Asia Life | Society | South Asia

Radical Islamists Hold Filmmaking Hostage in Pakistan

Stopping the released of an award-winning film to appease an Islamist group sets a troubling precedent.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
Radical Islamists Hold Filmmaking Hostage in Pakistan

Cinema-goers buy tickets to watch a film at a local cinema in Karachi, Pakistan, Feb. 1, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Fareed Khan

The Pakistani government succumbed to protests from the radical Islamist Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) to stop the release of Kim Ji-Seok Award winning Zindagi Tamasha in the country. The film’s fate now hinges on the verdict of a bizarrely assembled review panel.

Sarmad Khoosat, the film’s producer and director, had previously taken down Zindagi Tamasha’s trailer from YouTube following outrage from the TLP. On January 19, Khoosat published a post on his Facebook account sharing the threats that he has been facing and contemplating retracting the film’s release.

Despite the film’s having initially been cleared by censor boards for release, the government was pressured by the TLP into a follow-up review, which includes members of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) – a body that adjudicates the compliance of laws with Islamic theology. In the past, the CII has justified child marriage and wife beating, along with inciting a potential genocide of the local Ahmadiyya community.

Not only is the government’s decision to forward a film for CII review unprecedented in the country’s history, what has especially invited castigation is the fact that a member of the TLP has also been included in the panel that will issue the final verdict on the film. It is a unique example of a plaintiff judging their own case.

After the original review for the film, slated for February 3, was inexplicably postponed, TLP Chief Khadim Rizvi openly threatened the state, maintaining that Zindagi Tamasha would have to release “over my dead body.”

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The TLP’s protests over the film emanate from the trailer seemingly depicting a principal character of the film — an Islamic cleric and naat khawan [one who recites poetry eulogizing Prophet Muhammad] – in a negative light.

Notwithstanding that all opposition to the film, currently, are based on conjecture – given that none of the complainants had actually watched Zindagi Tamasha – even if all presumptions were to be accurate, it still would be far from justifying the government’s capitulation.

Filmmakers around the world have regularly targeted the clergy of many faiths for their abuse of power, and called out priests for their many violations. Jury Grand Prix-winning films Grâce à Dieu and El Club, Oscar winner Spotlight, and Verfehlung are just a few examples, from the past five years alone, of decorated films depicting sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

Even in India, which is experiencing the rise of the Hindutva – which Prime Minister Imran Khan vehemently criticizes – movies like PK and OMG: Oh My God! have taken wide-ranging swipes against the Hindu clergy.

How then has a film ostensibly depicting a cleric – not even the institution of Islamic clergy – in a negative shade become reason enough for a state self-identifying as a democracy to take down an award-winning piece of art?

Some answers might be found in Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws, which uphold the death penalty for a “crime” of conscience, in turn extrapolating the jurisdiction of the clergy beyond the mosque, transforming them into players with sufficient clout to halt the running of the state.

Notwithstanding the fact that critiques of religion also fall under freedom of speech as upheld by the United Nations’ Charter of Human Rights – which all democracies intrinsically adhere to – a more menacing question emanating from the episode is with regards to the increasingly lowered bar on blasphemy. Is criticizing clerics now the state’s interpretation of blasphemy?

Such a message from the government is especially ominous in a country where the Islamic clergy – like its counterparts from other religions worldwide – is often found guilty of abuses. The rapist and murderer of 6-year-old Zainab Ansari, a case that jolted the entire nation in January 2018, was a naat khawan.

As things stand, the government can ill afford radical Islamists taking to the streets at a time when it’s facing political crises, including at the hands of its own coalition partners, which could signal a premature end to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) rule.

Whether it’s to safeguard its own power, or to avoid dealing with yet another demonstration of street clout, the ruling party clearly stands at the forefront in a long queue of Pakistani governments that have appeased the clergy instead of restricting them to their jurisdiction.

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This, for the filmmakers in the country, signifies that radical Islamists now hold filmmaking hostage in Pakistan.

Haroon Riaz, the screenwriter and associate producer of Indus Blues – a documentary on indigenous musicians surviving in the Pakistani society – underlines the censorship that his film faced.

“A musician’s candid reaction to religious bigotry, impacting his dignity and livelihood as an artist [had to be censored in Indus Blues]. We had to comply because we wanted the film to screen in Pakistan,” he said.

But “involving TLP in the censorship board for Zindagi Tamasha is a new low even for Pakistan’s standards,” he added.

“It is hilarious that it takes a film, acclaimed abroad, to expose the intellectual bankruptcy of the Pakistani government, which fails to protect art and free speech in the country. We often speak about the ‘revival of cinema’ in Pakistan. But with internationally acclaimed films treated like this, all we deserve are ISPR-produced sh**fests and mullah-approved scripts,” added Riaz, referring to Inter Services Public Relations, the Pakistan military’s media arm.

Progressive filmmakers believe that the curbs on free speech are encouraged by the state because they are threatened by the idea of a pluralistic society, which can counter the narrative of monolithic faith-based unity that reinforces the idea of Pakistan as a nation-state. They believe the state’s actions clearly show that it is looking to discourage pluralistic filmmaking.

Celebrated producer Fizza Ali Meerza, who has made commercially successful films like Actor in Law, Na Maloom Afraad, and Load Wedding, strongly condemns the government’s surrender.

“I’m disappointed in the system we have. When a film, which has absolutely nothing wrong, is banned following pressure from people who don’t even know what is happening in the film, it’s extremely sad. One understands the need for Islamic clerics to sight the Eid moon, it’s a film – please spare it for the love of God. If it continues like this there will be a time where there are no cinemas in Pakistan,” she said.

“[The TLP] has nothing to do with films. The government should’ve taken a strong stand against them. If the government cannot secure the industry in Pakistan today, they shouldn’t complain about the lack of entertainment in the country, or the absence of a soft image of Pakistan, tomorrow,” Meerza added.

Culture and film critic Ally Adnan calls the government’s treatment of Zindagi Tamasha “despicable, cowardly and reprehensible.”

“Everyone has a right to not see a film that he does not want to see for religious, political, moral, ethical, artistic, and whatever other reasons he has. However, no one, especially a government, should take that right away from others. Let us not insult the intelligence of film-goers and let them decide what they want to see on their own. The whole concept of censoring films is archaic, unnecessary, and dictatorial. The Hays code was contemptible even in 1922 and is essentially fascist today,” he said.

“The only responsibility a government has is to classify films into different categories based on age. That is best done by educated, qualified people who know and understand cinema, culture, and art. The TLP does not have such people,” Adnan added.