In Pakistan, consider our reality if even our fiction is so policed

In Pakistan, consider our reality if even our fiction is so policed

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Instead of opening credits, a defeated Sarmad Khoosat greets the viewer at the start of Zindagi Tamasha (The Circus of Life). In a measured tone, the actor and director tells us why he resorted to uploading the film on YouTube, where it will now live sandwiched between cricket highlights and funny cat videos. The necessary certifications to release the film in Pakistan’s cinemas are displayed, although they seem to be worth nothing more than blips on the screen. After all, it’s not like the Pakistan Film Censor Board’s final word counts.

To contextualize just why Khoosat is so frustrated, consider that the film was meant to be released in January 2020, before COVID-19 was even declared a pandemic. In the time between its original premier date and its less-than-glamorous YouTube launch, the virus swept the globe, scientists developed a vaccine and millions of people around the world were immunized. Evidently, it takes less time to get rid of a deadly global health emergency than for Pakistan to clear a movie for release.

Why has this story proven so difficult to tell? Zindagi Tamasha follows Rahat, a praise poet (locally known as a naat-khwaan, a reciter of poetry devoted to extolling the virtues of the Prophet Muhammad). Sitting with his friends, he is coaxed into dancing for them. He is filmed and becomes a viral joke as soon as it is uploaded online. He is ostracized by his daughter and community. 

What Khoosat does have in common with hard-liners that want to block his work, is a belief in the ability of stories to change the way people think. 

- Rimmel Mohydin

This much about the plot can be gathered from the trailer, and that was all that the late firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his ultra conservative party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) needed. On 4 February 2020, he declared that the film would be released over his dead body, for its potential to “deviate people from Islam.” Rizvi died in November the same year and the film has, to date, not played in a single theater in Pakistan.

There is always a degree of speculation whenever a film is banned, which is fast becoming an accepted reality for cinema in Pakistan. Unfortunately, the reasons provided tend to confuse more than clarify: Festival de Cannes Jury Prize winner Joyland for its “highly objectionable material,” Barbie, temporarily banned for its alleged promotion of LGBT values and Javed Iqbal: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer, the biopic of a murderer who killed over 100 children in the 1990s, over “objections from the public” (which had not actually seen the film).

With Zindagi Tamasha, people ventured tired, unsurprising guesses. A dancing, religious-looking man? Obviously, offense was to be expected. 

The ultra-conservative elements that hold considerable clout over what we watch and what we read, are used to existing in binaries. And the film does not allow that. It invites us to take a look at the complexities that define our lived experiences, and not the black and white stories that uphold existing power dynamics. Rahat is a gentle husband, seen to be his ailing wife’s primary caretaker. He brushes her hair, cooks her meals, hangs her bra out to dry. He also loves to dance, swaying his hips and lip-syncing to a woman crooning her despair. Rahat holds multiple identities, loving both the Lollywood of yore and the heartfelt praise poetry devoted to religion. Khoosat reminds us that both are possible. 

The truth is that this possibility is not in line with the ‘portrait’ of a clergy member that ultra-conservative political groups want people to see. To have feminine traits attributed to you is to be denigrated. While Khoosat set out to humanize a group of people that world media often reduces to angry, brown, bearded men, it seems that Pakistan’s far-right parties and groups find strength in precisely the otherizing and fear associated with that imagery. 

What Khoosat does have in common with hard-liners that want to block his work, is a belief in the ability of stories to change the way people think. 

The Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act provides legal cover to the criminalization of criticism. The Social Media Rules sanction censorship. The Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority can muzzle journalists as desired. The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority is empowered to cut off the Internet whenever required. The infrastructure to silence is well-established and effective. 

Consider our reality, if even our fiction is so policed.

- Rimmel Mohydin is a human rights, communications, and advocacy expert. She tweets @Rimmel_Mohydin.

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