With Oscar nominations just a day away, Pakistan is hoping its picture gets one of the slots for best foreign film. But it's a film that most Pakistanis aren't able to see.
The 2-hour, 15-minute long movie is called Zindagi Tamasha, or "Circus of Life." Set in the hazy old quarter of the Pakistani city of Lahore, prostitutes, devout families, drug dealers and men hustling a living live side-by-side. It is the fictional story of a devout, middle-aged real estate agent and performer, Rahat Khwaja, whose life capsizes after a guest at a wedding films him sensually swaying to an old Pakistani song, "Zindagi Tamasha" (the film is named after the song) as he sings it for the audience.
The video goes viral and Khwaja, who is respected in his crowded quarter for his singing of devotional Islamic poems, is suddenly viewed by his community as vulgar.
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Religious events where he once starred as an esteemed singer are now off limits – he is literally pushed out of one event by other performers who are enraged by his wedding performance. He finds his face plastered across tawdry memes on the internet. Children who once loved him for the sweets he handed out in their crowded alley call him a pig and a pimp. A cleric threatens to accuse him of blasphemy – which can be a deadly accusation in Pakistan. Worse, his beloved daughter turns against him.
The film was banned in Pakistan after an extremist religious group watched the trailer and became enraged at its portrayal of the cleric in the movie. Not only does he loosely hurl accusations of blasphemy against the protagonist, the cleric is painted as a sneering, arrogant man who turns a blind eye to child sex abuse in his seminary, even as he leads the charge to shame the protagonist. And the group rallied against the director.
"Who are you to talk against scholars?" demanded Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the then-leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan at a rally last February against the movie, which gathered thousands of angry, chanting protesters.
"The prophet did not delegate the faith to you!" he said, referring to the film's director, Sarmad Khoosat.
So just like the protagonist of Zindagi Tamasha, Khoosat faced a whirlwind of hatred.
"I would be added to these WhatsApp groups where mysterious people would just send me messages with gross, horrifying images of beheaded people," he tells NPR. "On social media, Twitter was on fire with 'ban Zindagi Tamasha' and 'kill this bastard.' "
He says other users accused of him of blasphemy, which can trigger vigilante attacks and even lynchings in Pakistan.
Following the outcry by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, the Pakistani government postponed Zindagi Tamasha's release. They also asked the country's Islamic advisory body to conduct a "critical review" — effectively shelving the film.
The shelving of the film reflects a decades-long trend of Pakistani authorities appeasing the religious right, says Raza Rumi, the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, and the editor of a liberal outlet called Naya Daur.
"This is a trend that has been there for a long time, and it's been growing over the decades, with more and more pressure from the religious lobbies," Rumi says. "Every government attempts to appease them, because it's a risk to anger the mullahs."
"The mullahs have street power in Pakistan," he adds.
But critics argue that the current ruling coalition of the prime minister Imran Khan appears even more obsequious than previous governments. That's because of a perception among some Pakistanis that it is indebted to the country's powerful military establishment for being propelled to power.
"This government has the unique distinction that it is probably the weakest civilian government in a long time," says Murtaza Solangi, a colleague of Rumi at Naya Daur. "It's easier to blackmail them and put them under pressure."
In response to a request from NPR for an interview about the shelving of Zindagi Tamasha, and the banning of other media products, the information minister Shibli Faraz denied the government was in the business of censorship. In a statement, he wrote: "The government neither believes nor practices any kind of censorship or press advice. What it does believe in is encouragement of self-regulation by all forms of media. Further, it strongly believes in the preservation of our cultural and moral values." Faraz declined to answer specific questions.
In any case, the government is sensitive to the criticisms of turbaned preachers, conservative viewers – and even an influential newspaper editor, Ansar Abbasi. He successfully demanded a jaunty biscuit advertisement be banned for showing an actress performing folk dances.
"Wasn't Pakistan built in the name of Islam?" demanded Abbasi, as he complained in October about a Gala Biscuit advertisement to his 1.7 million Twitter followers. "Will biscuits be sold through mujra dancing now?" he demanded, a pejorative that refers to sexualized dancing.
Within hours, Abbasi's tweet was shared thousands of times, and the ad was taken down for review by Pakistan's Electronic Media Regulatory Authority. "We received tons of complaints," Muhammad Tahir, a regulatory authority official, tells NPR. "A certain segment of our society definitely thinks dances are vulgar."
Zindagi Tamasha and the biscuit ad are among the flurry of items that were banned or prevented from circulation over the past year. They include books, social media apps, television shows and even video games.
As the triggers of offense appear to broaden, content makers have been left uncertain of how to work. The Gala Biscuit advertisement was a case in point: the director Asad ul Haq said it was meant to be family-friendly, celebrating local folk traditions. The actress who danced in the ad, "was fully layered up, there was no skin showing."
The fear is that the country is creeping back to a repeat of its darkest days, under dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who tried to reshape Pakistan in his stern image after he seized power in the late 70s.
He stopped movies from being screened and effectively choked the local film industry. Actors stopped finding work. Movie houses shut down. Musicians who provided their scores packed away their instruments.
The military dictator Zia-ul-Haq died in 1988 in a plane crash, and it has taken years for the industry to recover. It was only in 2013 that Pakistan submitted a film for Oscar consideration: Zinda Bhaag, which followed the path of three young men who try smuggle themselves to Europe to start a new life. The committee responsible for picking the entry has submitted a film for consideration every year since.
One committee member, Hamza Bangash, told NPR that Zindagi Tamasha was selected in November because it "really kind of upends a lot of hypocrisy within our society," he says. "It does so with humor and it's so gentle."
But Bangash says he doesn't expect the nomination to change anything — in fact he calls Zindagi Tamasha "a cautionary tale, because it tells you you can pour your heart and soul into a film," he says, "and you might face death threats at the end of that."