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Pakistan's 'Joyland' explores gender and sexuality in a world of social rigidity

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The movie "Joyland" was the first Pakistani film ever to play at the Cannes Film Festival. It was also Pakistan's entry in this year's Oscar race for best international feature. But even as it was being celebrated outside Pakistan, it was banned in its home country for being un-Islamic and, quote, "containing objectionable material." The ban has mostly been lifted, and the movie has proved popular where it's been allowed to play. Critic Bob Mondello says deservedly so.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOYLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Haider is playing blind man's buff with his nieces when we meet him, covered in a sheet which makes him look like a ghost. And he might as well be one since nobody in the household pays him much attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOYLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

ALI JUNEJO: (As Haider, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: His conservative father has no use for him. His alpha male brother and ever-pregnant sister in law - they're trying for a son - put up with him because they need stay-at-home help for those nieces.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOYLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: Even Haider's wife, Mumtaz, values him less as a potential father of sons than as a spouse who's OK with her having a job. In an extended Muslim family where gender stereotypes rule, Haider not being employed and Mumtaz being employed makes them both outsiders and therefore allies until a friend tells Haider of a job in a club at the Joyland amusement park. He'd be on stage behind a glamorous trans female performer named Biba gyrating and quickstepping as a backup dancer. And though Haider's got about as much rhythm as a lamppost, he goes for it and gets it. And then, knowing his family will disapprove...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOYLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: He lies about what the job is.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOYLAND")

JUNEJO: (As Haider) Theater manager, theater manager. (Non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: This lie and the actual job that goes with it will have consequences, the most immediate being that if he's working, then Mumtaz will have to stay home to care for the kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOYLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: But a slower-burning consequence is that Biba, who Alina Khan plays as fiery and outspoken both on and offstage, kindles something in Ali Junejo's Haider, who is eager to please and soft-spoken. She coaches him until his dancing is no longer embarrassing, and he's soon following her around like a puppy, admittedly a useful puppy one night when an electrical short breaks up her lip-syncing act.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOYLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character, non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC SKIPPING)

MONDELLO: He remembers a game he played with his nieces, gets patrons to aim their cellphone flashlights. And, wouldn't you know, Biba's sequins sparkling in dimmer light makes her act more persuasive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAUBA TAUBA KARA DATI")

BHOLA SUNYARA: (Singing in non-English language).

MONDELLO: By this time, Haider is seeing a lot of Biba in dimmer light, and that has consequences, too. Director Saim Sadiq bathes the story in the intense colors of South Asian fabrics and teases out themes of gender and sexuality in a world where social rigidity constrains everyone, even Haider's dad, who's ashamed to admit he likes the attentions of a neighbouring widow. The filmmaker isn't lecturing or pointing fingers in "Joyland." He's just orchestrating situations where relationships can flow to unexpected places, sometimes in tartly funny ways, sometimes in hauntingly sad ones, always in ways that encourage viewers to prize tolerance for the wayward meanderings of desire. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF BHOLA SUNYARA SONG, "TAUBA TAUBA KARA DITI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.