At a certain point last month, someone in London or Los Angeles could listen to Arooj Aftab’s music in their AirPods, tuck Taymour Soomro’s debut novel “Other Names for Love” into their bag and head out to a screening of Saim Sadiq’s film “Joyland,” where outside the theater they would pass a movie poster featuring a painting by Salman Toor.
2022 proved to be a banner year for Pakistani artists. Aftab delivered the country’s first Grammy award, winning for best global music performance. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy directed episodes of “Ms. Marvel,” the critically-acclaimed Disney+ series featuring the first Muslim superhero in the Marvel universe. Novels like Soomro’s “Other Names for Love” and Mohsin Hamid’s “The Last White Man” won praise from critics. Toor became an art-world star with an exhibition at the Whitney Museum and paintings selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Debut writer and director Sadiq’s “Joyland” was the first Pakistani film selected to screen at Cannes, where it won a prestigious jury prize. After standing ovations from film festival audiences around the world, Pakistan selected it as their official Oscar submission. On Nov. 18, “Joyland” was scheduled to open in the country where it was made — a long-awaited homecoming for the cast and crew, and a chance for Pakistanis to celebrate a film ranked among the best in global cinema.
But last week the government caved to pressure from a small group of critics and overturned the censor board’s approval of the film, effectively banning it from screens across Pakistan. As most of those lodging complaints have not seen the film, it’s difficult to understand why they claim “Joyland” is “repugnant” and unfit for Pakistani audiences, but many comments on social media focus on a character called Biba, an ambitious dancer and trans woman, played by 24-year-old Lahori actress Alina Khan.
“Joyland” is not activism posing as art; it doesn’t argue for a particular point of view or issue a call to action. The film treats each character with compassion, from the ageing grandfather imposing his will on his family to the young wife who wants more than the men around her are willing to give. It’s a film about the ways in which patriarchy hurts everyone — men, women and children. It’s a film about the healing powers of female friendship and solidarity. It’s a film about the costs of ignoring our own dreams to conform to society around us.
“Joyland” is also a love letter to Pakistan, to its culture, food, fashion and, most of all, its people. How tragic that a film created by and for Pakistanis is now banned from our screens because of claims that it does not “represent our way of life” or “portrays a negative image of our country.” The opposite is true — the film reflects reality for millions of ordinary Pakistanis, people who yearn for freedom and fulfilment, people who create moments of joy every day for those they love.
Too often in my country, we expect art to serve as public relations. Tired of seeing negative portraits from the rest of the world, we want stories that cast ourselves as unequivocal heroes. The most popular films feature male leads vanquishing their mortal enemies and female characters who exist only in context of their romantic relationships. A numbness sets in as we collectively decide we would rather believe the fantasy than look in the mirror. When a film like Sadiq’s raises up working class or trans characters, and women struggling to assert themselves against rigid and very real social norms, we turn away.
In doing so, we reject the spectacular talent of Pakistani artists that a film like “Joyland” represents. So many of our best and brightest — from Kumail Nanjiani to Kamila Shamsie to Shahzia Sikander — have found more success in Europe or the U.S. What message are we sending to the next generation who, like Sadiq, want to make films in Karachi or Swat Valley, when we ban art by our own people?
Last month at Variety’s Power of Women awards in Los Angeles, I told the audience that Muslims make up 25% of the world’s population, but only 1% of characters in popular TV series. When we do see Muslims on screen, they are often the perpetrators or victims of terrorism. That’s Hollywood’s problem to solve — and I, along with other Pakistani and Muslim creators, hope to be part of the solution. But audiences must also be open to the truth when our filmmakers reveal it. We should be the first, the loudest and the most jubilant supporters of artists who tell our stories. “Joyland” offers Pakistan that opportunity, if only we’re willing to take it.
Malala Yousafzai is an executive producer on “Joyland,” president of Extracurricular Productions and the youngest Nobel laureate.