Fate of a film: How Pakistan is stifling creativity at the altar of extremism

In a country like Pakistan, where freedom of expression is strictly curtailed, guaranteeing that everything is in line with an openly orthodox and conservative interpretation of religion will only multiply the problem, writes Sanchita Bhattacharya for South Asia Monitor

Sanchita Bhattacharya Feb 14, 2020
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While the Korean film ‘Parasite’ swept the Oscars, the fate of the ‘controversial’ Pakistani movie 'Zindagi Tamasha' remains uncertain as the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) and the Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC) failed to conduct a meeting to review the movie on February 3, 2020. It is the first Pakistani movie ever to win an award (Kim Ji-seok Award) in the prestigious Busan Film Festival, in 2019 in South Korea. But, on the home front, its misfortune has increased ever since its first trailer was aired in January.

The film, by Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, was slated for release on January 24, after getting clearances from three censor boards: CBFC, Punjab Board of Film Censors and Sindh Board of Film Censors. But as the film’s trailer made its way on YouTube earlier in January, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), headed by cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, demanded a halt to the film’s release. The TLP, in a press statement, has claimed that the film showed “tenets of Islam” in a negative light and such a thing could “force people to move away from religion”. 

“This film should not release at any cost. (Releasing this film) would be equivalent to testing the patience of Muslims in the Islamic republic,” the statement further said.

Muhammad Zubair, TLP’s vice-general secretary for Lahore, said his party is satisfied that the film will now be reviewed by CII, saying, “We are against the film because it violates the Motion Pictures Ordinance, 1979, where it is clearly stated in its chapter two that ‘a film shall not be certified for public exhibition if… the film or any part thereof is prejudicial to the glory of Islam’”.

However, there is no precedence in Pakistan where CII has been asked to  review a movie to ensure that it is not attacking religious sentiments and that it portrays an “accurate” picture of Islam. As expected under such circumstances, the release of the movie has been temporarily stopped.

The plot of the movie revolves around a 'naat khuan' (reciter of religious poems) Khwaja Rahat, who is ostracized by his community and family members after a video of him dancing at a wedding goes viral. His video incites hatred and disdain from people in his neighborhood, becoming a torment for the family, who are cursed and shamed extensively after the video releases.

This is not the first time the need to broaden society’s perspective on the issue of religious freedom has been portrayed in a Pakistani movie. Two other movies - 'Khuda Ke liye' and 'Bol' - both directed by Shoaib Mansoor, deal with the sensitive topic of religious extremism and fanaticism. But, the amount of controversy Zindagi Tamasha has generated portrays the rise of radicalism within Pakistani society.

The Sindh and Punjab governments moved to block the film's release in their provinces on January 21, 2020. The official stand is very clear- they have bowed to the ‘pressure’ of mass outrage incited by TLP. According to the notice by the Sindh Board of Film Censors, the decision was taken because of the film’s potential to create unrest within the religious segments of society. Meanwhile, the Punjab government's Information Department also notified the film director that his film would be re-examined "in the wake of persistent complaints received from different quarters".

Headquartered in Multan Road, Lahore, TLP is notorious for its extremist views and this is not the first time that the organisation has raised such outrageous demands. TLP began by demanding the release of Mumtaz Qadri, who had killed Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011. Later, in 2017, its supporters blockaded Islamabad city with violent protests for weeks, over changes made to the oath taken by parliamentarians, which the group deemed blasphemous. The protests succeeded in forcing the resignation of the country’s Federal Law Minister in a military-brokered agreement that saw the TLP virtually absolved of any wrongdoing. Also, TLP was extremely vocal in the Asiya Bibi case. After Bibi’s release, it accused the government of reneging on the agreement and vowed to return to the streets if she was allowed to leave the country.

TLP’s roots in the country’s majority sect of Barelvi Islam has alarmed observers. The issue of the movie arose a day after an anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi sentenced 86 TLP workers and supporters, including its chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s brother and nephew, to 55 years in prison each, in a case related to rioting and resisting the police. TLP aims to strengthen its ranks and expand support. Analyst and political commentator Khaled Ahmed states, “The TLP is now more powerful than any other religious group in Pakistan. It has a following within every institution of Pakistan, due to which decision-makers are afraid of them.”

The CII and CBFC’s delay in holding the review meeting clearly shows that they are worried about lifting the ban on the movie, fearing a vicious backlash from religious parties. “It is beyond understanding why the review meeting was not held and it seems that this matter will not be settled in the coming days. More than two weeks have passed and nothing has been done in this regard. Two weeks was enough time to conduct the relevant proceedings. Even the provincial censor boards have not arranged their review meetings,” said an official of CBFC, seeking anonymity.

More worryingly, when the State stops an already certified film from being released, it sends a message that the protesting group has the power to block or challenge the State’s decision. It should be remembered that the CII does not exactly comprise broad-minded scholars, as reflected by its recent decision to sanction wife-beating.

In a country like Pakistan, where freedom of expression is strictly curtailed, guaranteeing that everything is in line with an openly orthodox and conservative interpretation of religion will only multiply the problem. The State has now set a dangerous precedent, that anybody can force it to capitulate by threatening to take matters to the streets. Here we have a party whose members, not long ago, were being charged for arson, who are now dictating their terms to the State.

(The writer is a Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi)