Bar the killjoys of Pakistan!
Now you see it. Now you don’t. Or maybe you can, but not everyone. Sounds confusing? It is! We are talking about Joyland, a new Pakistani feature film that the state can’t decide is good for cinephiles or now, but which is receiving rave reviews abroad and fancies its chances to win the coveted Oscar nod for best foreign feature.
Joyland has objectors aghast or telling the story of a love affair of a transwoman with a straight man. The clergy and religious political parties are choosing to ignore the critical acclaim and top awards it is mopping up on the festival circuit, including the prestigious Jury Prize at Cannes.
First, the Central Board of Film Censors, a federal body, issued a certificate in August for its cinematic release. Just as the film’s makers readied to do it, an influential senator from an ultra-conservative party challenged it for allegedly professing “immorality and obscenity,” creating a vitriolic ruckus that forced the government to undo its certification for screening.
The prime minister created a committee to re-review it for suitability. The committee excised the film of some scenes to make it ‘suitable’ and allowed it to be released. Not so fast! Within hours the government of Punjab province headed by someone known for pandering to extreme religious sentiments promptly banned it from the populous province. This ensures the film will be open to limited audiences mostly in Islamabad and Sindh only.
While this whole drama is worthy subject for a film of its own, it does not make for pretty viewing. It is merely the latest instance of the state of Pakistan, particularly zealots within its ranks in officialdom, political parties, and religious groups, who think even adults are not mature enough to watch films without going berserk and descending into a state of obscenity and decadence. This self-styled moral brigade accords itself the power – often through official procedural mechanisms that favour their self-righteousness – to hoist their interpretation of piety on others.
Cinema is a powerful medium for social change and instead of being banned, should be saved from ultra-conservative quarters bent on perpetuating outdated and downright harmful taboos such as keeping transgenders marginalized from the pursuit of happiness.
This is bad but what is worse is that governments often acquiesce to this righteous rage because the state through assertion of decades of public narratives that combine narrow nationalisms (that view human rights agendas as western conspiracies) and extreme religiosity (not just society but state structures also viewed and interpreted through divine strictures) virtually ensure a constricted society that frowns upon even laughter and joy as inappropriate social mores that can invite divine wrath!
This toxic religious nationalism discourages not only freedom of expression relating to human rights and from a religious lens but also political expression which discourages films and television dramas from focusing on events in the country’s history that put the security establishment in the spotlight such as the break-up of the country in 1971, the four military putsches and the hanging of a prime minister by an army chief.
This is what puts Joyland in good company – films banned officially and forbidden from mind tricks on Pakistani audiences lest they wake up to suppressed truth and reality includes Jago Hua Savera helmed by poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz focusing on loan sharks from preying on Bengali fisherfolk; Jobon Theke Neya produced in then-East Pakistan topicalizing sidelining of Bengali as national language of Pakistan; Insan Aur Gadha commenting on suppression of human rights by the state and religion; Aurat Raj which was the first Pakistani film professing feminism; Maula Jat in 1979 charged with excessive sexual content and violence (even though its sequel is currently playing to packed audiences with similar content), The Blood of Hussain for fictionalizing a military coup (no, really); Khamosh Pani for exposing state-sponsored religious radicalism under General Zia’s rule; Slackistan for excessive use of expletives; and Zindagi Tamasha for showing a man losing his religious fervour and secularizing, among others.
The Pakistani state and establishment are deeply steeped in 1970s-style thought control mores that obsess with policing the morals of its people through knee-jerk censorship. Even though society has moved on and there are more youth now than adults in Pakistan, elders want society moored to their outdated outlook. This must change. Cinema is a powerful medium for social change and instead of being banned, should be saved from ultra-conservative quarters bent on perpetuating outdated and downright harmful taboos such as keeping transgenders marginalized from the pursuit of happiness, which Joyland aims for.
Bans not only contribute to a worsening of Pakistan’s freedom of expression-related indicators, this sort of unnecessary censorship also prevents society from humanizing issues and seeing citizens as humans instead of as serfs. Pakistan needs a radical overhaul of its censorship policies and practices by discouraging the say of conservative quarters in matters of entertainment and arts disciplines and replacing them with human rights defenders. The bar should be on killjoys, not Joyland.
– Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.