In the matter of weeks, Saim Sadiq’s Joyland has gone from being Pakistan’s official entry in the best international feature category at the Oscars to a film that is unlikely to be shown in the country.

Sadiq’s acclaimed debut feature, about the entanglement between a married man and a transgender dancer, was premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Un Certain Regard section. Joyland was set for a theatrical release in Pakistan on November 18 but was abruptly banned by the country’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

On November 11, the ministry cancelled the exhibition licence issued to Joyland on August 17, the country’s leading newspaper Dawn reported. According to Dawn, the ministry’s notice states that the Central Board of Film Censors Islamabad has revoked Joyland’s censor certificate on the ground that “the film contains highly objectionable material which do not conform with the social values and moral standards of our society and is clearly repugnant to the norms of decency and morality as laid down in Section 9 of the Motion Picture Ordinance, 1979”.

The Central Board of Film Censors Islamabad’s jurisdiction excludes the Punjab and Sindh regions, which separately certify movies even after they have been cleared by Islamabad.

“The first germ of the idea was a triangle between this man, woman and transwoman with patriarchy at the centre of it and the intersections between the worlds of the theatre and an oppressive household,” Sadiq told in a conversation just before the ban was announced.

Alina Khan in Joyland (2022). Courtesy Apoorva Guru Charan, Sarmad Sultan Khoosat and Lauren Mann.

Up until the ban, Joyland was a strong contender for the Oscars, which will be held on March 12. India has sent Pan Nalin’s Last Film Show for the Best International Feature Film category. For a movie to qualify in this category, it needs to play in theatres in its own country for at least a week.

Sadiq responded to the ban with a lengthy statement on his Instagram account. Sadiq, who lives in Lahore and has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University School of the Arts in New York, said that his team was “gutted by this development but fully intend to raise our voice against this grave injustice”.

Sadiq pointed out that Joyland had been cleared by all three censor boards in August itself and had been banned on the basis of “baseless rumours and complaints from a few individuals that have suddenly overridden the law and the system”. He urged the Pakistan authorities to “return the right of our citizens to be able to watch the film that has made their country’s cinema proud the world over”.

Joyland was premiered in India at the recently concluded Dharamshala International Film Festival. The movie has an Indian connection: one of its principal producers is Apoorva Guru Charan, who was born in India and met Sadiq at Columbia. The film’s executive producers include Nobel winner Malala Yousufzai.

The cast includes Sarwat Gilani, familiar to Indian fans of Pakistani television dramas. In a series of anguished tweets accompanied by the hashtag #ReleaseJoyland, Gilani said Pakistani authorities were “caving into pressure from some malicious people who have not even seen the film”. She added, “Don’t take away this moment of pride and joy from our people!”

Joyland is among the few independent productions to emerge out of Pakistan in several years. Sensitively narrated, beautifully filmed and powerfully performed, Joyland explores the taboo bond that develops between Haider, a member of a conservative family, and Biba, a trans woman trying to build a career as an erotic dancer.

The film is set in Lahore. Haider has a father and older brother who are gutted when Haider’s sister-in-law gives birth to a third girl child. Haider, who is married himself but child-free, finds his own notions of masculinity challenged when he meets Biba. A tough survivor of the battles over gender identity, Biba shakes up Haider life’s in unimaginable ways.

Among the film’s highlights is its use of long takes, intimate close-ups and a rich colour palette, which reel viewers into the worlds of Haider and Biba. Shot by Joe Saade, Joyland seeks to explore the interior lives of its characters through cinematic devices, rather than merely roll about a message movie about hot-button topics, Sadiq said.

“I knew the easiest slot for Joyland would be a social issue film, but I was battling that from the very beginning,” Sadiq added. “There’s nothing wrong with such films at all, but just by virtue of having a trans character, why should it be seen as a social issue film? We were not setting out to change the world, but trying to understand the subjective experiences of multiple characters and their conflicting desires. The film is about the conflict between our desires and morality. Who is to say which is more important?”

Joyland (2022).

Long takes allowed Sadiq to “use real time” and make “the least fabricated version of the story”, he explained. “Shooting in longer takes allows characters to exist in the space and lets a certain truth to come out. It grounds you in that moment much more. My interest was to depict these feelings and get closest to the characters. As an audience too, you feel your presence far more in the room than if you are cutting from this to that.”

The project took about seven years to fall into place. Sadiq wrote the first draft in 2015, when he was still at Columbia. The final screenplay, co-written with Maggie Briggs, also draws from a short film directed by Sadiq in 2019. Darling, about the erotic dance scene in Lahore, starred Alina Khan, the trans actor who plays Biba in Joyland.

Darling won the Orizzonti Award for Best Short Film at the Venice Film Festival in 2019 – a first for a Pakistani production. Sadiq graduated from Columbia later that year. His producer, Apoorva Guru Charan, had graduated in 2018.

“The day that Saim submitted his first draft in screenwriting class, I said, could I produce this film,” said Charan, who has lived in India, Singapore and America. “After we graduated, Saim was working on Darling and his scriptwriting, while I was in Los Angeles working on my producing career. The whole time, we were slowly chipping away at Joyland. Eventually we got to a stage where we were able to put the film in front of the right people.”

Saim Sadiq and Apoorva Guru Charan.

Sadiq had already experienced Lahore’s erotic dance circuit through Darling. “That world wasn’t new to me, but for my, my director of photography and production designer [Kanwal Khoosat], it was important to light in our own style but also close to reality,” he said. “The actors too spent time making sure they got the dialect, the body language and the backstage interactions. We didn’t want to exoticise the world but we didn’t want to go into a B-movie zone either. We had a viewpoint that wasn’t looking at the world with judgement but examining the sense of freedom of ideas behind the garishness.”

Darling (2019).

Apart from fundraising, a big challenge was casting, especially for the crucial roles of Haider and Biba. The cast includes Rasti Farooq as Mumtaz, Haider’s wife.

“When making a film like this, there is a handful of established actors you can think of, but they come with baggage,” Sadiq observed. “The good thing is that the three leads – Ali, Alina and Rasti – are all new actors. It helps that nobody has seen these faces before, so they come with no baggage.”

In many ways, Joyland belongs to Haider, movingly portrayed by first-time film actor Ali Junejo. “For Haider, we had a casting search for six months and did 600 or so auditions,” Sadiq said. “It came to a point where I said I wouldn’t make the film if I didn’t have the right actor. It’s harder to cast male Pakistani actors who are interesting and want to do something more than macho male hero parts. It became disheartening at one point, but then Ali Junejo walked in. There was something so correct about him, his view of the character and his demeanour, that I knew it would be him even before the audition began.”

Ali Junejo in Joyland (2022). Courtesy Apoorva Guru Charan, Sarmad Sultan Khoosat and Lauren Mann.

Joyland was the first Pakistani movie to be screened at Cannes, where it won the Jury Prize as well as the Queer Palm. The film’s remarkable journey – a boost for its young makers as well as for Pakistani cinema itself – was hardly anticipated when Sadiq and Charan began working on the project seven years ago.

“We did think there was an audience but it wasn’t so strategic,” Charan observed. “We did look at other South Asian films as comparable just in terms of the market, like The Lunchbox and Masaan, which found audiences outside of South Asia. We always talked about Joyland as an arthouse film. [The Russian production] Beanpole may be comparable in terms of style during financing conversations. Now we are realising the audience is wider. Although the film kind of has three identities – South Asian, arthouse and LGBTQIA diaspora – the character work is so deep even on the page that it feels very universal. Which is why a lot of our investors who have never been to Pakistan were still very much able to connect with the film, the basic emotions of desire, wanting love, wanting to able to define yourself.”

Sadiq’s chief concern at the time of this interview was ensuring a smooth release for his passion project. “I don’t have an expectation about how it will be received in Pakistan,” said Sadiq, who is writing a screenplay based on Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which will be directed by Bing Liu. Jamie Ford’s novel is about the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War II.

“I just want Joyland to be released in Pakistan,” Sadiq said. “I want it to play in as many theatres in Pakistan as possible.”

Joyland (2022). Courtesy Apoorva Guru Charan, Sarmad Sultan Khoosat and Lauren Mann.