Reeled In

A rash of film bans portends rising censorship in Pakistan

"Besieged in Quetta," a documentary about the bloody persecution of Hazara Shias, was banned by the CBFC for “promoting ethnicity and sectarianism.” courtesy asef ali mohammad
01 July, 2016

On the evening of 5 May, I joined about two-dozen people at a small private venue in Karachi, to watch a film we were not supposed to watch. Security was tight. The attendees—mostly journalists, activists and filmmakers—had all been told of the event only a day earlier, and we were asked to show our national identity cards while entering the building, through a rear exit. Before the screening, one of the film’s directors laid down two strict rules: no photographs, no social media.

The film being shown was Among the Believers, a documentary that profiles Maulana Abdul Aziz, the leader of an extremist network with links across the country. The film shows how the government’s failure to provide basic services for its people enables radical clerics to gain thousands of followers by offering free food, education and healthcare.

On 25 April, ten days before the secret screening, Pakistan’s Central Board of Film Censors, or CBFC, had banned the film. The directors, Mohammed Ali Naqvi and Hemal Trivedi, asked the CBFC to review the ban, but the body rejected their appeal, saying AmongtheBelievers contained dialogue that projected a “negative image of Pakistan in the context of ongoing fighting against extremism and terrorism.”

The Pakistani government has sporadically banned films over the last few years, but until now the targets of such censorship have mostly been Bollywood movies (last year, for example, Neerja and Phantom were banned). But when it comes to local cinema, censors have tended to be more permissive, recommending excisions instead of outright bans. Recently, however, this has changed. Among the Believers is one of three Pakistani films banned over a two-week period this spring. These bans, which targeted content deemed anti-Pakistani, point to a growing censorship of the country’s film industry, and the state’s tightening grip on freedom of expression.

Besieged in Quetta, another of the three banned films, tells the story of the Hazara Shia community—an ethnic group that has been ruthlessly persecuted, and subjected to many brutal killings by Sunni extremists. The film’s director, Asef Ali Mohammad, is Hazara. Over the phone, he told me he started the project by “looking at a few people, but each time I would interview someone, he or she would introduce me to a friend or relative who had been directly or indirectly affected by the Hazara killings.” He described this violence as “a thread that ties the Hazaras together—this heartbreak.”

On 1 May, the director of the FACE Film Festival in Islamabad, where Mohammad’s documentary was set to premiere, called him to say his documentary had been banned for “promoting ethnicity and sectarianism,” and projecting a “negative image of Pakistan.” Mohammad lives in London, so, unsure of the rules under which he was being penalised, he called the phone number listed on the CBFC’s website. “I spoke with an official for 20 minutes and explained to him what my film was about,” he recalled. “He told me he would try to help me, and that I should call back in a few days.” The next time Mohammad called the CBFC, that official was nowhere to be found. He has phoned many times since, but has only managed to speak with a telephone repairman so far.

The third banned film is Maalik,a fictional feature about a corrupt Sindhi politician who becomes Sindh province’s chief minister. Directed by Ashir Azeem, the film premiered on 8 April after receiving a “Universal” certification from Pakistan’s censors, which cleared it for public viewing. It made 15 million Pakistani rupees in its first few days, but soon hit a major snag, prompting events that, in many ways, call to mind the recent controversy in India over the movie Udta Punjab.

In order to screen films across Pakistan, distributors must obtain certification from the CBFC, as well as from separate provincial censor boards. Azeem told me that Maalik was submitted to the censors on 1 April, after which the Sindh censor board told him “to take out the word ‘Sindh’ in a scene where this character is taking his oath as chief minister, and to edit out the province’s name any time it was mentioned.” Azeem complied, and was granted permission to screen Maalik in the province.

But on 25 April, the Sindh censor board added another demand, asking Azeem to bleep out the words “chief minister” throughout the film. “We tried to reason with them,” he said, “as we felt it was no longer implied that this character is the chief minister of any particular province.” But the censors were adamant; Azeem recounted an official pleading,

“Sir, please take out the words. We are under pressure.”

The source of that pressure is not difficult to guess. On the day Azeem received the second excision order, Nafisa Shah, a member of the national assembly and daughter of Qaim Ali Shah, the chief minister of Sindh, tweeted: “Maalik an ill-conceived film will only divide Pakistan and harm national unity. The filmmakers, financiers and even censors cannot be patriots.” The film may have angered Nafisa since people often accuse her father of negligence and corruption. (In January, activists organised a guerilla street-art protest against him, painting his face and writing messages such as “Fix it! Sleeping Beauty!” next to potholes and street trash.) Azeem, however, maintains that the chief minister depicted in Maalik is purely fictional.

Azeem agreed to the “chief minister” edits, but, the very next day, the Sindh censor board claimed that a surprise inspection of a Karachi cinema had found that two instances of the words “chief minister” were not removed. In response, the Sindh censor board banned the film for a period of three months. A day later, the central government overruled all former decisions made about Maalik and declared it “uncertified”—banning it everywhere in Pakistan.

Azeem has appealed the ban in court, but his prospects don’t appear promising. Government representatives have repeatedly delayed the case in the high courts of Sindh and Lahore. Meanwhile, the chair of the CBFC has claimed that Maalik demeans the democratic process. The organisation provided the court with a handwritten list of names and phone numbers of 200 people who had supposedly complained about the film. However, on 27 May, when the talk-show host Fereeha Idrees called several of the listed contacts on-air, none had a clue what Maalik was about.

According to one popular theory, the CBFC banned Maalik because the government disapproved of the fact that the army’s media wing supported the film’s production. “If I needed to show certain equipment, like a tank or a helicopter, they helped me,” Azeem said of the military’s aid to him. But “there was no monetary assistance and no interference in the script.”

Rafay Mahmood, a journalist who has been writing about Pakistani cinema for almost a decade, told me over the phone, “If you look at the tug of war between the civilian government and the military, you have to wonder if the ban on a film that received logistical support from the army, and that criticises the democratic government, is a result of friction between the two.”

Mahmood said Pakistan is at its “lowest point yet” in terms of censorship. “My problem is not with what is happening to the filmmakers of these three films right now,” he said. “I worry about someone who is just starting to write his script. Because as the CBFC has shown us, if someone in some government office doesn’t like your film, it can be banned even after certification.”

Filmmakers are already self-censoring in response to these bans. On 14 June, the director Jamshed Mahmood Raza, popularly known as Jami, told the national daily the Express Tribune that he has shelved his latest project in light of the CBFC’s ban of Maalik. “My movie touches upon the Objectives Resolution and how our country became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” he said. (Adopted in 1949, the Objectives Resolution established that Pakistan’s constitution would be modelled on religious ideology.) “Even if it is positive,” Jami said of his film, “it may not be approved by the authorities.”

For now, the filmmakers directly affected by the recent bans must decide how to proceed. Azeem refuses to put his film online, release pirated DVDs or host secret screenings. He won’t even give a copy to journalists reporting on the ban. “Maalik shows that every citizen in the nation is subject to its law,” he said. “If I break the law, that means I am a hypocrite.”

Naqvi, on the other hand, is considering organising more secret screenings of Among the Believers—even though, after the first was reported on in the press, he is liable to face three years of imprisonment and a fine of up to 1 lakh Pakistani rupees. “I want people to see the film and arrive at their own judgment about it,” he said. “It’s an issue of freedom of speech. I believe the movie should be seen by everyone, and not just a private audience. Because then, I am only preaching to the converted.”

Mohammad despairs that he can only hope to show Besieged in Quetta outside Pakistan. “From day one, I made this film for Pakistanis, even making sure that none of my interviews were conducted in English, so that it could be seen by an Urdu-speaking audience,” he said. “I made a film for my home, so that it could be discussed in my home. But apparently we can’t even do that.”