Out of the Celluloid Closet

Joyland Has a Queer Agency Problem

The first time we see her, it’s through someone else’s eyes. Still nameless and undefined, a woman limps into the hospital and stands uncertain in its dimly lit corridor. She’s bleeding, and the eye of Haider (Ali Junejo,) the character who will unfortunately become the protagonist of Joyland, is immediately drawn to her. The woman in the corridor, who we’ll eventually learn is Biba (Alina Khan,) immediately exists as both an object and a victim —someone who has been attacked, and who Haider seems to think he can save. 

Biba is by far the most interesting thing about Joyland, a film that, incidentally, is Pakistan’s entry for the Best International Feature Oscar. Biba seems to exist in a slightly different film, dancing her way into this one so as to occasionally grace it with her presence. She’s defined by more than just her resilience, or her ability to survive. She’s the funniest character in the film, has an electric presence on screen, and the scenes where she dances literally jolt Joyland to life. The problem is that Joyland isn’t about Biba, it’s about Haider. His father is emblematic of the society that Haider wishes he could move beyond; one that Biba has no need for. The patriarch of Haider’s family is wheelchair-bound but still severe, ruling over his children and their spouses with an iron fist, even as its grip continues to weaken.

Haider is a man whose masculinity is called into question. He’s the only one of his father’s children to not produce a grandchild – or, more importantly, a grandson. When he talks about his childless marriage, and the fact his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) would prefer to work, he’s asked if it’s because “Mumtaz doesn’t want it, or [he] can’t do it?” His crisis of masculinity is made worse by the idea of working as a backup dancer for Biba at an erotic dance theatre; he calls his friend who got him an audition there a “fagg*t” —a word that’s returned to in a legitimately shocking moment later in the film—and is constantly reminded that “any job is better than living off your wife.” A question is constantly lingering over Haider’s head: if he’s a man at all, and what type of man that makes him. That’s what makes Biba so compelling in contrast to her more hapless backing dancer. She’s so certain about who she is; she feels urgent and contemporary. Haider, and the film that surrounds him, feels outdated; a story relying on tropes that queer art has evolved past the need for. 

By making Haider the film’s point of view character, Joyland complicates its relationship to Biba, and her body in particular.

Joyland has a relationship with queerness that feels strange, and the tension between Biba and Haider is at the heart of it. Where one character is certain, the other dithers; where one fights back, the other is meek. Biba’s life is far from utopian; in one of the film’s most powerful sequences, a chorus of whispers unsettle her as she sits in the woman’s section of segregated public transport; in another, her backing dancers aggressively mock her. But what’s striking is they do it through Haider, and the uncertain romance that blooms between leading lady and backing dancer. This relationship creates tension—not only in Haider’s marriage, but with Joyland’s continually thorny, uncertain relationship to its own queerness. 

By making Haider the film’s point of view character, Joyland complicates its relationship to Biba, and her body in particular. It’s Biba’s body that stops Mumtaz from thinking that her husband would ever have an affair with her. This is echoed by Biba’s transphobic backup dancers who continually ask Haider “what’s between her legs.” And in an ideal world —not even a perfect one—Haider would be able to offer her something approaching sanctuary, but that’s not possible. He relates to her body in a strange way, one that relates to his own uncertainty around his own sexuality. He doesn’t know how to respond when Biba says of her transition: “whatever I’m doing, I’m doing it for myself.” Biba, in essence, is like a trans version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl; the queer version of a trope that let dull men feel alive, instead of letting closet-case chasers fumble their way out of the closet. Late in Joyland, in a scene where Biba and Haider have an abortive attempt at sex, Haider constantly tries to put himself in a position to bottom, irrespective of how Biba feels about this, which is what leads to him getting kicked out of her apartment and called a “fagg*t.”

Haider, and the film that surrounds him, feels outdated; a story relying on tropes that queer art has evolved past the need for. 

In the background of Haider and Biba’s relationship is Mumtaz, the former’s wife, another interesting character who gets sidelined for what appears to be a bungled journey out of the closet for her husband. Like Biba, Mumtaz exists in a complicated, conflicted position when it comes to her own agency. Both are women in a society that remains deeply patriarchal, something that Joyland itself ends up reinforcing by keeping these more compelling female characters on the sidelines as it focuses on Haider’s own journey, using the women around him as collateral damage in his quest for understanding.

While Joyland manages to avoid the obvious final note of queer tragedy, Haider’s self-knowledge does come at the cost of some of the lives of those close to him. It’s a morbid remix of a question Biba puts to him at the beginning of their relationship: “do you really believe that going after what you want will lead to your funeral?”

Instead of ending on Haider’s funeral, Joyland concludes on something approaching a rebirth for him; a physical reprise of a conversation that he has with Biba early in the film. The problem with Joyland is that it’s unable or unwilling to understand what it is that’s allowed him to reach this point, in a way that constantly forces its female characters—Biba in particular—away from the agency that they’re continually fighting for throughout the film. ♦

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