Former Pakistani president Muhammad Ziaul Haq’s ruling era may be a part of national history, but its undercurrents are still felt by people like Assad Zulfiqar Khan — a London-based filmmaker, currently pursuing a degree at the London Film School.
Khan’s film Haal, which is in its finishing stages, highlights how forces in the military immobilised the people and used Islam to accomplish their own objectives during the 1980s. The film is seen from the perspectives of a kathak dancer and a journalist. It explores how Zia’s era trampled liberal arts and the media. Thirty years later, Khan believes that the country is still facing the repercussions of General Zia’s regime.
Would you call Haal a documentary depicting life in Zia’s era and its impacts?
Haal isn’t a documentary. It is actually a narrative short-film inspired by the socio-political environment of the 80s. While my characters are fictionalised, they are based on people I met and interviewed while researching life during Zia’s regime.
Don’t you think too much has already been done on Zia’s era with books like The Case of the Exploding Mangoes and The Dictator’s Wife?
I would disagree. There will never be enough discussion of the damage Zia caused. We face the consequences every time there is a terrorist attack [which happens almost other day]. Zia’s legacy even lives on in our agencies, as we can see their support for the terrorist organisations. The assassinations of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto, Shaheed Salmaan Taseer and Shaheed Shahbaz Bhatti are proof that Zia’s legacy is still alive and stronger than ever. We try to sweep our past under a rug and move on, but that’s a short-term solution. We need to learn from our mistakes and the only way to do that is through discourse and analysis. Also, how often do we see debates on Zia and his regime in Urdu language? Op-eds in English dailies and novels don’t have the penetration required for mass debate in Pakistani society. I made a point to write and shoot a film in Urdu so that its message could reach a wider audience. Sabiha Sumar made a great film with Khamosh Pani, but it was banned by the censor board. With such censorship in place, how can we ever talk enough about the regime?
As the story is narrated from the perspectives of a journalist and a dancer, is there an implication that only art and media suffered during Zia’s era?
Zia’s regime affected many people. Journalists and artists are just two professions among the plethora of people who suffered. When writing a script, especially for a short-film, it’s important to focus on certain aspects rather than take up a broader generalisation. I have tried to touch on the greater damage caused by Zia’s policies, but I chose to focus on the journalist and artist community because I felt that the onslaught of Islamisation could be best explained in their context.
Why the title Haal (present), when the plot is set in the past?
When naming the film, I was referring to both the spiritual and physical manifestations of the word ‘haal’. My film attempts to show how our spirituality swung to a more puritanical strain of Islam while the state itself slipped into an abyss of radicalism. The film shows how the government used religion as a tool to suppress the media and suffocate art (which in itself is a form of spiritual expression). I also believe that our current situation is inextricably linked with that period of our past. We are still debating the same issues.
Why do you think Pakistani society is still stuck in days long gone?
The reason we are stuck in the past is that we refuse to evolve. We justify barbaric laws that have no place in the 21st century. We condone murder in the name of religion and we are still debating whether or not democracy is better than dictatorship. People talk about how life was better under General Musharraf’s rule, but refuse to see how two-faced his approach was. Talking about our history doesn’t mean we are stuck there. It suggests our refusal to learn from our mistakes.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 8th, 2011.