in the most discreet way possible. What could be more family-friendly?

One place where “Joyland” finds joy is in self-reliant communities that serve as surrogates for family. When the power goes out during one of Mumtaz’s makeup jobs, her colleagues put their mobile phones on flashlight mode. The moment she finishes the job, they burst into applause. Later, in a beautiful theatre scene, a blackout interrupts one of Biba’s dances. The theatre manager wants to cancel the performance. Instead, Haider gets the audience to light up the stage with their phones, and the show goes on.

Three years ago, I learned from my publishers in Karachi that their office had been raided by people who claimed to work for Pakistani intelligence. They seized the Urdu translation of my novel “A Case of Exploding Mangoes.” The novel had been in circulation for a decade and there had been no official objections to its contents. Although an official from Pakistan’s best-known intelligence organization, the I.S.I., denied my publishers’ account to the Associated Press, I attended a meeting with one of the agency’s junior generals, during which he tried to clear the air. He said some vaguely nice things about the book and told me that he was only carrying out his orders. It was obvious that he had not read it in any language.

“There is that scene in your book in which a Saudi prince is buggering our President,” the junior general told me. This struck me as odd, given that the novel is about the alleged assassination of a President who, at least in the book, does not have any kind of sex. (In one scene, he has his rear end checked for worms by a Saudi doctor.) “In English, it was funny,” the junior general told me. “In Urdu, it sounds very disturbing.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that no Saudi prince buggers our President in my novel. The protectors of our family values, it seemed to me, had more filth in their heads than any writer or director could come up with. ♦