Rest, rest, perturbed spirit

Lollywood is coming back to life, indie films are being tossed together in Islamabad

Asad Rahim Khan May 02, 2016
A screengrab from the trailer of the film, Besieged in Quetta. PHOTO: YOUTUBE

There was once a man named Shloimovitz, and if it wasn’t apparent already, the gent was a Jew. One day Mr Shloimovitz found himself flipping through a dictionary, and it knocked him flat.

Under the letter ‘J’, he found for Jew “not only one who is of the Hebrew persuasion, but — as a noun — one who drives hard bargains, one who cheats or is too grasping and — as a verb — to beat down in haggling, to get the better of a rival by underhand cunning”.

‘Maalik’ banned across Pakistan

This was too much for Mr Shloimovitz, and he buried the publisher in angry letters. This was all recorded by the great Bernard Levin in a column for The Times near-exactly 40 years ago.

Wrote Mr Levin, also Jewish, “It was here that (Mr Shloimovitz’s) misunderstanding became apparent; he was altogether unable to grasp just what a dictionary is. It is not a collection of value-judgments on words and their meanings, but a neutral record of words and the meanings people give, or have given, to them.”

Not that Mr Levin didn’t see the man’s point: “He saw instead the perpetuation of ancient, false and cruel allegations used against his people throughout the centuries, with hideous results in oppression and persecution.”

In any event, Mr Shloimovitz won (sort of): a new supplement was published with a disclaimer. Even still, Mr Levin was uneasy: this was bordering on censorship. But he calmed Mr Shloimovitz down. “Rest, rest, perturbed spirit,” he wrote.

Concluded Mr Levin, “Nobody can any longer be in any doubt that to use the word ‘Jew’ as a term of abuse is offensive and wrong.”

Perhaps not. In Pakistan, to paraphrase Orwell, all citizens are equal, but some citizens are more equal than others. The decision to ban Besieged in Quetta, a documentary on the horrors visited upon the city’s Hazaras, is both baseless and craven.

And it comes from a body we thought we’d left behind in 1984. This week’s Big Brother isn’t Pemra. Nor is it the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, still smarting from 2011 when it tried filtering text messages — banned words included appetisers (‘fingerfood’), serial killers (‘Dahmer’), rap bands (‘G-Unit’), and even some local lingo (‘LezBeFriends’).

The curious case of the ‘Maalik’ ban

No, this week’s winners are the Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC), an outfit you’ve never heard of before — because there were hardly any films to censor. Fear not: left to the board, that’s exactly what we’ll get again, and nothing could be worse.

Among the best things to happen to Pakistan over the past few years (Sana Mir, Misbah, and Nutella naan notwithstanding) is the return of cinema. The dinosaurs are on the way out, young filmmakers — from film schools across the country — are making their way in. Lollywood is coming back to life, indie films are being tossed together in Islamabad, and it was a Karachi production, Jawani Phir Nahin Aani that became the highest-grossing in history. Pakistani films now rake in Oscar gold abroad, while multiplexes spring up at home — because for a spike in demand, you need a spike in supply.

Which is what makes the censor board so dangerous: if history’s anything to go by, it was the censors that murdered the movies the first time round.

Even the reason for today’s renaissance was loosening censorship around 2006 and 2007. The Musharraf regime got near-everything wrong (even when it wasn’t handing citizens over to Gitmo) — but cinema wasn’t one of them. With the industry released from the censors’ claws, plus a sprinkling of Holly and Bolly-imports, Pakistanis cautiously started filling up the theatres again. Just 10 years later, we’re a different country.

Or so we thought. Even should we forget cultural interests, the board’s behaviour has been pure policy disaster. By banning Besieged in Quetta, the CBFC deprives the Hazara community of its voice — a people already massacred by sectarian thugs, ignored by the press, and preyed upon by the police.

The board “found the film unsuitable for public exhibition for the reasons that the sane [sic] is promoting ethnicity and sectarianism. It also contains dialogues [sic] which projects the negative image of Pakistan in the context of fighting the ongoing war against extremism and terrorism.”

To be fair, sirs, the ‘negative image of Pakistan’ may yet result from the actual fact of what happened: mass murder on Alamdaar Road, families refusing to bury their dead, the then-prime minister shying away from the victims’ loved ones (while celebrating ‘breaking the necks’ of yet another minority last week). Directors like Besieged’s Asef Ali Muhammed require support, not censure. PMs like Raja Pervaiz Ashraf require a padded cell, not the premiership (P.S. incitement of murder doesn’t fall under free speech).

‘Maalik’ collects Rs20m in six days

That neither grieving nor commemoration nor catharsis be granted the Hazaras, is a sick joke. The rest of the reasoning in the circular is written backwards: how can condemning sectarianism promote sectarianism? How can we win this war when we refuse to remember what we’ve lost?

Of course, the board did give the filmmakers a hearing; what’s known in bureaucratese as ‘file ka pait bharna,’ diluting chances for successful legal action later. Once there’s a full file — i’s dotted and process followed — the CBFC could ban air and water.

The laws in question are the Motion Picture Ordinance of ’79 and the Code of Censorship ’80, relics from a time when cultural expression was sacrificed to the Cold War. And the laws have outlasted that war, to take strength from a new one.

But if only the problem ended with Besieged — instead the censors also banned Among the Believers, a documentary on extremism, while pulp film Maalik was shut out after first being let in.

Among the Believers shows up deeply disturbing trends in our society, while Maalik blatantly evokes them. To the critics of both, ideas are fought with ideas, not red pencil — that’s what you have the Constitution and free speech for. And yes, that still means something; as Frost put it, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” The board has no threshold for either.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 3rd, 2016.

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