Photo: Zindagi Tamasha (Circus of Life)

The battle for Pakistan's cinema

Pakistan’s rulers have long viewed cinema as a moral threat. But the country’s filmmakers and artists are still demanding to be heard
May 4, 2021

On 24th January 2020, two days before his film Zindagi Tamasha (Circus of Life) was due to appear in Pakistani cinemas, Sarmad Khoosat watched his father defend it against accusations of blasphemy on a primetime television talk show.

It was a surreal moment, Khoosat recalls. After the trailer was released on 3rd January, the hardline religious party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) declared the film disrespectful towards Islam—an extremely serious accusation in Pakistan, technically punishable by death. He received threatening phone messages and a social media campaign forced him to cancel all promotional activity. Officials at the censorship board who had previously cleared the film now sent him vague messages warning of “trouble” brewing. Then the broadcasting minister Firdous Ashiq Awan tweeted that the government would invite a group of clerics to check the film for anti-Islamic content. “The producers have been advised to delay the release,” the minister said.

The country’s intelligentsia was outraged at how Khoosat was being treated. “The state is being held hostage by bigots,” noted an editorial in the English language newspaper Dawn. “There has been a deafening silence from the government over the ordeal of the brilliant artist.” The problem was that the TLP’s accusations could not be effectively countered because so few people had actually seen the film.

But by then, two versions of the film existed. There was the real one described by Khoosat’s father on television—and another, a conspiracy-fuelled tale pieced together by the TLP’s followers and feverishly shared online. Some claimed the film was about a cleric who pilfered mosque donations and abused children or even his daughter. Others dug up a tweet from 2018 in which Khoosat celebrated the pardon of a Christian woman, Aasiya Noreen, who spent eight years in prison on a spurious blasphemy charge. The film was about her, some claimed, drawing on a passing mention of an unrelated Aasiya in the trailer. “Someone should use this trailer in film schools as it was apparently so great, it inspired people to make up their own films,” Khoosat says wryly.

On 5th February, the TLP’s leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi (who later died in November) addressed a rally in Islamabad. Rizvi had, in just two years, successfully built up the TLP into the country’s fifth largest political party by taking aim at blasphemy. The canny firebrand knew how to stir a crowd: when Dutch MP Geert Wilders announced a competition to caricature the Prophet Mohammed, Rizvi swore: “If they give me the atom bomb, I’ll immediately bomb Holland.” One of Rizvi’s followers tried to assassinate a government minister following an amendment that the TLP perceived as diluting the declaration of faith required when taking the oath of office. “This film is against Islam and against our clerics,” Rizvi shouted at the February rally. It would only be released over his dead body, he told the cheering crowd. Prime minister Imran Khan, who has been accused of sympathising with hardline religious figures, did not defend the film. It has not been released.

Khoosat asked his cast and crew not to talk to the press about the film. “At first, I was angry as this was my best work and I wanted people to see it,” recalls actress Eman Suleman. Zindagi Tamasha was the 27-year-old’s debut in a big film. “Then I thought about it opening in cinemas and people going to watch it. What if we put their lives in danger?” On an Instagram post of hers, someone commented: “If you don’t stop the release… you will make me a ghazi (warrior)” and reeled off a list of killers. Among the names was Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard beloved by the TLP as a “true Muslim” after he killed the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer. Taseer had pushed for a pardon for Aasiya Noreen.

In November, the Pakistani Academy Selection Committee—which chooses titles from the country to be considered for the Oscars—submitted Zindagi Tamasha for Best International Feature Film category. Although it was announced in March that it didn’t make the cut, the submission had a side effect: to meet the Academy’s guidelines, the film had to have been shown somewhere. Khoosat had to “premiere” the film on the website Vimeo while access was blocked for Pakistan—a release so without fanfare that you cannot find a word about it in the local media, or on Twitter. But nonetheless, it had at last received an airing of sorts.

When I finally watched the film, I was surprised: rather than anything that could be reasonably considered blasphemous, Zindagi Tamasha is a moving ode to the solace that faith can provide. It tells the story of Rahat, a middle-aged estate agent known for his beautiful renditions of naat, or religious praise poems.

When Rahat’s friends learn he loved to sing and dance to non-religious music as a boy, they encourage him to perform for them. He gives in, not realising he is being filmed. The video of him dancing is uploaded to Facebook, where it goes viral. Cue memes and jokes about overweight men who like to dance. More seriously, he has also annoyed the religious establishment.

A cleric advises him to make a video apology. Rahat’s first take does not satisfy the cleric—it is not zealous enough. The video needs to give the masses the rhetoric they hear from the pulpits. How else will they know Rahat is a sincere believer? “Pray for the destruction of America,” the cleric suggests, or the plight of the Palestinians. Rahat refuses. His neighbours turn against him, plastering posters denouncing him around his home and shouting curses through the windows.

The film touches on religion, for sure, but in far more sophisticated ways than men like Khadim Hussain Rizvi acknowledge. It asks: how should a good Muslim be? Who can judge his virtue? Khoosat has insisted to critics “I am a believer,” and he tells me Rahat is a “good enough Muslim”: he cares for his infirm wife, he is a gentle father, he helps the destitute and prays regularly. But neither does he deny himself pleasure, whether it is a delicious batch of halva or the lilt of a love song from his favourite old movies. Nor is he above inflicting pain: we see him betray the one friend who stands by him. Much like the praise poems Rahat recites, Zindagi Tamasha is a paean to the mercy that faith offers when we inevitably fall short.

The parallels between the film’s story and its reception are not lost on Khoosat. Like Rahat, he made an apology video as the TLP’s threats raged, but his sister made him delete it before he posted it. The voices of the mob were too loud—his words would only be misconstrued. “We question each other on how many times we pray or the number of fasts we keep during Ramadan, and as long as we are conforming on a superficial level, we do not allow any debate on religion. That is not a rug anyone wants to lift and look under in Pakistan.”

Khoosat is among a number of filmmakers whose thought-provoking work struggles to find support within Pakistan. “Anyone that makes films here that are intellectually stimulating should be given a gold medal,” says Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the only Pakistani director to have won two Oscars for her documentaries. “We do not have the funding available, the government infrastructure or even distribution networks, and very few filmmakers can risk making something in a country where backlash for your work has become par for the course.”

Other directors told me it had become imperative to seek international markets and funding to circumvent local bans. It took Zakir Thaver 14 years to make Salam: The First ****** Nobel Laureate, his documentary about Abdus Salam, the first Pakistani to win the Nobel Prize (for physics) in 1979. All along, he knew it would be impossible to publicly screen the film in his home country. Salam belonged to the shunned Ahmadiyya religious minority and the country does not recognise his achievements. (In the title the stars stand for “Muslim.”) “We knew we would never get it on TV or in cinemas, but we wanted to make the film available any way we could, even if that meant airdropping DVDs,” he says. He held secret screenings in many cities across Pakistan, travelling to film festivals around the world and asking Ahmadiyya mosques to publicise the screenings. His ultimate aim was to get the attention of Netflix. “It was a kamikaze mission,” Thaver recalls. He was turned down once, but persisted. Finally the film was acquired by Netflix and released in 2019. And since the platform launched in Pakistan in 2016, it can now be watched in the country.

“Everyone is trying to chase commissions from Netflix as that is where the real money lies,” Thaver explains. There has yet to be an original Netflix production from Pakistan. Thaver feels this is partly because decisions on content are routed through Netflix India. “I do think the politics between India and Pakistan comes into play,” agrees filmmaker Mohammed Ali Naqvi, whose documentary Among the Believers was acquired by Netflix after it was banned by the Central Board of Film Censors in 2016 for showing a “negative image of Pakistan.” Sarmad Khoosat has not received any interest from Netflix India yet.

Naqvi’s latest film, The Accused: Damned or Devoted, which focuses on how groups like the TLP exploit the blasphemy issue for political gain, was produced for the BBC and remains inaccessible in Pakistan. “It is immensely frustrating that I don’t get to show my films in my home country,” Naqvi says. “Some of them have ended up on YouTube,” but despite the concerns most directors would have about piracy, he said“I don’t even make an effort to get them taken down—it’s the only way many people will get to see them.”

“Two versions of the film existed: the real one and another, a conspiracy-fuelled tale”

Gender relations are another area that filmmakers are exploring. In October 2020, a clip from Asim Abbasi’s TV show, Churails (Witches) went viral on Twitter. The show is about a group of Pakistani women who form a detective agency to snoop on errant men and the clip, featuring a woman talking about granting sexual favours to get ahead in her career, was condemned for vulgarity. The Indian platform Zee5, on which the show is broadcast, tried to appease the Pakistani media regulator and took the show down. “Artistic freedom squashed because it is wrongly perceived by some as a moral threat… This is a loss for all actors, writers, directors and technicians across Pakistan hoping for digital… to be their saviour,” tweeted Abbasi. The show went back up online after two days but, the following month, the State Bank of Pakistan instructed banks to halt online subscription payments for Zee5 and other platforms.

Abbasi has a suspicion that Zee5, which commissioned five productions from Pakistan, had annoyed rivals in the Pakistan entertainment industry unable to tackle dangerous subjects. “Half of it, I think, is genuine, with some people’s sensitivities being offended, while the other half is the TV mafia feeling threatened and encouraging the outrage.” However, the viral clip only served to pique interest in the show, and many found ways to watch a pirated version online or buy bootleg DVDs.

Either way, as Obaid-Chinoy points out, the incident hardly encourages platforms like Netflix or Amazon, much less local entrepreneurs. “If you’re going to censor content, shut down websites or threaten your artists, who is going to want to invest in your country?” she says. It is a lost opportunity, she feels, to represent Pakistan’s culture as richly as neighbouring India has been able to through Bollywood. “Who are the artists representing the modern, progressive face of Pakistan globally? What is the culture we wish to export?”

Government minister Fawad Chaudhry did announce a home-grown “Pakistani version of Netflix” last year. However, it is not encouraging that the nation’s media regulator has been tasked with creating “guidelines” for this platform: the body is often ridiculed for its directives, such as when it scolded TV channels for airing shows where “intimate moments between couples are being glamourised” and female characters “confined themselves to feminist issues only.” You sense the government would prefer safer, Islamic-themed content such as the Turkish drama Dirili: Erturul, based on the founder of the Ottoman empire, and Yunus Emre, on the life of a Sufi mystic. Both were dubbed in Urdu and aired on state television. Last summer the prime minister urged members of the entertainment industry to produce similar shows. And though the TLP was banned by the government in April, the blasphemy issue is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

“I wanted to encourage younger filmmakers with a small, intelligent film that does well,” says Khoosat. But he feels guilty when he thinks of his father’s appearance on the talk show. “If there is anyone I had to apologise to for this film, it would be my father,” he says. “No parent should be subjected to that fear for their child.” He does not know what lies in store for Zindagi Tamasha, but for now is mulling another question. “This year, I have refrained from mentoring or teaching. Because I do not know what answer I would give to the next generation of filmmakers, if they were to ask, ‘was it all worth it?’”