Haider at home, we learn, is generally on the ineffectual side. He stays at the claustrophobic house and looks after the cleaning and cooking, his wheelchair-bound father, Abba, and his nieces, while his wife Mumtaz is a makeup artist. Nothing in the family’s world is reliable. The power goes out at a wedding where Mumtaz is fixing up the bride, and she has to use her phone flashlight to finish the job. The butcher called by the family to slaughter a goat doesn’t show, so Abba, Haider’s Mark-Twain-lookalike father (played by venerable South Asian actor Salmaan Peerzada, here making his first screen appearance since the 1984 mini-series “The Jewel in the Crown”) orders Haider to do the deed. The quiet fellow really hates to wield that knife.
A friend offers him a job, and it’s a doozy: as a backup dancer for an “erotic” cabaret. (Nothing too erotic about it; the dancers are all fully clothed, and their moves are only mildly racy by Western standards.) He can make 40,000 rupees a month—less than $150, folks!—doing it. The best part, arguably, is that he’ll be backing up Biba, a transgender woman who’s the same person who struck him with that thunderbolt in the hospital. (The show is near an amusement park that gives the movie its ironic title.)
Transgender rights in Pakistan are advancing, but they’re hardly at 100 percent. And the frank and sometimes painful depiction of the shuddering romantic entanglement between Biba and Haider earned “Joyland” a temporary ban in its home country even as the movie was made Pakistan’s official entry for the 95th Academy Awards. That’s one factor that makes “Joyland” brave. Another is the commitment its performers bring to their work. As Haider, Ali Junejo physically puts across the super-tender interiority of the chronic schlemiel. As Mumtaz, the independent-minded wife suddenly tasked with bringing a boy into the family, Rasti Farooq shows a different kind of shyness, one that masks deeper troubles than she allows those closest to her to see. And as Biba, Alina Khan has an enigmatic hauteur and droll slyness, although this, too, is a character defined mainly by heartache.
“Joyland” wants to do a lot with its characters and situations, maybe too much. As the movie progresses, and the attraction between Haider and Biba grows and endangers Haider’s home life, the narrative diffuses where a viewer might expect it to tighten up. Speaking strictly for myself, this threw me off a bit. However, the movie’s unexpected coda, a flashback, pulls things together on a devastating note.
Now playing in theaters.