Until recently, film censorship in Pakistan was mostly limited to Bollywood and Hollywood productions, because, let's be honest, there weren't that many films being produced within Pakistan.
But now, with a sudden uptick in film production, it appears that Pakistani filmmakers are just as likely to face the wrath of the censor board, which claims that certain filmmakers have attempted to explore novel, unchartered, and well, controversial territories.
The first local film in the recent past to be refused screening by the Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC) was Resham's much-awaited comeback venture Swaarangi. The board stated the film was "not recommended for screening in its present form", implicitly disapproving of its content and thus banning it.
However, the film sailed through the Punjab and Sindh censor boards without any objections to its content. Eventually the central board too cleared it for screening only a couple of days before its release nationwide.
There are reports that a second film has faced the wrath of the central censor board (in Islamabad, with the capital and cantonments in its jurisdiction).
The film in question is Hashim Nadeem's Abdullah: The Final Witness.
Abdullah is an upcoming Pakistani film directed, produced and written by Hashim Nadeem featuring Imran Abbas and Sadia Khan in the lead. The film also stars Hameed Sheikh and Sajid Hassan in prominent roles.
The film is about the Kharotabad incident of May 2011 that claimed the lives of five foreigners, including two women, one of whom was pregnant. Frontier Constabulary personnel deputed at the Kharotabad checkpost in Quetta claimed the foreigners were suicide bombers and gunned them down brutally.
The incident was caught on camera by a local journalist and aired on news channels, which then reported the five were innocent. Later, a police surgeon who had conducted autopsies on the five victims was shot dead. The surgeon had contradicted claims made by the police and FC personnel that the five were armed and were suicide bombers. As you can see, to a filmmaker this may make for a gripping narrative.
Abdullah has been shot in Quetta – a process that took 25 to 30 days. The film was screened privately at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and received rave reviews, according to the director. However, back at home, the film only got the green light after three “major cuts”, that too after a third review by the censor board on the request of the filmmaker.
When director/producer Hashim Nadeem submitted the film to the CBFC in Islamabad, it was rejected outright, with the board writing to the filmmaker on Aug 7 that it found the film “unsuitable for public exhibition in Pakistan for the reasons that the topic is controversial in the present security situation of the country”.
The filmmaker then suggested the board consult a few more members and review it again; it was banned again on the same pretext. It was then that Nadeem wrote a detailed letter to the censor board chairman asking him to hold a third review and read the letter aloud to all 21 members attending, explaining to them what the film was about, why it should not be banned, how it attempted to “counter propaganda against the country through a clip on Youtube” and how it had been screened at international film festivals and garnered applause.
Talking to Dawn.com from Quetta, Nadeem says the CBFC had cleared the film, albeit conditionally, suggesting the climax scene be blurred out and two major scenes, forming public opinion, be cut.
“We’ll try to blur out the sequence at our end first and if it works then we’ll let it go. I haven’t yet decided if I’ll challenge the decision with the federal government first and then send the film to the provincial censor boards or do both simultaneously. I have suggested a middle ground to the CBFC such as running subtitles at the conclusion and a few other things. Let’s see what they have to say,” he says.
Nadeem is all praise for the chairman of CBFC, Mobasher Hassan, whom he claimed was instrumental in getting the film through, otherwise it would have been banned completely. He states categorically his film isn’t anti-Pakistan as alluded to in the first notification he got from the board.
“There’s nothing beyond Pakistan for me. If there was against my country in the national and international media. It is based on a high court inquiry into the Kharotabad incident and whoever watched the film will be clear about the issue. I have not degraded any forces or the state,” he adds.
Regarding functions and formation of a censor board, Nadeem is of the same view as was Mazhar Abbas, the producer of Swaarangi that was also initially banned by the CBFC.
“If a film goes to a censor board, I want to suggest they don’t decide abruptly and issue us ambiguous statements. What is a ‘controversial issue’, as was told to me about my film? Define 'controversial'. I suggested in my letter to them they keep intellectuals in the board who know filmmaking both from in front of the camera and behind it," he says.
"I have also written to the Prime Minister to constitute a censor board here in Balochistan, as for us here it takes time to travel to Islamabad and Punjab," he continues. "It requires at least three days for every appearance at a censor board. Being a civil servant, I can’t afford to be away from work that often. After the 18th Amendment, there should have been a censor board in Balochistan also.”
When asked about censorship policies here in Pakistan, Nadeem says there is a lack of certification here. Age limits for films should be defined, appropriate certification issued if a censor board feels young minds will get influenced. “But now we have an understanding and intelligent audience. People discuss films. The world has progressed. We don’t have the audience anymore that whistles at films,” he adds.
Despite the reaction at home, Nadeem is ecstatic that the film received an amazing response at Cannes as well as the recent Indian Film Festival of Melbourne, and is now trying to take it to a festival in UK and release it in Dallas and Houston, US. “I would like to make one thing clear here. My film is not based on my novel of the same name. They’re both completely different as far as stories are concerned,” he concludes.
Nadeem soon plans to start working on a short film, titled The Last December, which he aims to take to Cannes next year.