There are few causes closer to my heart than the furtherance of Pakistani cinema. Without doubt, the events of this week are an affirmation that this fledgling industry needs to be nurtured and championed by both its audience and the news media when under attack.
If films in Pakistan are to thrive and speak truth to power, they must be protected from those in the political echelons who seek to limit their impact to suit some narrower concept of nationalism that is defined arbitrarily. This must be done even if filmmakers have tangoed in the past with such powers to elicit greater funding or logistical support – as was done in Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Ke Liye (2007).
Equally, had we in the media and the industry and you in the audience not demanded that Mansoor’s new film Verna be released in full, Pakistan’s central censor board would have insisted that the political content of the film be visibly sliced. The veteran filmmaker rightly stood his ground and refused to dilute the message. As Mahira Khan, the lead in the film, tweeted: “May the power of the voices of the people be stronger than a few in positions of power #verna.” It was.
As a film journalist, my connection with our films is also intensely personal. My father was a studio owner and producer who introduced stars like Shamim Ara to Pakistani audiences in Kunwari Bewa (1956) and made his mark on the box office with major hits like the Shabnam and Waheed Murad starrer Ladla (1969). My maternal family was also in the film business and owned New Majestic, one of Hyderabad’s premier cinemas.
Invariably, winter holidays consisted of watching Pakistani social weepies about a dozen times, with piping hot pakoras and a newspaper in hand. When I was older, I accompanied my mother to the Nigar Award film viewings as she was a juror. These life-long links to Pakistani cinema have made me a fierce advocate of home-grown films. I don’t believe in supporting badly-made films. Instead, I believe in encouraging filmmakers to make films they believe in and then have the gumption to tolerate critique on. Between the box office and the critics, indicators of what works will emerge and teach them valuable lessons.
What works is films which are distinctly ‘Pakistani’. But what exactly does this characterisation mean? What it doesn’t mean is relinquishing formats or ingredients from other cinemas. What it does mean is that the culture and environment of the film must be recognisable to a Pakistani audience (but not necessarily all Pakistani audiences), the stories must be locally embedded and resonate with people, the jokes must have a local vocabulary and the references should be our own. The rest is ornamentation. Nabeel Qureshi’s Actor in Law (2016), for example, boasted a colourful brand of Pakistani humour that incorporated everything from Ayyan Ali to loadshedding. And now, Verna captures Pakistan’s political game-play with equal local flavour.
Some cinemas have tried to evolve even more distinctive types of storytelling. For example, Iranian directors like Abbas Kiorastami emphasised distinct framing and individualised storytelling in which what was not shown was as important as what was. This speaking between the frames was a response to censorship imposed by the Iranian state. Creativity often develops in reaction to oppression. In the Pakistani context, the stringent requirements of the Zia era rejuvenated art but killed off our cinema. We really can’t afford to let that happen again or to make film-making into an even more challenging enterprise than it already is. To quote actor and producer Humayun Saeed from Twitter when the film was eventually cleared: “Looks like we will all get to watch #Verna after all. Congratulations to the team! It’s disappointing though that the few films we make have to go through such trouble before release. Very unfair!”
Now that Pakistani cinema is slowly finding its feet again it must not be held hostage by multiple censor boards to a rigid nationalist ideal. There is little to no space in a democratic system for a censor board that dilutes thought and ideas or takes away the rights of filmmakers to critique the system. Modern ‘censor’ boards generally function as certification boards who decide what type of age group should view the film. Hence, Verna was classified 15 for its mature content in the UK.
Unlike television, film is not beamed into people’s homes and doesn’t invite universal viewing. From the way the events have unfolded, it appears that the mainstay of the ban was never how the film depicts sexual assault or violence against women because actually that is never shown in the film. Reportedly, each and every one of the 12 cuts requested (verbally) was about the politics in the film rather than the rape itself. For example, they wanted all references to the governor (whose son is the alleged rapist) deleted in full. This would in essence negate the entire message of the film: that rape is a powerful weapon often used politically to subjugate women. Verna’s story rests on its lead character’s (Mahira Khan) naming and shaming of the man who raped her so that he can no longer hide behind his status. If these details were cut out, where would that leave the narrative?
Stifling critique of public institutions or managing political reputations through censor cuts should not be accepted as common practice. American judge Potter Stewart has stated that: “censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself”. In the Pakistani experience, this has been more that those in authority lack confidence in society. So: no CBFC, you are not there to protect the reputation of Pakistani politicians or those in government offices.
Verna is a work of fiction and should be treated as such unless it directly refers to real-life incidents and distorts them. We already know of the political wheeling and dealing that goes on behind closed doors and have witnessed attempts at cover-ups when the progeny of influential people commit crimes. There is no point in muting films like Verna. They only tell us what we already know and see every day on a dozen talk shows. And when you try to ban a film, you just make people want to see it more. As Mahira Khan tweeted when Verna was finally passed for general release: “Tonight I realise how powerful artists are, not those in power. We are. Why else do we get banned? Why else do our films pose a threat to them? In this game of power – we will always win. Art/love/truth always does! #PowerDiGame #verna.”
The writer is a journalist based in London and works with the BBC World Service as a broadcaster.