I wasn’t invited to the Karachi premiere of Teefa In Trouble last night but I decided to drop in anyway. This premiere was going to be different, and not just because some members of the press were strategically excluded or had themselves chosen to boycott the film: I’d heard that a group of people were going to gather outside the cinema to protest the film’s release.
When I arrived at Nueplex the protest was in full swing. A small crowd of young men and women (well, mostly men, but a few women too) were holding up placards and chanting slogans. “Ali Zafar sharam karo!” they yelled. A few moments later actor Feroze Khan pulled up to the cinema and unwisely elected to argue with the protestors. “Why are you so afraid of accountability?” a protestor shot back at him.
I noticed an older woman in her mid-fifties dawdling on the sidelines of the protest, watching intently. As Feroze Khan disappeared inside the cinema she walked up to the protestors. “I’m proud of you,” she said to them. “More power to you, especially the girls.”
Inside, whatever buzz that’d dominated the red carpet had dissipated. Celebrities who’d chosen to attend the premiere were already tucked away in their assigned cinemas, which, when I popped in to inspect, I found half-full.
If I’d been officially invited to watch Teefa would I have sat through the film? I’m not sure. I won’t, however, buy a ticket to watch the film as part of a general audience, so I appear to have missed my shot.
Some may say that people like me, people who choose to not buy tickets and therefore not financially reward Teefa In Trouble’s creators and beneficiaries – are being unfair to the film.
This couldn’t be further from the truth, and I’d argue that the protests that have marked Teefa in Trouble’s release are not really even about Teefa.
When people protest Teefa in Trouble what they’re really protesting is a culture of harassment that we’ve become far too comfortable with.
What they’re really protesting is a lack of accountability within the circle that calls itself Pakistan’s entertainment industry, an industry accused of consistently valuing the bottom line over the promotion of healthier, fairer, more egalitarian discourse.
What I’m really protesting is the silence of those in the entertainment industry who have in their hands the power to move the needle but have chosen to do nothing instead.
In April of this year popstar Meesha Shafi accused actor and musician Ali Zafar of sexually harassing her. Zafar denied the allegations. A few days later, more women came forward to accuse Zafar of harassment. Zafar filed a defamation suit against Meesha, Meesha revealed she'd filed a sexual harassment claim against Zafar. Zafar has not yet responsed to the allegations made by other women.
And all the while, preparations were underway for Zafar's biggest film project, Teefa in Trouble, to hit screens across Pakistan on July 20.
Following Meesha Shafi’s accusation that Ali Zafar sexually harassed her, I’ve seen a lot of flawed logic thrown about on social media, at industry events, at social gatherings.
One argument people use to shut down any mention of Ali Zafar or harassment weaponizes patriotism. It goes: if you don’t support Teefa, you’re bringing Pakistan’s film industry down.
If you usually cow in the face of this argument, let me assure you that you shouldn’t.
This is because there is no such thing as a monolithic ‘Pakistani film industry.’ People invoke this ‘film industry’ only when they want to disempower individuals in favour of commercial interests.
This ‘Pakistani film industry,’ referred to so pityingly, is not a faceless entity or a hapless offshore corporation. Is it a group of individuals and its output is likewise shaped by the choices of those individuals. If we fail to protect the individuals within that system from harassment, can we really claim to be acting in the interests of the system?
I don’t think so.
Yet that is exactly what is happening in Pakistan.
Anyone who is associated with the entertainment industry has heard whispers and rumours about misbehavior ranging from contract breaches to sexual misconduct. Certain names pop up more than others. But no one wants to talk about it ‘on the record’ because they’ve internalised the entertainment industry’s ‘code of silence’ – a code that prioritises projects and payments over an individual’s rights or well-being.
After Meesha came forward, other Pakistani celebrities spoke up too, though most did so in compliance with this code of silence.
Singer Momina Mustehsan said she’d been harassed, but stopped short of revealed her harasser’s name. Actress Ayesha Omer appeared on TV to say she’d been badly harassed, but confessed she didn’t have the courage to name her harasser. No one from the industry publicly commented on their disclosures.
Are these women not part of the ‘Pakistani film industry’ we so lovingly want to protect? Aren't we picking and choosing who gets to be part of the industry based on our current alliances, with our financial interests or personal ‘habits’?
Why should I purchase tickets to reward a 'film industry' that doesn't protect its own -- or worse, is so fickle it only protects its current paymaster?
This culture of silence we’ve cultivated is not acting in service of the Pakistani film industry, not at all. In fact, it is actively harming it.
In the same way that anger in Hollywood is not directed not just at Harvey Weinsten but also at the culture that enabled him, the target of my frustration is not Teefa, not specifically anyway, but the actions of those associated with it who refuse to acknowledge that harassment and injustice is an active problem.
In a recent interview, Teefa’s director Ahsan Rahim baldly stated: “I am not worried that Teefa’s business will suffer because of the harassment allegations placed on Ali by Meesha Shafi… My concerns are more conventional… I’m not worried because this controversy has nothing to do with my movie. I’m against harassment and I feel that serious action needs to be taken against it.”
There are many things wrong with Rahim’s statement, starting from his belief that alleged sexual misconduct by Teefa’s leading man and Teefa’s commercial success exist in two separate, distinct worlds.
They don’t. They exist enmeshed and entangled in our very real, practical universe, where the deeply problematic circumstances of Teefa’s should at least be considered as such by those who promote it.
Unfortunately, for many in the industry, they seem to be.
Fawad Khan attended promotional events for Teefa with nary a statement in sight. Humayun Saeed, one of the industry’s most influential players, was silent when the the Shafi-Zafar controversy was playing out, and is now tweeting in support of Teefa. Creative talents like Ahmed Ali Butt or Vasay Chaudhry have not lent a voice to victims of harassment. Highly bankable leading actresses like Mehwish Hayat have not sympathized with Shafi. Ditto producers and cinema owners.
Naturally, this leads me to wonder: if someone was harassed on their film sets, or in their circle of peers and colleagues… how would they react?
Wouldn’t it be better for the health of our so-called ‘Pakistani film industry’ if we broke our culture of silence? If the many injustices suffered by individuals, large or small, were openly discussed and accounted for, if we set up processes to hear disagreements, if we had functional unions or non-aligned rights group to whom we could voice complaints… wouldn’t we be rewarded with more talent, more competition, more diverse ideas?
Or do too many in the industry have too much to hide?
Team Teefa’s response in the face of the Shafi-Zafar controversy is frustrating also because the entertainment scene in Pakistan has evolved to some degree.
Progressive individuals within the entertainment community do exist, and they have shown us, by example, that some approaches to complicated situations are more correct or moral than others.
When the Shafi-Zafar controversy came to light actors Osman Khalid Butt, Adnan Malik and Sanam Saeed issued statements on sexual harassment that showed a sincere attempt to grapple with the issue. They appeared to be using their platforms to educate rather than evade. Big brands like the Lux Style Awards have been trying to make strides (haltingly, but still) towards greater inclusivity and awareness.
At other points, some entertainers who've made missteps - like Yasir Hussain, for example – have apologized.
Consumers too, have wisened up to their power and are using their wallets to ensure their voices get heard. Big brands from Khaadi to Careem have felt the impact of consumer activism, and are now careful to be seen as socially responsible brands.
In this context, if pushing back the film’s release date wasn’t possible, it would’ve been wiser for Team Teefa to have adopted a more conciliatory approach to the film’s publicity. Instead, Zafar’s legal team is on the offensive. As Teefa’s promotional campaign on social media rumbles on, rumours circulate online that micro-bloggers have been paid to push the movie and defend its leading man. Far from exonerating Zafar, these actions have only served to incriminate him in the critical eyes of social observers.
Fortunately - for the film industry's health - and unfortunately for Team Teefa - things are changing, and it is no longer possible to browbeat a movie-going population into moral submission.
While Teefa may yet do well at the box office it will see vocal detractors, both within the industry's inner circle and without. Certainly, enough protest has been generated to incite debate.
When the dust settles, I hope other filmmakers get the message: if you really want your films to succeed, don't behave badly.
If you do, you have no one but yourself to blame.