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Explained: What is the row over Pakistani film Zindagi Tamasha?

Despite being cleared by the Pakistani censors and a top body of the country’s Senate, the film is stalled by a case in court. What is the film about, and why are protesters including the Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party upset?

Written by Surbhi Gupta , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: July 26, 2020 8:39:01 am
Zindagi Tamasha pakistan film banned, pakistani films, pakistan blasphemy laws, sarmad khoosat, indian express explained, Directed by the acclaimed Pakistani filmmaker Sarmad Khoosat, ‘Zindagi Tamasha’ won the prestigious Kim Ji-Seok Award at the Busan International Film Festival last year. (Still from the trailer)

Last week, Pakistan’s Senate Committee for Human Rights approved the release of the film Zindagi Tamasha, dismissing all objections raised against it. Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), who chairs the panel, said in a tweet on July 14 that the committee had “found nothing wrong” with the film, and that the Pakistani censors could now “go ahead to release it post-Covid”.

Two days later, however, a petition was filed in a Lahore court seeking a lifetime ban on the film. Following a short hearing, the Additional Sessions Judge asked for a reply from the makers of the film, and adjourned the hearing until July 27.

Directed by the acclaimed Pakistani filmmaker Sarmad Khoosat, ‘Zindagi Tamasha’ won the prestigious Kim Ji-Seok Award at the Busan International Film Festival last year. A bilingual film that is mostly in Punjabi, it stars Arif Hassan, Eman Suleman, Ali Qureshi, Samiya Mumtaz, and Imran Khoosat.

The film’s scheduled release on January 24 this year was stalled, and a series of protests, open letters, and multiple reviews by the censors followed.

What is the film about?

“An exploration of many themes”, Zindagi Tamasha tells the story of Rahat Khawaja (played by Arif Hassan), a naat khawan — a poet who recites poetry in praise of the Prophet. In an introduction of the character, the filmmakers said that Rahat Khawaja “enjoys a celebrity status amongst the community in the old city of Lahore, and is a devout Muslim, who, in the eyes of everyone is a superhuman incapable of any sacrilege. Hence, when he does wrong there is no forgiveness for him”.

From the trailer of the film it appears that Khawaja and his family find themselves ostracised after a certain video featuring him becomes public. The contents of the video are not clear. The trailer appears to hint at the misuse of Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy law. Sarmad’s sister Kanwal Khoosat, who has co-produced the film, has said that tolerance is the overarching theme, and main takeaway of the film.

Who is Sarmad Khoosat, the film’s director?

Khoosat, 41, is a critically-acclaimed filmmaker, and considered by many to be among Pakistan’s best. After directing TV shows and telefilms for some years, Khoosat made his big screen directorial debut with Manto in 2015. The critically and commercially successful film had Khoosat himself playing the role of the novelist and playwright Saadat Hasan Manto.

Khoosat has been active in the Pakistani entertainment industry for well over a decade, and has directed the popular TV drama Humsafar, starring Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan, and Shehr-e-Zaat. He was awarded the Pride of Performance, the highest national literary honour by the Pakistani government, in 2017.

Who is opposing the release of the film?

After the film was cleared by the censor board, the Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), began protests against its release. Even after the board reviewed and cleared the film for the second time after asking for a few cuts, the TLP called for mass rallies across the country.

“The characterisation of the naat-reader in the film is such that it can cause discomfort to the public and might lead them to deviate from Islam and Prophet (Muhammad),” the TLP had said in a statement. “Thus this movie must not be released as it could otherwise be a grave test of the Muslims of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.”

The party was founded by the Barelvi preacher Khadim Hussain Rizvi after the 2016 hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, a commando who had been assigned to protect the former Governor of Punjab province Salmaan Taseer — but who had, in 2011, killed the Governor as alleged retribution for Taseer’s statements in favour of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who had been convicted of blasphemy.

The TLP’s main agenda has been the opposition to attempts at changing or diluting the blasphemy laws. It has held several protest rallies and demonstrations to this end, and has shown its ability to gather massive crowds. The TLP contested the elections in Pakistan in 2018, and won three seats in the Sindh provincial assembly.

What position has the government taken?

While the film was cleared by all three censor boards (the CBFC, Punjab, and Sindh boards) in Pakistan, the Sindh Board of Film Censors put a ban on Zindagi Tamasha three days before its scheduled release, as it anticipated that it could cause unrest within a segment of the society. The censor authorities in Punjab followed suit.

Firdous Ashiq Awan, who was then adviser to Prime Minister Imran Khan on Information and Broadcasting, tweeted that the producer of the film had been told to delay the release until the censor board had consulted with the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), a constitutional body that advises the legislature on Islamic issues. This was the first time in the history of Pakistani cinema that the approval of the CII was sought on the content of a film.

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How did the filmmaker respond?

In an open letter written a few days before the scheduled release, and addressed to the country’s President, Prime Minister, Chief of the Army Staff, Chief Justice, Ministry of Information, and the public at large, Sarmad Khoosat said that he wanted to explore themes like “gender constructs, class divisions and human experiences”.

“There was never any intention to attack, to point fingers at or humiliate any individual or institution,” he said.

Khoosat subsequently tweeted that he had been getting “dozens of threatening phone calls and messages”, and published a second open letter, in which he reiterated that the film was “about a ‘good enough Muslim’ — there was/is no mention of a sect, party or faction of any sort. Neither in the uncensored nor the censored version.” He said that his film was “an empathic and heartfelt tale of a bearded man who is so much more than just that”.

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How has Pakistani civil society reacted?

Civil society, the film fraternity, and sections of the media have come out in support of Khoosat, and criticised the government for succumbing to pressure from extremist elements. Among those who have backed Khoosat is the acclaimed British-Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif (who wrote A Case of Exploding Mangoes), who has seen the film, and who wrote a blog for Samaa TV in an a bid to clarify some points.

The film, Hanif said, was not about child molestation, as had been alleged. “The subject doesn’t figure at all in the plot, nor is it a part of the subplot. It’s neither mentioned nor alluded to,” he wrote. He said that there was one line in which the main protagonist says, “But what about those who molest children?” And the censor board had ordered even that line deleted, he said.

Hanif also said that there were no ulema in the film, and that the protagonist was a small property dealer. “He is a compassionate man, who helps out the needy, composes and reads sehras at weddings and makes halva at Eid Milad un Nabi and distributes it. He is not a professional naatkhwan, but he loves reciting naats.”

According to Hanif, the only taboo the film breaks is showing a man with a beard doing household chores. “I can’t remember the last time a bearded man or any man was shown in a film cooking, doing laundry, doing his ailing wife’s hair. Is showing a bearded man doing house chores an insult to our faith?” he wrote.

Which films have been banned in Pakistan?

Pakistani censors have repeatedly banned Indian films, including Padman, Raazi, Raees, Udta Punjab, Neerja, Haider, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, among many others. They also banned The Da Vinci Code in 2006 after protests from the Christian community.

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