The Pakistani film has met with critical acclaim. Punjab banned it claiming it promotes homosexuality, although the story is more complicated.
by Massimo Introvigne
One would believe that an Asian country whose cinema industry is not among the most developed in the world would celebrate when a movie produced and directed locally wins awards in Cannes and another half a dozen film festivals, from Sydney to Zagreb. Not so in Pakistan. “Joyland,” directed by Saim Sadiq, was the first Pakistani film ever presented and awarded at the Cannes festival, and is even being considered for an Academy Award.
It should have premiered in all Pakistan on November 18. However, the government decided to ban it after the protests of Islamic fundamentalist parties. After the international cinema community protested in turn, the national government allowed an edited version to premiere in selected theaters on the scheduled date. However, the provincial government of Punjab promptly banned the film in the province, which is somewhat paradoxical considering that the director is from Lahore, Punjab, and the story is set in Lahore, where “Joyland” is the name of a famous amusement park.
Why all the scandal? The movie is the story of a patriarchal family in Lahore, whose normal life is shattered when the younger son falls in love with a transgender dancer with whom he works in a show.
Fundamentalist Muslims accuse the film of “promoting homosexuality,” but there are two misunderstandings about this accusation. The first is that, while homosexual relationships are severely repressed in Pakistan, transgender dancers are an entirely different story. Many Muslims who would never approve of homosexuality invite transgender dancers to perform at weddings and bless their newborn children. It is claimed that these are traditions dating back to Mogul India and have nothing to do with modern Western LGBT culture.
Some transgender dancers are popular millionaire performers in Pakistan, and unlike gay men and lesbian women they have a certain degree of social recognition (although it is also true that some of them have been killed by ultra-fundamentalist fanatics). There have been transgender candidates for elections, and there are some transgender government bureaucrats and police officers.
In 2018, Pakistan passed a law protecting transgender rights. In February 2020, Pakistan was represented by a transgender woman, Aisha Mughal, at the United Nations convention to end violence against women. Make no mistake, these developments do not extend to gay men and lesbian women who are not transgender. They continue to be heavily discriminated. Recent legal and administrative developments just recognize transgender culture as part of Pakistan’s heritage.
The second misunderstanding is that, as LGBT critics have observed, the film does not glorify transgender culture. On the contrary, it shows it as a closed circle, and suggests that attempts by outsiders to integrate into it are doomed to failure.
Here lies precisely, according to critics, the beauty of the film. It tackles an existing and century-old phenomenon in Pakistani society, where transgender dancers are in the tens of thousands (in fact, some believe transgenders are half a million), and shows the corresponding subculture and its problems as they are.
Interestingly, those who are not successful as transgender dancers in Pakistan often end up as sex workers, and there have been scandals generated by accusations, true or false, that politicians who opposed the transgender rights law and have now called for a nationwide ban for “Joyland” were not uninterested in their services.
More importantly, “Joyland” is just a well-crafted movie. It does not promote a specific agenda. Those who have an agenda are the radical Muslims who use even “Joyland” to prove that it is impossible to govern Pakistan if one does not obey their diktats.