Joyland Blues

Joyland, the film by Saim Sadiq which has won awards at Cannes and international acclaim, finally opened to audiences in Sindh and Islamabad on Friday, November 18. It was an epic battle to get to this point, with the film having been passed by the Censor Board, then banned, then passed again after review by a full board constituted by the Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Promotional poster for Joyland, image by Salman Toor

Sarmat Khoosat, who previously made a film in 2015 about Manto, whose film Zindagi Tamasha was also banned in Pakistan, and who is one of Joyland’s producers, probably identifies even more now with the beleaguered Urdu writer, who went to court six times on charges of obscenity, but was never convicted. Judge Munir, the last judge to preside over his trial, threatened Manto with jail if he didn’t stop writing his short stories. Blocked from expressing his creative gifts, Manto sank into an alcoholic depression, was put in an insane asylum where he was given electroshock therapy, and eventually died of liver cirrhosis, penniless and broken.

Pakistan doesn’t learn its lessons: the witch hunt against Joyland, which portrays a Lahore family struggling with repressed desires, secrets, and societal norms, has been nearly as vicious as the censure which Manto faced back in the 1950s.

Although the film was passed by the Censor Board initially, a fashion designer joined hands with a Senator to start a smear campaign on social media, and then a petition to have the movie legally banned.

These charlatans used religion for their own political ends, saying that the film went against Islam’s tenets, and that Pakistan is an Islamic country, so how could we even think of showing this movie in Pakistan. Screening Joyland would only open the doors to pedophilia, child abuse, incest, rape, and who knows what else? The sense of power they gained from being able to shut a movie down, the gloating and crowing that ensued when their will prevailed, temporarily, was one of the most un-Islamic things I have ever seen.

“I am not a pornographer but a story writer.”

Sadaat Hassan Manto

The ban on Joyland was followed by a strong outcry on social media. A few progressive minds in leadership positions realized that banning an internationally acclaimed movie would make us look very foolish indeed. So, the film was finally unbanned, although promptly banned again in Punjab, where Maula Jatt reigns supreme with all its bloodshed, rape and gore.

But Maula Jatt, I was told, at least shows a woman being raped and then avenged! This is morality, while Joyland glorifies homosexuality, tries to present transgenderism as normal, and is attempting to influence young people away from Islam. All of this was declared without anyone having even seen the movie, but as a self-proclaimed genius told me on Twitter, “you don’t have to touch a wire to know that it’s live.”

I do not think anyone will be able to persuade the majority of the film’s opponents that this is not what the film is doing at all. As Manto said, when asked about the work he produced, and whether or not it was “suitable” for society, was: “I am not a pornographer but a story writer.” But some people will always see Manto as a pornographer, and Joyland as pornography, instead of an attempt to portray life honestly, through the artistic lens of the writer, or the filmmaker.

Confusing fiction with Aesop’s fables, a short story with a morality tale, they will not understand that true art does not present conclusions. It paints the picture but withholds judgment on its characters, who are often vastly and deeply flawed. In fact, it may even hold compassion for those characters, while showing them meeting less than desirable fates (Madame Bovary, anyone?).

“A story must teach a lesson!” they say. “It must teach the difference between good and bad!” But only the lessons that the closed-minded want to be learnt, only good and bad as they define it. And in their minds, there is no space for tolerance, no space for uncomfortable endings, for ambiguity, for human nature in all its complexity and contradictions.

These are the people who would look at the Mona Lisa and ask, “Where is her hijab?” You cannot make them understand art’s aesthetic value, its dance with light and dark. They want a type of art that conforms to their own morality, mistaking that for a sort of universal morality that exists in scripture but rarely in real life.

But most immoral in the whole matter to me was that they tried to rob everyone of a choice to see the film or not see the film, which is, in my opinion, the very crux of Islam and religion and morality: to see something presented in front of you and to decide for yourself that it is for you or not for you. Even God created humans differently from the angels, because they were imbued with free will while the angels were mindless slaves. If you have no power to choose, and nothing to choose from or between, when do you exercise your spiritual muscle?

Meanwhile, kudos to Saim Sadiq and all the team at Joyland for bringing this to our screens.


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