There is something wrong with the state of a nation when its most acclaimed filmmaker gets rapped on the knuckles by the censors for having the guts to make a film on sexual violence against women in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
At a time when women are often commodified in films, it is quite astonishing that the story of a woman who opts to fight back against the system and become a rape survivor rather than a victim is deemed problematic. It appears that the Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC) has refused to certify ‘Verna’ at this stage on the basis that it flouts several conventions of the Code of Censorship (1980), a set of ill-defined, all-encompassing laws that bear the watermark of the General Zia era and can pretty much be used to ban any film. Hence the cancellation of Verna’s première in Lahore.
Shoaib Mansoor, a winner of the Sitara-e-Imtiaz, is not known for making saccharine films and from what one has seen of his forthcoming release via a loaded trailer, this is not about to change any time soon. Mansoor’s subjects are invariably gritty, his approach to storytelling challenging and dramatic. Who can forget the definitive moment in his debut film ‘Khuda ke Liye’ (2007) when Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah sermonised in favour of music in Islamic culture in an impassioned monologue?
Mansoor is a masterful dialogue-writer who chooses to grapple with uncomfortable issues usually swept under the carpet. Most of today’s generation of filmmakers acknowledge their debt to Mansoor’s perseverance in making Khuda Ke Liye and rejuvenating the industry. At least the optimists among us could envision a future where the embattled Pakistan film industry could hope to breathe again.
While Mansoor’s first film had many of the softer trappings of commercial cinema, his second, ‘Bol’ (2011), was even more hard-hitting, highlighting how tough life is for four sisters and their transgender brother growing up in a suffocating patriarchal household. The director then waited six years to make Verna, starring Pakistani superstar Mahira Khan. It is a complicated political thriller on one level, replete with power games, but on another it is the emotional trajectory of a woman struggling with the aftermath of rape and its impact on her life.
A recurring issue with Pakistan’s regulatory bodies is that they often fail to distinguish between addressing an issue and the issue itself. So the TV play ‘Udaari’, which highlighted paedophilia was issued a show-cause notice by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) for supposed “immoral content” when of course it is child abuse itself which is an immoral and criminal act, not a drama serial which exposes its practice. On the other hand, one didn’t hear so much as a whisper of objection when ‘Sangat’ (starring Saba Qamar as a married woman who suffers sexual assault) portrayed rape essentially as an obsessive response to unrequited love.
Yet Verna, which seems to crucially recognise the power dynamics of rape in a patriarchal political culture has been effectively banned. In particular, the Capital board reportedly finds Verna’s critique of the ineffectiveness of various national institutions, from the political to the judicial, objectionable. These objections of course have been worded with the inherent vagueness of most decisions made by Pakistani censor boards. Mahira Khan’s ‘Raees’ for example was banned because Shahrukh Khan’s portrayal of a Shia bootlegger could potentially offend the Shia community (which never lodged a protest).
Pakistani filmmakers are lumbered with satisfying three censor boards rather than one. Recently ‘Na Maloom Afraad 2’ was briefly banned in Punjab after it had played in cinemas across Pakistan for a month. In an interview to me for BBC Urdu director Nabeel Qureshi complained that this means that different versions of a film may have to be cut to suit multiple censor boards. However, in Verna’s case this inconvenience was strangely evaded as five members of a 21-member board with jurisdiction over the tiniest territory in Pakistan deemed it fit to pass judgement for the whole country. Speaking on a talk show last night, journalist Hasan Zaidi who has previously served on the Sindh Censor board took umbrage with the CBFC (which essentially certifies films only for the capital) imposing its writ on other parts of the country, when they have independent bodies that have already cleared the film.
According to the Global Women, Peace and Security Index, Pakistan is among the five worst countries for women in the world. Violence against women is rampant. Considering the low prosecution success rate and personal trauma most women face through a societally-enforced silence a substantial number of rapes are probably not reported. Why is the CBFC outright banning a film that could potentially encourage women to speak up? Or are rapists to be portrayed merely as uncouth working class aberrations rather than members of the rich and empowered class?
Pakistan’s film industry is just about beginning to emerge from the ashes. Does it need to be subjected to the inconsistent and ad-hoc whims of censor boards that exceed their jurisdiction without reproach?
A full sitting of the Islamabad board (consisting largely of bureaucrats and even a representative from ISPR) was reportedly held Tuesday night to review the Verna ruling. By the time you read this, let’s hope sense has prevailed and you can go watch the film in the cinema on Friday. Otherwise, as the film’s theme song goes: power di game saari.
The writer is a journalist based in London and works with the BBC World Service as a broadcaster. Twitter: fifiharoon