What to Know About Pakistan’s Controversial Transgender Romance Film

The government reversed its ban on “Joyland,” though several scenes will be cut

Banner for Joyland
A policeman walks past a banner for Joyland outside a cinema in Lahore, Pakistan, on November 16. ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images

The Pakistani government is reversing its ban on the film Joyland, which is the country’s entry for the Academy Awards. 

“The decision is a simple yet powerful message that the government stands by freedom of speech and safeguards it, and cannot allow mere smear campaigns or disinformation to be used as choking creative freedom,” Salman Sufi, an aide to Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, tells the Associated Press

Several scenes will be cut, though Sufi didn’t say which ones.

Joyland tells the story of Haider, the youngest son in a traditional family, who secretly joins an erotic dance company and falls in love with Biba, a young transgender performer.

Back in May, Joyland made history when it became the first Pakistani film to premiere at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. There, it was met with a standing ovation and received a Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard competition. The accolades have continued to pour in, and the film was selected as Pakistan’s entry for the Academy Awards.

After screening at festivals around the world, Joyland was scheduled to make its Pakistani debut on November 18, having initially received a green light from authorities. But then, over the weekend, Pakistan’s government reversed course and banned the film. 

The decision followed complaints that Joyland contains “highly objectionable material which [does] not conform with the social values and moral standards of our society,” per a statement from Pakistan’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting

The ban was met with an outpouring of criticism, with the hashtag #ReleaseJoyland making rounds on social media. In an Instagram post, Joyland director Saim Sadiq wrote that he and his team were “gutted” by the ban.

“[T]he Ministry suddenly caved under pressure from a few extremist factions—who have not seen the film—and made a mockery of our federal censor board by rendering their decision irrelevant,” he wrote.

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Joyland stars 24-year-old Alina Khan as Biba. Speaking with the Guardian’s Zofeen T. Ebrahim, Khan, who is transgender herself, said the ban made her “very sad” and added that “the Pakistani trans community was also very upset.”

Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who is also an executive producer of Joyland, published a defense of the film in Variety. “[T]he film reflects reality for millions of ordinary Pakistanis, people who yearn for freedom and fulfillment, people who create moments of joy every day for those they love,” she wrote.

On Monday, the prime minister established a committee tasked with reviewing the decision. And on Wednesday, the committee officially reversed the ban.

As originally planned, Joyland will premiere in Pakistan’s theaters on Friday.

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