In an unprecedented move by Lahore High Court, Justice Khalid Mehmood Khan issued a contempt notice yesterday to the Chairman of the Central Board Film Censorship (CBFC) and senior bureaucrat Syed Arshad Ali for failing to stop the exhibition of illegal foreign films in Pakistan.
The struggle to prohibit the exhibition of Indian films has been deeply connected to efforts to revive the fledging local cinema industry by veteran Lollywood and Punjabi filmmakers. They claim that Indian films hinder the progress of local filmmakers, and their economic gain on Pakistani soil is against the law.
As a result of the notice, the CBFC has refused to censor upcoming Bollywood film Bullett Raja. The film, which stars Saif Ali Khan and Sonakshi Sinha, had originally been slated for a November 29 release in Pakistan. Advertisements in various newspapers have already advertised its grand opening for today, November 29, 2013.
“It is an unprecedented decision by the courts. It’s the first time local courts have taken a serious look at our argument,” says lawyer Amir Ali Shah, the legal consul for the petitioner. He maintains that, despite the ban on such activity, Indian films are being imported illegally and are being unlawfully shown on Pakistani soil.
“I don’t know what has caused the CBFC to refuse to censor Bullett Raja. All I know for certain is that if I release this film in Pakistan, there could be possible legal repercussions,” says Amjad Rasheed, the CEO of IMGC Entertainment, which is the company that has bought the rights to distribute Bullett Raja in Pakistan.
He further added that the petition is against the import of illegal foreign films, whereas Bullett Raja’s certification is being stopped regardless of the fact that the documents and paperwork regarding its import have been approved.
“I have no other option but to stop the release of Bullett Raja, as nothing is more important than the law of the state and I must abide by it,” says Rasheed resignedly.
Ali, the board’s chairman, issued a statement to the press yesterday saying that the censoring of all films had been stopped, and the board would let the courts decide the matter. He maintained that the board had, so far, not censored any smuggled or illegal content; in fact all of the films (including Bullett Raja) that had been stopped had already been approved by the Ministry of Commerce.
The court order is only applicable to films with illegal documentation. The import of a film is only approved by the Ministry of Commerce once all its paperwork has been verified. Given that Bullett Raja has already been approved by the Ministry, the CBFC has no reason to delay the certification of the film.
The contempt of court order that has been issued by the Lahore High Court only mentions the CBFC, a body which does not retain any power as the central committee for film censorship since the 18th amendment. These days, film censorship is supposed to take place on a provincial basis. Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan only rely on the CBFC for film certification as they are yet to formulate their own censor boards. In effect, the Sindh Film Certification Board is the only functional provincial censor board that certifies films. This is why there is a fair chance that, if the distributor intends it, the film can be released in Sindh despite the Lahore High Court order.
“Post 18th amendment, the Sindh Film Certification Board became an independent body that has nothing to do with the CBFC, but follows every other law of the land,” says a representative of the Sindh Censor Board, who requested anonymity. Maintaining that the order of the Lahore High Court is not applicable on this body, the representative adds, “We have our own set of laws, and if a film like Bullet Raja has all of its paper work, and is coming through a legal process then it will definitely be entertained by the SBFC,” the representative said.
“If the film comes to us by Friday morning then it will definitely be entertained and certified (according to the censorship law) to be released in Sindh on Friday, as expected.”
Since it appears that film can only be released in Sindh so far, there is a possibility that it may not be released at all. The last instance when the functions of the censor were effectively halted; huge losses were incurred by the country’s largest exhibitors. The distributors and exhibitors are working on a response to the petition but nothing has been decided as yet.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 29th, 2013.