Two Khans, Shah Rukh and Mahira — the former, India’s most iconic film star in the last two decades; the latter, Pakistan’s most sought-after actress in recent times. For cine-goers, any film having the two working opposite each other is nothing less than a monumental event. But when they did work together in the recently released Raees, Pakistan’s censors banned their film.
Why? Nobody seems to really know.
Cinema audiences had been eagerly anticipating the first blockbuster Bollywood release after a self-imposed ban on Indian films by Pakistani exhibitors — which had decimated cinema attendance across the country — was belatedly lifted. And they and the film’s distributors howled in protest when the decision to deny the film’s release in Pakistan was officially announced.
But the reasons for the ban are as murky as the February fog in Punjab.
Officially, the censors banned the film for being ‘anti-Islam’ and ‘anti-Pakistan.’ How they came to that conclusion has never been explained, especially since no other Muslim country where the film was released, such as the UAE, found anything ‘anti-Islam’ in the film.
For her part, actor Mahira Khan says there is absolutely nothing in the film that can be construed as anti-Islam or anti-Pakistan. In addition, the ban came after the film was actually cleared by the Sindh and Punjab censor boards which, it is reasonable to assume, would not actually want to promote anti-Pakistan propaganda.
What is going on in the name of film censorship in Pakistan would itself make an intriguing, mystery thriller. Or at least an absurdist film.
Before the 18th amendment to the Constitution, there used to be one censor board in Pakistan known as the Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC). After the amendment in 2010 which devolved the ministry of culture to the provinces, provincial governments in Sindh and Punjab set up their own censor boards under their culture ministries (KP has yet to establish a board and Balochistan has no cinemas remaining).
The CBFC’s jurisdiction was limited to the capital territory of Islamabad, the ‘Central’ in its name only a hangover of earlier times. In the absence of a federal culture ministry, it was placed under the federal Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. In theory, at least, the Sindh and Punjab censor boards are independent and are not beholden to the decisions of the Islamabad censor board. In practice, however, this is not the case.
Bureaucrats in the provincial censor boards often still follow unofficial guidelines sent to them by the Islamabad board and by various establishment functionaries who attempt to influence outcomes in a non-transparent manner. This is in direct contravention of the constitution and often of the desires of many of the board members themselves who are drawn from the film fraternity and civil society.
The Maalik issue
This is not the first time Islamabad has taken arbitrary decisions, ostensibly beyond its mandate. Take for example what happened last year on April 26 with the Pakistani film Maalik. Maalik was taken off the cinema halls by decree when it had already had a run of more than two weeks in the cinemas. Interestingly, the film had been given a clearance, with a universal certificate, by all three boards.
An afterthought hit the Sindh Board of Film Censors (SBFC) and, under political pressure, it revoked its clearance. A hue and cry by the filmmakers forced the ban to be retracted the very next day. But things did not get back to normal.
Immediately after that, the federal government via the CBFC jumped into the fray and put a nationwide ban on Maalik. All of that happened because, apparently, the film portrayed politicians in a bad light. Subsequently, the Supreme Court of Pakistan lifted the ban after the filmmakers won a case against the ban in court. But by then the damage had been done.
Maalik had already suffered considerable financial loss. In the case of Raees, importers of the film point out that despite the film being cleared for release – in the case of Sindh without a single cut – the certificate was not issued and was held back pending ‘approval’ of the Islamabad board.
The censor boards speak out
“Five people saw Raees in Karachi and it was passed uncut,” says Satish Anand, whose Eveready Pictures was to distribute the film in Pakistan in collaboration with Hum TV. Under SBFC rules, only three board members need be present for censor screenings. “Why didn’t they issue the certificate? It is a collective judgment of the people from civil society who have the responsibility to view and make a decision, and that should be respected.” Anand points out that there have been instances earlier where a film was passed in Islamabad and Karachi but was banned in Punjab. Ragni MMS, for example, ran in two centres but not in Punjab. “This is how it works as per devolution and the law.”
Saeed Shiraz, a member of the SBFC, corroborates Anand’s statement. “For the last three to four months, things have become sensitive as far as Indian movies are concerned,” he says and adds in disgust: “Our position is like that of a clerk. Not just Sindh, I think Punjab also passed it. All said and done, I feel nothing can happen. It’s a gloomy scenario.”
Eminent actress and director Zeba Bakhtiar is also a member of SBFC. “We are wasting our time here,” she says with the same disgust as Shiraz. “I was abroad when the Raees issue came up. My understanding is that the Sindh members were okay with the film.”
“Our position is like that of a clerk. Not just Sindh, I think Punjab also passed it. All said and done, I feel nothing can happen. It’s a gloomy scenario,” says Saeed Shiraz, a member of the Sindh censor board
Shiraz feels what compounds the problem is that Sindh doesn’t have a chairman ever since Fakhr-i-Alam resigned from the post in June last year.
Another board member, who did not wish to be named, says however that the problem began under Alam. “He turned an independent board into just an appendage of the Islamabad board because he was interested in appeasing the establishment rather than carrying forward the board’s independence. It was different before he came along.”
Hum TV’s Athar Waqar Azeem puts another spin on the whole scenario. “There were two to three other parties that were interested in releasing the film, who might have had a role to play in involving powerful people in it and not allowing the movie to be shown,” he says.
Sohail Butt, a member of the Punjab censor board, validates Azeem’s opinion. He says three out of four members had cleared the film and only one raised objections. Before the matter could be resolved internally (the censor certificate is issued on a majority decision but disagreements are usually handled by consensus), “instructions from the government came that the film could not be given the go-ahead because it showed Muslims exploding bombs and selling liquor.”
Actor and director Usman Peerzada, who is the vice-chairman of the Punjab Censor Board, says he wasn’t present at the time when the board saw the film and “probably passed it.” He asserts, however, that had he seen it, he’d have done the same that Islamabad did. “Gujarat is the place where Muslim genocide happened and they’re showing Muslim gangsters blackmailing politicians? How can we tolerate such a film? It’s a bad film anyway.”
Mr Peerzada’s personal opinions notwithstanding, the question remains: how did Islamabad arbitrarily override the opinions of the duly constituted provincial boards?
CBFC Chairman Mobashir Hassan claims innocence. “We had nothing to do with it,” he says. “Our jurisdiction is Islamabad territory and cantonment areas. Provincial boards are autonomous. They don’t report to us. We don’t regulate them.”
So there we have it: nobody willing to take responsibility for a decision that has impacted the rights of millions of viewers to make a choice and caused huge losses to those in the film business. This is aside from adversely affecting the growth of the film industry itself – since the decision to ban Raees, a number of cinema construction projects — which were in limbo since the Indian film ban — have finally been abandoned.
But this raises a number of fundamental questions regarding the whole process of film censorship in Pakistan. Is it the job of censor boards to make decisions about artistic choices made by filmmakers and about their right to freedom of expression? Why is there no transparency in the process, including in how members are appointed to the boards? Is presenting a sanitized view of all members of a religion or ethnicity and international events the duty of the censors? And how can bureaucrats and government officials undermine the intent and the letter of the constitution with immunity?
Finally, it should not need reminding but culture needs a freer space to thrive in. The more we try and keep tabs on it, the more it will wither away into nothingness.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, March 5th, 2017