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Interview How Pakistan banned a new drama – and put it up for
Fatima Bhutto, The Guardian, Film Mon 25 Jan 2021
‘It went from love to wanting to kill me.’
Sarmad Khoosat was the darling of Pakistan’s entertainment industry until his new film, the
haunting and elegiac Zindagi Tamasha ('Circus of
Life'), fell foul of fundamentalists – who called for
him to be beheaded.
Khoosat was having an early morning cigarette
in Busan, South Korea, when he got the text. The Pakistani
director and actor was in town for the world premiere of his second film, Zindagi
Tamasha (Circus of Life).
The country’s strict smoking laws meant he
needed to find a discreet corner to light up. Then came a WhatsApp message from the Central Board of
Film Censors back home.
countries, Pakistan has not one but three film censor boards, all independent bodies
who certify films according to their regional jurisdiction. Although the country’s film industry
dates back to the 50s, Pakistan is best known locally and internationally for its
Television dramas and serials are celebrated for their sophisticated
scripts and nuanced depictions of family and societal strife. Efforts to jumpstart the film industry have
been taken up in earnest by private television channels, independent producers and even the Pakistani
army, which funds its own action-packed, jingoistic films.
Whatever Pakistan’s soft-power intentions might be, censor board
restrictions have done the burgeoning film business no favours. At the height
of #MeToo, the Central Board of Film Censors banned Verna, a film
about a rape survivor, calling it objectionable. The ban was eventually lifted, but only after public outcry.
Still, Khoosat wasn’t concerned. His film had already been cleared by all three censors, even pulling off a U-
rating from Punjab’s board. He was just waiting for a release date. Instead, he was told: there has been
a complaint against your film.
It was based on a viewing of the trailer by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik
Pakistan (TLP), an extreme-right party of fundamentalists. They wanted the film banned, calling it
“blasphemous” – a potentially fatal charge eventually downgraded to “disrespectful of religious
scholars” (of which there are none in the film) – and promoting anarchy, chaos and sectarian
conflict. “There’s trouble coming your way, big trouble,” the
inspector told Khoosat.
Sarmad Khoosat: ‘It went from love to wanting to kill
me.’ Photograph: Fatimah Sattar
By the time Khoosat returned home, having won a major prize at Busan, a raging fire had
been lit by the TLP. Khoosat spent the next year being harassed and threatened, the victim of a furious
and seemingly tireless attack campaign. Although the film was screened for a committee of
Pakistani senators, who recommended it be released, it has yet to secure the paperwork required for
cinematic release in Pakistan.
Tamasha, I was quite a loved screen person for most of the country,” Khoosat says over a video call. “It
went from love to wanting to kill me.”
Khoosat, the son of an actor
and comedian, the brother of a producer and playwright, was once the darling of the Pakistani
entertainment industry. He directed Humsafar (Companion), Pakistan’s most popular TV drama in decades, lately brought
to a global audience by Netflix.
2016, Khoosat was awarded a Pride of Performance medal by the president for his
contribution to Pakistan’s film and television industry. He made international headlines as an
actor – playing a death row prisoner – in No Time to
Sleep, a 24-hour performance streamed online on World Day Against the Death
Penalty in 2018. And Zindagi Tamasha is now – amazingly –
Pakistan’s submission to the Oscars.
It has a good chance of being
shortlisted. It is an elegiac, haunting film about shame, social media and masculinity. It
follows Rahat, a burly Punjabi man who enjoys local prominence as a singer of
naats, religious paeans, until one day someone films an innocuous moment on their phone: Rahat
dancing to a beloved Punjabi song, Zindagi Tamasha.
Rahat is never vulgar, never lewd. For the brief moment that he sways clumsily to
the song, he is not an old man caring for a bitter, unwell wife, but a young boy transfixed by the
nostalgic pleasure of music and film. Yet the leaked video breaks his
small world apart. Some people stop him for selfies, others spit at him and deny him the right to
celebrate Eid Milad un Nabi, the birthday of the Prophet, no longer allowing him to sing the praise
poems he has sung since boyhood.
came to the idea of the film when he accidentally stumbled on a real-life video of a bearded Punjabi
man who looked like a cleric dancing to Punjabi film songs on YouTube and then apologising for it,
understood that this would be a film that asked difficult questions.
“I put my 18 years of experience into it,” he says. “I didn’t want to do anything sensational – all the dramatics were kept at
bay.” He funded the film himself and kept the script secret, not allowing hard copies on set
during certain scenes, mindful of the tense politics of Pakistan. Delicate is the word he uses again and
again when we speak. Let’s be delicate, describing his process; it is a delicate film. It was filmed on
location in Lahore, during the real-life celebrations of Eid Milad un Nabi in 2018, the camera rising above
tight, dusty gullies as processions of people and traffic move under ghostly canopies of fairy lights and
tinsel, conveying at once the crush of people and the loneliness of DVD sellers, transgender women and
elderly men living secret lives in plain sight.
from which the film takes its Urdu title plays every time someone watches Rahat’s viral video, creating a
double effect: at once bringing to mind Rahat’s blissful happiness and, simultaneously, a dark
foreboding of what it will cost him.
Zindagi Tamasha is arguably the most sophisticated film to come out
of the subcontinent in recent years, filled with intimate details of poor, urban subcontinental life: the
man sleeping on a hospital floor, covered by a thin blanket from home; the blank smiles of daytime TV
hosts talking to quacks about whether or not bananas are good for digestion; the spicy, barbecued
chicken wrapped in soggy newspaper and carried home in plastic bags.
Khoosatfaced a prolonged campaign of death threats – his phone number was leaked and he was
sent endless photos of decapitated heads. He was forced to write open letters to the government, even
at one point contemplating releasing an apology video similar to the one his film’s protagonist is coerced
into making. TLP’s head, Khadim Rizvi, vowed the film would be released
over his dead body (he died in November and received condolences over Twitter from Pakistan’s prime
minister, Imran Khan, a political ally).
At one point there
was even talk of having a cohort of mullahs review the film, an idea Khoosat had no problem with. “I
was ready to do it,” he says, adding that it did not happen. “If I alienate my primary audience in
Pakistan, that’s a big fail. This film was made with a very local heart for the local people.”
We speak during a break from shooting. Khoosat’s next feature film is in post-production and he is on set with a new
project till late in the evenings. Due to Covid, the normally severe rules for Oscars submission were
relaxed and films that were released online qualified.
Tamasha had a week-long geo-blocked-for-Pakistan release
on Vimeo – but even that was frightening, given the vitriolic atmosphere. The film still lacks the paperwork required for release in its home country,
despite being cleared by a yet bigger board of censors, and a committee of senators.
Overwhelmed with anxiety, Khoosat has since got tinnitus
and gone deaf in his left ear. Still, he remains upbeat. Chin in hand, he smiles in the dark light of a
computer camera. “I’m still finding my little margins in which to work.”
Rahat is a
respected role Muslim singing hymns to the Prophet, taking care of his bedridden wife. However, his
guilty pleasure enjoying old Punjabi movies is about to be revealed.