In April 2016, a notice was issued by the Ministry of Information, Broadcasting, and National Heritage that declared the Urdu feature film Maalik, directed by Ashir Azeem, as “uncertified”. A few days later, a similar announcement from the Central Board of Film Censors had the organisers of Islamabad’s Foundation of Arts, Culture and Education (FACE) Film Festival in a predicament before the official screenings as two documentary films, Among the Believers and Besieged in Quetta, were deemed “unsuitable for public exhibition”. In light of these recent bans on films in Pakistan, the Herald asks commentators associated with the film industry about what, according to them, has been the most absurd ban placed in cinematic history.
There were several restrictions in addition to some bans that contributed to the gradual decline of the Pakistani film industry. I would like to reflect on the restrictive processes that I feel delivered the harshest blows to the industry at the time.
General Ziaul Haq's strict policy controls on film production and censorship during the early 1980s were particularly unfavourable for the film fraternity. A process was launched whereby film producers had to get themselves registered and get clearance from the Ministry of Culture before being granted permission to make a film. The process required them to present their academic degrees and a two-lakh-rupee bank guarantee. A film could be made for eight lakh rupees back then so this was a significant ask. Film production halted for nearly nine months, breaking the momentum in the industry. Of course, several film makers and cinemas suffered during this hiatus.
Additionally, an intrusive film censorship policy with minute level scrutiny of content curtailed the creative independence of film makers. Sending a film for censorship was tantamount to presenting it before a supreme court. Film investors became shy to invest due to the risk factor, thus impacting the number of films in production. Moreover, censor slicing often resulted in continuity jumps which marred the overall film viewing experience for the audience.
By Satish Anand
He is the Chairman of Eveready Group of Companies. He has previously served as the Chairman of the Film Distributors Association.
Shooting the messenger
I remember when films like Tere Bin Laden, or Slackistan, were banned — one, an intelligent comedy where mostly the title was the source of scare and another, where decisions of showing young people partying in the way they really do, were deemed inappropriate. They were ahead of the so-called “revival” and hence, were guinea pigs; I wish the board had stood up for them and been a pioneer because, as can be seen in recent films, at least the risqué content front is now being pushed with films like Jawani Phir Nahi Ani.
Some film-makers are creating content keeping the censor board in mind, for instance, a film like Chambaili gets a release because all the references, though direct, were created in a parallel world that was not Pakistan, but then a similar political thriller like Maalik is in trouble. Encouraging content creators to reverse engineer their content to the censor board is perhaps the biggest dagger in the heart of a nascent film industry. The reality is, it’s all smoke and mirrors; you, as a content creator, realise that it’s about playing by a rule book where the rules are constantly being changed on you. It is a crap-shoot. Hence, don’t worry about the ban, just make your film and then deal with the reality as it comes. Bans are strange, because they have their basis in fear most of the time.
As a storyteller wanting to tell stories that are uncomfortable, you have to go back to the ethics of storytelling. If we are storytellers who want to evolve the thought process of a society, then by default we will always be questionable in our content. But then, isn’t that the point of cinema? To push the envelope, and in the process, the proverbial buttons of the established status quo?
By Iram Parveen Bilal
She is a film-maker and activist. Her production banner is Parveen Shah Productions and she is also the founder of Qalambaaz.
Fundamentally, I am against the subject of banning. Why would we want to mummy our audiences and control what they watch? It’s almost entirely a voluntary action to watch a film, so if anyone is going to be offended by it, they should simply not watch it. If they still end up watching it for some reason, they’re free to petition the producers of the film and voice their opinion. Right. We all know that won’t fly for a minute here in Pakistan. So, until we get our house in order, it may be necessary to censor some films, and outright ban others, for security reasons alone. We don’t want any more cinemas getting burnt, do we?
This brings us to the issue that the people, who are in charge of censoring and banning films, or all art for that matter, need to be competent. Going through the list of films that have been banned in Pakistan and how this responsibility, as well as the execution of it, has been undertaken, one cannot help but wonder who the people comprising the censor board are, and who chose them? Naturally, they must have to deal with a lot of pressure from the establishment, who are also some really confused folk, and highly corrupt to boot. Thus, we have films arbitrarily being banned, and then magically getting unbanned a few hours or days later. Did the film fix itself while it was in storage? At least try to make decisions that you won’t have to backtrack on, so that people can take you seriously.
What angers me most is when films are banned because they are deemed to be against our national interest. Why is our national ‘interest’ so fragile that it is threatened by a film? It’s not like there aren’t a million other ways of watching those films anyway. You can download them, buy a pirated DVD, etc. Ground realities need to be taken into consideration when these decisions are taken. Here, we have films being banned that could have had their titles changed, or a few scenes taken out. Here’s an idea: how about we do everyone a favour and come out with an actual policy, some guidelines to help producers and distributors decide what to make or sell? Isn’t that what such boards are supposed to do?
Although motion pictures are one of the most popular forms of artistic expression as well as entertainment in the world, we seem to have a film industry that is struggling to make a revival. The people responsible for regulating it need to keep that in account when making decisions. Producers have barely gained enough confidence to fund new ventures, and every time a local film is prohibited from distribution, that reduces the chances of future films and film-makers. Sometimes, though, it has the opposite effect, and boosts a mediocre film’s popularity. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, they say.
But, as they (also) say in just about every super hero comic and movie, with great power comes great responsibility, and our censor board as well as the people who are able to influence it, really need to keep those words in mind the next time they step into a screening room. But they probably just watch the films on their mobile phones.
By Nofil Naqvi
He is a director, producer and cinematographer who has worked on digital videos, documentaries and feature films.
This originally appeared in the Herald's June 2016 issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.