We saw light at the end of the tunnel but it turned out to be an oncoming train. After taking many groundbreaking decisions, such as the uncut release of Manto, which also featured the Indian national anthem, the Central Board of Film Certification’s (CBFC) chameleon approach has once again put the artist at a crossroads with his imagination. Post-18th Amendment, the role of the CBFC has been reduced to that of a loner at a prom night. However, that doesn’t mean the CBFC does not shake a leg every now and then. The ban on Maalik was nothing short of a pelvic thrust in the middle of the ballroom.
To be fair, the decision was nothing short of an ideal response to a national emergency; as if our nukes were at stake. Perhaps, they really were; you’re never sure when it comes to the censor boards.
The Maalik issue has nothing to do with love for the country or protecting the interests of certain ethnic groups. For no matter how twisted your understanding of patriotism is, it never results in the murder of dissent and discourse. Instead of letting people discuss and debate on what a work of art may have misrepresented, so that we could actually progress intellectually, the authorities decided to eliminate the whole point of the debate with a mere stroke of the pen. Is there any difference between them and the ones who torched Nishat cinema, dare I ask?
Something died in me the moment I discovered that the federal information ministry has slapped a ban on the film, three weeks after certification authorities had shown it the green light. Not because I am a fan of Maalik or that the film is an example of exceptional film-making. In fact, it is far from that. What the ban translates into is the fact that the big screen is clearly of no importance to the government; the very government that wants a “Say no to corruption” ad to run before the screening of every major release in congregational spaces called cinemas.
With the Maalik ban, we have perhaps hit the bottom of the barrel, ever since Pakistani cinema saw a rebirth with Khuda Kay Liye. Not just that, it will continue to be our most embarrassing moment long after the ban is sheepishly lifted simply because the state has given a clear message to the film-makers: no matter how hard you try, if an old man, sitting in a rundown government office does not appreciate the colour of your hero’s T-shirt, your film will go to the trash can.
Frankly speaking, things are much worse than what the ban on Maalik may signify. Pakistan does not even have censorship laws that are in harmony with modern standards. Two provinces are yet to take the idea of setting up their respective censorship boards seriously. Among the ones that exist, one board does not even enjoy the luxury of owning office space. Film certification, the world over, is switching to a rating system where instead of making excisions, you simply advise certain films for audiences of certain age brackets only. Waar was screened in Pakistani cinemas — a film full of bullets and blood — with a Universal rating. We have also been running Adult-rated films without even checking who walks into the theatre hall. Something is definitely rotten somewhere, with the stench surfacing every now and then in the shape of controversies such as the Maalik ban.
It is high time that the government started taking cinema seriously and sat down with film-makers to chalk out a clear course of action for the future. All state institutions need to know that there has to be a clear demarcation of the extent to which they can interfere in the creative industries. Replace the Motion Pictures Ordinance, 1979 and the Film Censorship Code 1980 with something more progressive and above all, easy to understand, so that the rights of film-makers can be safeguarded. If this does not happen, every time there is friction between two opposing forces in society, art will be the first and softest target.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 4th, 2016.