Illustration by Aakif Rattu

Joyland: The Politics of Censorship and ‘Joy’ in Pakistan

The overturn of Joyland’s ban in Pakistani cinemas showcases a rare glimmer of hope in progressive filmmaking, but much work still needs to be done to combat censorship and corruption.

Nov 21, 2022

2022 has been a monumental year for the revival of Pakistani cinema. From Sarmad Khoosat’s independently produced Kamli, to Bilal Lashari’s The Legend of Maula Jatt which broke domestic and international box-office records, domestic films proved the range of Pakistani audiences’ cinematic tastes. Perhaps, most significantly, Saim Sadiq’s Joyland became a global phenomenon winning the prestigious Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard and the Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival.
Come November, after a year-long journey through the international festival circuit, Joyland was supposed to release in Pakistan. All three censor boards of the country cleared the film in August with only minor cuts. However, five days before its planned release date, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting banned its release on account of it containing “highly objectionable material which does not conform with the social values and moral standards of our society,” which came as a shock to many.
Joyland was the first Pakistani film to ever be screened at the Cannes Film Festival. It is also Pakistan’s Oscar-entry for the Best International Feature category. But all the accolades that it has secured for the Pakistani film industry aside, at its core, the film portrays a story about human desire within a patriarchal dysfunctional society with a trans woman at the center of the narrative.
The question of trans representation has haunted social discourse within the country for decades now. Normative mainstream depictions of transness in Pakistan, particularly the Khwaja Sira community, range from making them the object of vile transphobic humor or representing them at the margins of society as victims void of any agency. Atrocious stereotypes of trans folks as exploited sex workers populate such depictions which fixes them in an oversimplified, dehumanizing and oppressed image. In this case, Joyland stands in stark contrast — it shows Biba, played by Alina Khan, as a ferocious and outspoken dancer who is able to exercise agency over her own destiny and desires. Most importantly, Alina Khan herself is a trans woman, which in itself is groundbreaking in a country where media around transness has been dominated by caricature-like portrayals by cisgender actors.
The issue of censorship is not unfamiliar to Pakistani artists and audiences. In 2020, Sarmad Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha was banned. The film also told a narrative of a dysfunctional family, with societal and religious contradictions at its center. However, it was tainted with allegations of blasphemous content, despite the film containing no such content. Joyland’s case shares this in common with Khoosat’s film: most people cheering for a ban have not even seen the film yet, and yet they base their demands on assumptions of possibly controversial material. These controversies were later revealed to be manufactured, through outrageous claims of the film being funded by some absurd LGBTQ+ agenda or a secular lobby. These fabricated delusions lay bare the insecurities of the religious and political establishment, who are threatened by a film that people have the freedom to opt out of.
Perhaps an analysis of the kind of content approved by the Federal Board of Film Censors (FBFC) of Pakistan provides a better insight into its true motivations Many of the films approved even this year, like Maula Jatt, openly show violence against women and gendered minorities. Many openly mock the Khwaja Sira community, a constitutionally protected sector of Pakistani society. Rampant use of alcohol is depicted with no cautionary warnings, despite alcohol being forbidden in Islam. Misogyny and female objectification through “item” dance numbers are considered a staple ingredient of most mainstream films to attract the male audience.
These instances of misogyny, transphobia, and sexism show that the FBFC is not interested in defending the integrity of the so-called “Islamic Republic” of Pakistan. Instead, they want to use the frontier of religion to control whose perspectives stories are told from. They have a monopoly over the representation of desires, and they control who is allowed to express emotions in the public domain. Toxic displays of masculinity and male desires are encouraged. Meanwhile, even the most humanistic of portrayals of women, trans and queer people are labeled as “unIslamic” for merely expressing autonomy over their lives and bodies. A certain understanding of morality is imposed and ordained by these powers, and anyone falling on the margins is inundated with messages of hatred and even legal threats for constitutional violations.
The politics of censorship and the Censor Board is also a disheartening state of affairs in the country. Even as Pakistan charades as a democracy, it is crucial that in a democracy of any kind, any censorship board must be non-political. However, the course of events preceding Joyland’s release perfectly reflects a failure at this. Time and time again, we have seen the body cave to protests from the far-right religious conservative faction of Pakistani society, a virtue never extended to progressives, such as in the case of Zindagi Tamasha. But, in the case of Joyland, the government refused to even hold any pretenses. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting overreached its authority, by banning the film despite it being miraculously cleared by the Censor Board. The intervention of these political actors in art is not an exception in this country anymore; it is the norm.
The standards that films are held by when under review also remain inconsistent and contradictory, in and of themselves. If one looks at the two films mentioned above, both Zindagi Tamasha and Joyland have little in common with each other. The decision to ban the former specifically employed Islamic rhetoric, with the film’s perceived denigration of the religion’s prophet prominently cited. Religion is front and center in the film, which makes it understandably sensitive in a society deeply ingrained in religion. However, Joyland makes no explicit references to Islam — it does not even propagandize a given ideological message, liberal or conservative. It simply aims to tell a story of our society’s moral complexities, but the lies at the center of these complexities provide ammo for the film’s detractors.
After the ban received intense backlash online, a committee was formed to review the Censor Board’s decision. Besides the Censor Board and the Ministry of Information serving as the state’s propaganda arm, it is interesting to note that this committee contained representatives from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR). Their presence on these committees does beg a question: why do intelligence officers get to have a stake in this conversation about artistic expression? It is not unassuming to say that ISPR is known for producing nationalistic and conservative media under the guise of patriotism, such as Ehd-e-Wafa. The alarming aspect of these proceedings is how desensitized these influential and controlling stakeholders are to the lucid appearance of bias and lack of integrity. Does a transgressive depiction really threaten Pakistan’s image, as the censors would argue in an attempt to curate a particular image, or does the government's inhumanity and censorship threaten it more?
For many, the state of censorship in Pakistan remains grim. However, a glimmer of hope is offered by the successful overturning of the ban on Joyland in all provinces except Punjab. The production of films such as Joyland lay bare the obvious cracks in our entertainment and political systems, and grueling as it may be for the filmmakers, the revolutionary nature of such pieces of cinema shows that the dawn of a new age of progressive and independent filmmaking in Pakistan is on the horizon.
Ibad Hassan is a Contributing Writer. Email him at
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