Making a film about social hypocrisy can turn life into a circus in Pakistan simply because the protagonist sports a beard, and a religious party saw it as an insult to Islam. The Imran Khan government has all but surrendered to the Islamic far-Right group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan by announcing that it has advised the producer of the film Zindagi Tamasha to delay its release. The film won the prestigious Kim Ji-Seok Award at the Busan International Film Festival last year, the first Pakistani film to do so.
Director-producer Sarmad Khoosat has been receiving threat calls ever since the promo of the film was released on YouTube. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) immediately launched a social media campaign against both the film and Sarmad, labelling them as disrespectful of Islamic traditions and values.
Zindagi Tamasha had already been unanimously reviewed and approved for release on 24 January by all three censor boards of Pakistan, but the decision was suddenly reversed Tuesday. This came in the wake of TLP threatening to launch a country-wide protest, in addition to releasing Sarmad’s phone number and national ID card.
Is this new in Pakistan? No, the country has, time and again, shown its double face went it comes to religious extremism.
A manufactured campaign
An important fact is that the TLP’s campaign against Khoosat and the film was a classic campaign of manufactured outrage. Only film celebrities and progressives responded to it.
Unlike the usual Islamist storms whipped up in Pakistan, the vast majority of Pakistanis did not jump on the outrage bandwagon and remained aloof. Those who spoke out, have expressed their exasperation at ‘Mullahs’ being foisted upon their freedoms.
Instead of providing protection to the producer and allowing the release of Zindagi Tamasha on time, the Imran Khan government has chosen to appease and preserve the extremist assets that it may need later. This tragic episode also shows that Pakistan, while showing the ability to crush terrorism when it wants to, still values and nurtures extremism that is the bedrock of terrorism.
A true Zindagi Tamasha
According to Khoosat, and many others I spoke to who have seen the film in private screenings, Zindagi Tamasha does not contain even a hint of disrespect for Islam. The protagonist is a religious ‘good enough Muslim’ man who is also fond of reciting naats (hymns in praise of Prophet Muhammad). A real estate agent by day, with a wife and daughters, he is a hard-working, kind and gentle soul.
Khoosat was shocked that a film unique in depicting the softer and more humane side of a conservative and religious member of society, should be accused of being disrespectful. The film is also a commentary on the hypocrisy of society.
To add insult to his injury, the federal information minister announced that the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has decided to consult the obscurantist government body Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) on the film. The Tribune reported that the TLP representatives would also sit in on the screenings. Needless to say, they have no legal right to sit in or dictate decisions to a government body.
This has generated disgust and anger among the public, with some calling the capitulation itself a ‘zindagi tamasha (circus of life)’.
Keep accommodating them and keep drafting the nemesis of independent thought
— Najia Z. Nazir (@Najia_Z_N) January 21, 2020
A double game
Remember how the Imran Khan government came down hard on the TLP when the party challenged its writ over the release from prison of blasphemy accused Asia Bibi, just over a year ago?
At the time, the TLP had called for the resignation of Prime Minister Khan, killing of judges and mutiny within the army to overthrow General Qamar Javed Bajwa. For this and their violent protests, 86 TLP members, including leader Khadim Rizvi’s brother and nephew, were handed 55-year prison sentences last week.
But when it comes to people’s freedom to choose what they want to watch, Imran Khan’s government goes right back to appeasing and allowing extremists to be a nuisance.
According to acclaimed novelist Mohammed Hanif, “On the one hand, we are told that we are past the war on terror, and we have sacrificed tens of thousands of lives in this war, and on the other, the state is allowing the Ulema to tell us what we can watch. Why have the censor boards then, why not just leave it all to the Ulema? Unhin ko dikha kar ijaazat le liya karenge (We will show it to the Ulema only and take permission).”
It is clear that this particular group can be controlled at will, and unleashed when required. In late 2017, the TLP was allowed to hold the Shahid Khaqan Abbasi government hostage through violent protests and blockade of the arterial road between the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad for three weeks. And when the interior minister at the time called the Rangers for help, the army chief refused flatly.
General Bajwa instead suggested that the “government should determine the responsibility and punish those involved in the legislation regarding Khatm-e-Nabuwat oath”. After an agreement was brokered between the TLP and the government to end the protest, an ISI general was filmed purportedly distributing reward money to TLP activists and saying, “Are we not with you?”
The author is a Pakistani columnist and human rights defender. Views are personal.