Our state and society must realise that cultural and literary expression engenders profundity and depth, political as well as social.
Sarmad Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha is sadly entangled in the cobweb of expediencies. When I read that his movie had been stalled I thought Sarmad would certainly be ruing his decision to follow his family passion of producing and directing teleplays and films when he could have gone on to become a civil servant, a doctor or an engineer.
In fact, an open letter he wrote and that has been circulating on the social media cites his achievements: “straight 4 GPA, 3 gold medals and a roll of honour from Government College University, Lahore.” But my opinion was spurned because he goes on to say in the same letter that he is “rather happy” to not be sitting in an office where his hands would be tied and he would be unable to help ordinary citizens.
As his teacher at Government College Lahore, I can testify that he is brilliant, contemplative, creative and well-meaning. His creative brilliance was amply demonstrated when he produced and directed Manto. His representation of Manto in the film ought to be commended in superlative terms. All these attributes make him an asset that we are not caring enough about.
Unfortunately, Sarmad’s fate is not unique. Indeed, when asked if there is one major reason for our societal condition, I am inclined to say that it is our attempts as a society to curtail the creative impulse in individuals that has led to a stifling of outlets of expression and release among us.
I am reminded again of Manto’s short stories. He was dragged through courts and ridiculed. Today, however, he stands redeemed by history. He is an essential part of curriculum of every university. Same can be said about poets Faiz and Jalib. As a society we could not feel the pulse of the time. Therefore, we condemned such artistic voices. The realisation has dawned on us when these people are gone.
We need to move with time, not lag behind it. This is possible only through the freedom of artistic expression. Sarmad Khoosat’s film passed through three censor boards, and despite multiple reviews, has been refused a clearance certificate that will allow it to be screened in cinemas.
Sarmad stated in the open letter that his film centres around themes of “gender constructs, class divisions and complex human experiences,” and that “there was never any intention to attack, to point fingers at or humiliate any individual, or institution.” This is an impassioned appeal by my former student for those creating hindrances in the release of his film to allow him to showcase what promises to be an excellent film for viewing.
In the social realm, critical evaluation is an important and integral exercise. It is also an inalienable right of every citizen. Artists, in particular, offer critiques of society that reflect the imbalances and inequalities inherent in the social fabric. A positive attitude towards engaging with critique helps foster consent and plurality in a polity. It is absolutely necessary as a corrective measure. It is through constructive critique that the society matures and goes on to the next stage of its evolution.
Such a dramatic representation of social concerns is not very popular as it is. The recent attempts to revive serious cinema in Pakistan through films like Bol and Khuda Kay Liye has proven to be a breath of fresh air. These movies got international acclaim and acknowledgement. In similar vein, TV dramas that have depicted domestic and sexual abuse have also highlighted issues that are otherwise not openly discussed.
It is only recently that issues of social import and relevance have found expression and commentary through the medium of cinema that is a positive sign, to say the least. It is indicative that our cinema has, indeed, come of age. It is something to rejoice and not to condemn. Putting the fate of that film in limbo has spelled disenchantment for those who want Pakistani cinema to flourish.
It also needs to be debated what benefit the state is gaining from alienating one of its cultural icons (Sarmad was awarded a Pride of Performance) to please a segment of religious sentiment who are basically anathema to the pluralist ethos that Pakistan represents. The main opposition has come from the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a Barelvi organisation that assumed sudden prominence in 2017 when it locked down the federal capital and destabilised the then government. Its leader was noticed because of the vitriol that he hurled at all and sundry, with utmost impunity.
The power of that organisation had curtailed since but the furore over Zindagi Tamasha allowed it to enter the mainstream discourse once again. They objected to the way the naat khwaan in the film has been characterised and warned of a backlash if the film were released. Ridiculously, the government announced plans to consult the Council of Islamic Ideology, which as an institution has no jurisdiction over matters related to the cinema. The film is still awaiting release with no resolution in sight. State authorities were expected to take a moral stand in support of Sarmad, instead of leaving him in the lurch.
It is also unfortunate that Sarmad and his associates are being threatened. This is a sad state of affairs that again reflects the constraints on the space for criticism and difference of opinion in Pakistan. Such threats are often extended to artists but more often to journalists and authors who are perceived as being critical of the state and its narrative.
A recent controversy surrounding the Urdu translation of Mohammed Hanif’s acclaimed novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, has had a similar trajectory and underscores a similarly out-of-proportion reaction to a perceived insult to individuals or institutions.
Our state and society must realise that cultural and literary expression engenders profundity and depth, political as well as social. The greater the freedom of such expressions, the richer and maturer the society will become. Our state and its institutions must not pander to the forces that promote and profess retrogressive behaviour. Sarmad’s endeavour must not go waste — an appeal to those who matter.