Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

On 11 November last year, director Saim Sadiq found out through Twitter that his first feature Joyland, which was supposed to screen in theatres across Pakistan six days later, had been banned.

It was an unexpected slap in the face for a film that had enjoyed great support in the country. It was the first Pakistani film to debut at Cannes, where it had won the Un Certain Regard Jury prize and the unofficial Queer Palm in May. “ The global recognition is a moment of pride for all Pakistanis,” noted leading Pakistani English-language website Dawn. In August, it had been cleared by the federal and provincial censor boards. But the federal censor was now withdrawing its clearance, saying “written complaints were received that the film contains highly objectionable material.”

Saim Sadiq, director of Joyland

The Pakistani film industry is dominated by commercial blockbusters, such as 2022 action drama The Legend of Maula Jatt, which earned £4.3 million globally in its first two weeks. Joyland is one of a handful of productions by a new vanguard of artists taking on issues – such as faith, fundamentalism, identity and sex – deemed too controversial for the mainstream. These films, TV serials and documentaries have rarely been screened in cinemas – with only 135 across the country, owners and distributors favour films that guarantee returns.

Instead, they find a home at local and international festivals, on Netflix (which launched in Pakistan in 2016), or at broadcasters like the BBC . For instance, Asim Abbasi’s Churails (2020), a web series for the Indian platform Zee5 featuring a group of vengeful female sleuths, was inspired by the conversation around women’s rights and the #MeToo movement in Pakistan. Mohammed Ali Naqvi’s The Accused: Damned or Devoted (2020) focuses on how religious groups use accusations of blasphemy for political gain and was produced for the BBC . It is not accessible in Pakistan. Naqvi has made his peace with his documentaries being pirated on YouTube, as “it is the only way many Pakistani people will get to see them”.

This is not new: Jamil Dehlavi’s The Blood of Hussain (1980) was banned for its depiction of a repressive regime; Sabiha Sumar took Khamosh Pani (2003) around the country with a mobile cinema after it was banned for casting Indian actors; censors felt Hammad Khan’s Slackistan (2010) had too many swear words; Ashir Azeem’s Maalik (2016) hit too close to home with a depiction of corrupt ministers; Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi’s Among the Believers (2015) “portrayed a negative image of Pakistan”; and more recently, Iram Parveen Bilal’s I’ll Meet You There (2020) was banned for a “negative portrayal of Muslims”.

Some directors stopped trying their luck with the censors: Zakir Thaver’s Salam: The First ****** Nobel Laureate, about Dr Abdus Salam, who was shunned for his Ahmadiyya faith (and called a heretic by many Muslims), had no chance of a mainstream release. Thaver opted for secret screenings and it was acquired by Netflix in 2016. “The level of censorship in this country is greater than it has ever been,” says Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, a two-time Oscar-winning documentarian. “ These are dark days, when you know that if you think progressively, you’re a minority.”

However, Joyland’s premiere at Cannes led to buzz that it could compete at the Oscars. Pakistan has yet to have a film selected for the feature category – it submitted films in 1959 and 1963, and then 50 years lapsed before the next in 2013, an indicator of how independent film production had all but ceased – but the rave reviews Joyland received at festivals like Toronto, Sundance and Busan buoyed hopes.

Joyland (2022)

Set in Lahore, Joyland tells the story of the Rana family, headed by a strict patriarch (Salmaan Peerzada). Son Haider (Ali Junejo) whiles away his days babysitting his nieces and helping his sister-in-law Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani) to cook. His wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) works at a beauty salon. The family longs for Haider and Mumtaz to have a son. Then Haider lands a job as a back-up dancer at a local theatre specialising in erotic dances, where he is mesmerised by Biba, a glamorous, foulmouthed, trans starlet (Alina Khan).

Biba and Haider’s relationship, according to the censor, is “repugnant to the norms of decency and morality”. ”The movie deals with a topic which has no place in an Islamic republic,” said Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, who had not seen the film. For him, it was “part of a trend of cultural terrorism, which questions our institutions of marriage and our cultural norms” and nothing less than an “act of war”.

Sadiq had few options and six days to make the right choice. As conservative groups got wind of the ministry’s notification, it would only be a matter of time before they rallied against it. Sadiq knew what that looked like: a close friend, the director Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, had tried and failed for three years to have his 2019 film Zindagi Tamasha (Circus of Life) shown in Pakistan. A hardline religious party had declared it disrespectful towards Islam, an extremely serious accusation often punishable by death. Their edict was based on watching the trailer.

“I took notes during the furore around Zindagi Tamasha,” says Sadiq. He put out a trailer that “kept the story under wraps” while Joyland ’s poster was a striking but inoffensive painting by the celebrated artist Salman Toor. “We tried to market the film as quietly as possible.”

Joyland could have languished for years in court, as Zindagi Tamasha did. In order to qualify for the Oscars, it had to be screened for a week. “ The international accolades weren’t the point for me,” says Sadiq. “This is a film that is truthful about our existence, our families, about desire and patriarchy. Having as many people as possible see Joyland – that was the point.”

Sadiq rallied his cast and crew. “Are you willing to put your hand in the hot water?” he asked them. “It’s now or never.”

Joyland (2022)

Finding joy

Joyland is 24-year-old Alina Khan’s first film. Khan ran away from home as a teenager, as her transition was not accepted, and spent nights sleeping in parks and walking the streets. To support herself, she danced at ‘functions’ for all-male gatherings. “Few people treated us as humans there,” Khan says. “If they throw a ten-rupee note at you, they think it gives them the right to touch you ten times.” Joyland depicts one such event, but Khan says it skims the surface of the violence and terror the dancers experience in real life. That, she knows, would not be palatable to audiences.

Khan would visit her family infrequently. It was too painful. Her siblings would pretend to be asleep when she came. When she gave her mother some of her earnings, her sister sneered at the “dirty money”. “I hoped when people watched Joyland they would see us – trans people – for who we truly are, The people who have harassed me, hurt me, my family. I thought it would change their minds.”

When she learned of the ban, Khan called a friend, crying. At a Toronto festival screening, she’d blinked back tears as the audience cheered and someone called out, “Pakistan Zindabad!” (“Long live Pakistan!”) What does she make of the outrage against her character? “I think the people who like to watch us at functions or in theatres are the ones who were most offended. Everything happens here in Pakistan. We don’t want to talk about it. We’re scared of what it might reflect back.”

Drawing the line

Sadiq’s flat in Karachi became the scene of frenzied phone calls to influential contacts, politicians, actors and directors. “Suddenly, we were not just filmmakers but diplomats. We were speaking with ministers. We put out carefully worded statements we would all analyse and edit.” A social media campaign #ReleaseJoyland called on the public to demand to see it. Sadiq went on one of the most-watched talk shows and asked if the censor was so toothless that anonymous complainants could reverse its decisions? And as the film had not been screened to anyone else, what were the complaints based on?

The team had their red lines. A fashion designer riding a wave of popularity among conservatives for anti-trans views turned her ire on Joyland. Sadiq was given her phone number. “I refused to engage,” he says. “I was not going to ask for permission or show someone like her the film. I would rather the film is banned.”

Joyland (2022)

A committee set up by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif requested edits before clearing it. Some reflect a cautious approach bordering on absurd: a shot of married couple Haider and Mumtaz hugging is blurred. A scene featuring Biba dancing at a function in a knot of men is too, but just before you lose sight of her, you can see her discomfort and fear as one man grinds against her. The censored scene is more jarring: you can hear the men’s shouts and cheers, and are left to imagine what might be happening.

On 7 November, Joyland was cleared again for release in parts of the country )it remains banned in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, where Joyland is set). At the time Maula Jatt was playing to packed theatres, having been given a Universal rating by the censor even though it featured sexual violence, alcohol, drugs and other gruesome acts (it was rated 18 in the UK ). The difference, Khan thinks, is that audiences are attuned to violence but not the subjects Joyland examines. “Any time trans people are depicted in films or on TV , we are a comic spectacle or a figure of pity, not nuanced or talented humans worthy of respect,” she says. “People don’t want to see trans men and women if they are not begging or dancing.”

Joyland is a parable. It tells us of a place where any source of pleasure is stamped out, where desire remains unfulfilled. While those supporting a ban focus on the story’s trans character, the film is a rich portrait of all members of the Rana family, their longings and the shame that accompanies them as they strive to be ‘respectable’ by curbing their desires. “We never get to see female suffering or grief – which is usually depicted as aberrant or excessive – in the way we do in this film,” says Rasti Farooq. On popular TV dramas, that suffering is accepted in response to misfortune – death, meddling in-laws, wayward husbands – but never from the truest loss, that of selfhood.

Sadiq, however, remains optimistic. The film was shortlisted for an Oscar, though it did not get nominated in the end. But its support and the ban removal signals progress, he says, and an appetite for different stories. “We’re on the cusp of change. The next time a film is accused of being vulgar or promoting a negative image of Pakistan, people will be bored and annoyed. Audiences don’t want to be instructed on what they can or cannot watch.”

Sight and Sound: the Hidden Gems issue

101 critics and directors offer heartfelt recommendations for favourite films that only received a single vote in our recent polls. Plus: Hlynur Pálmason on Godland, Jerzy Skolimowski on Eo, the best films from Sundance and Rotterdam and much more…

Get your copy