Strangling culture

September 3, 2023

Regulation of commercial theatre is becoming more restrictive and a threat to its viability

Strangling culture


Another spate of bans in now in place; theatre shows across the Punjab have been shut down for being ‘immoral and vulgar’.

This is not to say that all that is going on in the name of commercial theatre is desirable or up to some standard or that it is acceptable and well liked. For that matter, not all that one sees in the mainstream media is acceptable. Too often, there is too much violence and a lot of bad behavior on display without much justification. Children, if that is the benchmark, cannot grow up to become good human beings if constantly fed on a diet of slander and scandal. Public office, it seems, attracts corrupt practices and indecent leaks.

Ours is a ban-happy society: if there is any complaint the first reaction on the part of the authorities is to ban the show or the film or the activity. That places the administration on a footing where the explanation, if any, comes later. The defence of the activity is not the first propriety of the powers that be. The question to ask then is: have the bans put in place over the years and decades helped promote or constitute a better society? Have the moral standards shown an upward trend and are the people more cultivated in their tastes and better citizens in their ways?

There is no simple barometer to judge such an improvement. By and large, the state of society is no worse and no better than what it was. It appears that all the banning has had no effect on the health of the society. If anything, it has created a harder crust of hypocrisy; everything has been pushed underground.

The purpose of making the shows more open is to avoid the things from seeping underground. There is, we all know, a flourishing market for all that is supposed to be banned. The turn out and the volume are great - greater than what we have upfront.

There are unmentionables in the society and the media. The public expression is totally mum about out it. Too many of the few films we produce are banned if there is any criticism - even a murmur from the people or the institution involved. The rest is silence. The dead calm of the graveyard is preferred to the volatility and boisterousness of a life fully lived.

Creating a totally clean, hygienic order is upheld as a model and the arts are about the obvious or about the mentionable. Ironically, artistes are supposed to push the boundaries and challenge the given values and perceptions. The arts are not meant to be tame and sleepwalking into conformity; they are meant to be provocative and rebellious.

Ours is a ban-happy society: the first reaction to any complaint is to ban the show or the film or the activity.

A society that is too touchy about essential human functions end up sanitizing itself into a mummy. What goes on underneath the surface matters, even if we do not acknowledge its existence. Life goes on even if it has been wiped out from the screen of our radar and all we see is a lifeless enactment.

The space for artistic expression all round the world is shrinking as the levels of intolerance go up. Too many segments of the society, communities and groups feel vulnerable and are quick to retaliate to any comment, let alone criticism, with an overblown response.

So much is censored that there is hardly anything left for the theatre artists to perform. Actually the theatre operates at two levels: the censored script is lifeless and limp and does not make a good play. On the other hand, the actors are free to improvise and adlib indulging in repartees to liven up and contemporise the atmosphere. It verges on the ‘x’ rated because there is scope for the ‘x’ rated in this sanctimonious order.

The remaking of Maula Jat was praised to high heavens. It was portrayed as the best film ever made in Pakistan. It surely was the one that did huge business and broke all box office records. But what was the film all about, besides the many cinematic and aesthetic glitches, except violence and its justification? The more than two hours of increasing loudness were a validation of revenge exercised at the individual level or at the level of a family or a group and the glory that follows. The redemption, if any, lay in the execution of fair play through an individual act of violence rather than a slow process grounded in institutional processes.

It was lauded although it was a vulgar display of ‘rightfulness’ of violence. It was a demonstration of how society’s wrongs can be rectified by a kind of behavior we question these days. So while blood gushing from a slit throat or amputated limbs is overlooked, a raunchy move, a bit of flesh or some suggestive gestures put morality into a tailspin. Violence, so it seems, is beyond reproach.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

Strangling culture