The banning brigade

Censoring ‘Agent Vinod’ is symptomatic of Pakistan’s self-denial

Written by Reema Abbasi | Published: March 30, 2012 2:54 am

Censoring ‘Agent Vinod’ is symptomatic of Pakistan’s self-denial

Real life is often a more intense collage of fiction. However,if the moving image dares to capture certain uncomfortable areas,it almost always becomes a casualty of Islamism,nationalism or just plain,naked fear. In an era when the genies of the freedom of expression and the right to information are out of their bottles,Bollywood movie Agent Vinod has met with a ban in Pakistan. Sadly,India’s James Bond salvaged his country from nuclear catastrophes,but failed to reach his fans in the neighbourhood. The film was banned a few days prior to its much-hyped release on March 23,also celebrated as Pakistan Day,owing to the allegedly derogatory portrayals of Pakistani army generals and its spy agency.

The vice-chairman of Pakistan’s Film Censor Board said that it was the board’s judgement that it should not be allowed to be screened as it falls under the negative codes of Pakistan’s censor. Banning Indian movies isn’t new to Pakistan.

The first blanket ban on Indian cinema was imposed in 1965. In 2008,a film-starved populace rejoiced as the measure stood scrapped. But since then too,Agent Vinod is not the only victim. In 2010,Tere Bin Laden,a wonderful Indian satire with a Pakistani hero,Ali Zafar,was also banned as authoritie feared the subject may ignite terrorist attacks.

The question is: how can a country that is yet to recover from its oppressive history allow a new wave of it? After all,at this stage of our cultural evolution — which was stunted by close to 12 years of silence by General Zia-ul-Haq — we should ideally seek to thwart unpalatable ideas with quality competition from within. In this case,with a resurrected film industry of our own that can garner similar frenzy and widespread joy. Until that happens,authorities can easily snip controversial content in a bid to erase the option of a ban.

Also,the schizophrenic legislature that our censor board subscribes to has to be revisited. For example,when it becomes scissor-happy with The Dirty Picture,why do our meaty Pushto potboilers that would make a Silk Smitha don a burqa,get away with blue murder? Forgive the cliché,but blue really is the hue here. Hence,critics rightly fear that an unclear code of conduct can use “obscenity” to restrict thought and satire.

The time has indeed come for the Pakistani state to address its troubled relationship with a medium that is perhaps the most reliable safety valve for its masses. Aside from being a binding force,it is cathartic in a fraught society such as ours. In the absence of indigenous quality cinema,the impact of such blatant censorship cannot be underestimated — Bollywood has kept our cinema houses alive and scores employed; and banning money-spinners such as Agent Vinod only feeds the black market. It also hinders debate,the trade of ideas and the exploration of controversial realities. Undeniably,this is perhaps the most potent weapon we have to stem the politics of hatred,sectarianism and intolerance. Second,a blockade of ideas can only arrest opinion,discontinue progress and put paid to any rebellion.

The sole route to contain this creeping coercion is to look back and not allow our vibrant,liberal past to become another country. Despite the 1965 ban,the same beleaguered populace was able to flow in and out of Kabul and relish the latest Dilip Kumar,Rajesh Khanna,Mumtaz and Zeenat Aman offerings. At home,they were treated to the best cinema that showcased homegrown legends such as Waheed Murad,Zeba,Babra Sharif,Nadeem with Runa Laila,Ahmed Rushdi,Mehdi Hasan belting out timeless scores immortalised by composing giants Robin Ghosh and Sohail Rana. On the societal front,it is more than ironic — and merits its own satire — that social freedoms were peaking under military dictatorship till Zia’s dark years set in. There were bars,night clubs,potent and audacious cinema and theatre to open-air Indo-Pak mushairas and performing arts recitals — the era provided statistical evidence of a low crime rate and psychosomatic disorders,with hardly a trace of intolerance. All exist in epic proportions of sordidness in the present-day democracy.

Once again,Pakistan needs to remind itself that the most empowering element for civilisations in denial is the ability to reinvent themselves through the freedom of expressio,whereby criticism or controversy can free a society hemmed in by misplaced nationalism and interpretation. And it has never been more relevant than now to recognise that misconceptions have brought a country close to losing its rationale. For this reason alone,routes to monitor and regulate can no longer include the (black) magic ban.

The writer is a Karachi-based journalist,express@expressindia.com

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