Another week, another new absurdity from the guardians of Pakistan’s cinematic morality.
Two weeks ago, this paper carried an exposé about how the Shah Rukh Khan-Mahira Khan starrer Raees was denied a censorship certificate in Pakistan. The important thing about that exposé was how nobody in Pakistan’s three censor boards was willing to take responsibility for what almost everyone (including people within those boards) considered a ridiculous decision, and yet the decision stands.
Now there is news about another film, a Punjabi film named Dushman, which has run afoul of the censors. According to its Indian filmmakers, the film is about how a Pakistani manages to turn a prejudiced anti-Pakistani Indian, to see the error of his ingrained biases.
But according to the Islamabad censor board (the so-called ‘Central Board of Film Censors’), the film is “a controversial and a propaganda [sic] movie against the State of Pakistan.” The film’s importers have been issued a “show cause” notice asking them to explain why the film should not be banned.
I have not seen the film so I can’t obviously talk about this particular case with any great certainty but having seen enough of how our censor boards operate, both as the director of the Karachi International Film Festival (KaraFilm) and as a member of the Sindh Board of Film Censors (SBFC), there is a fairly plausible chance that the decision by the CBFC is based on a misreading of the film and an inability to understand how drama works.
"Drama seems beyond the scope of understanding of many of those people who are appointed to these censor boards, who often have no understanding of film or art. What are the criteria for these appointments, nobody really knows."
How can you have drama when there is no dramatic tension between opposing viewpoints? For a resolution to work cinematically, you need there to be conflict in the first place. This seems beyond the scope of understanding of many of those people who are appointed to these censor boards, who often have no understanding of film or art. What are the criteria for these appointments, nobody really knows.
In 2013 I was appointed to the SBFC, without as much as a by-your-leave. Although I was initially opposed to the idea of filmmakers having to approach each provincial censor board separately, which I thought would be a logistical nightmare, I accepted after speaking with some of the other newly appointed members, most of whom were actually from the film fraternity. Our hope was to turn the SBFC into a model board where decisions were taken on merit and with a great degree of common sense. Stories of corruption and unaccountability in the old centralised system (based out of Islamabad) were legion and we were determined to eradicate at least these elements in the SBFC.
The initial few months were actually excellent — the SBFC was indeed turned into a model board, and filmmakers and importers preferred having their films assessed by fairly liberal-minded members who understood the importance of preserving the filmmaker’s artistic point of view and realised their decisions only pertained to the small cinema circuit — far more people could see whatever they wanted from off the internet and via pirated DVDs anyway. In most cases, we would rely on ratings rather than chopping up films since we also understood that the choice should be with viewers about what they wanted to watch.
But I also discovered the difficulty of working with a bureaucracy that was still living in the Zia era. For people who’d cut their teeth as clerks of a system whose instinctive reaction to anything controversial was to clamp down on it and to pretend it did not exist, I am sure the new kids on the block were also very troubling.
"Perhaps it is time we spoke about disbanding the censor boards altogether. They serve little purpose in an era where technology has made the idea of restricting content superfluous. Who in Pakistan who wanted to watch Raees has not seen Raees after all?"
Some day I should write about the hilarious exchanges that sometimes arose in these SBFC meetings, mostly with nervous bureaucrats troubled we’d let something go without chopping. More often than not all they were concerned with was physical intimacy and bare skin. Brains getting blown out in graphic fashion barely registered on their radars (“But that’s normal,” was once said when I pointed out a film was too violent for kids and thus a ‘universal’ rating). Mostly they had no idea about content. Mostly they were simply worried about their jobs.
And they were masters of intrigue. They were not ‘civil servants’ in any sense of the term; their only loyalty was to centres of power, whether it was politicians or other bureaucrats above them in the pecking order. I stopped attending the SBFC meetings when it seemed the bureaucrats had won. There really seemed no point in devoting a large chunk of my time to a process when decisions would be taken elsewhere, without any accountability.
Perhaps it is time we spoke about disbanding the censor boards altogether. They serve little purpose in an era where technology has made the idea of restricting content superfluous. Who in Pakistan who wanted to watch Raees has not seen Raees after all?
But perhaps what needs to happen is an implementation of the original vision of the SBFC when it was established: moving from ‘censorship’ to ‘certification’ — an enforced ratings system that trusts the people of Pakistan — a clear-cut policy about the criteria of appointment on these boards, and more transparency about the decisions. Is that really that so difficult to accept in a democracy?
Hasan Zaidi is a filmmaker and Editor Magazines at Dawn. He tweets @hyzaidi
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, March 26th, 2017