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Updated February 18, 2018


Leea Contractor
Leea Contractor

Last year, Bollywood superstar Salman Khan’s film Tiger Zinda Hai was not allowed to be shown at Pakistani cinemas. Akshay Kumar’s PadMan has now met with the same fate, apparently because of its subject. The film is a bold attempt from director R. Balki of Cheeni Kum, Paa and English Vinglish fame as it carries a strong message. Shouldn’t it be left to the cine-goers to decide what they want to see? At the fag end of 2017, Tiger Zinda Hai failed to reach the screens in Pakistan as one of the objections raised by the censor board to the film was that it showed a Pakistani girl in love with an Indian boy.

In the past, Afzal Chaudhry’s Lakhoon Mein Eik (LME) had a similar situation when Ejaz, a Muslim boy from Pakistan, was seen in love with Shamim Ara, a Hindu girl from across the border. Directed by Raza Mir and written by Zia Sarhadi, the film, now considered a classic, was released in 1967. A famous song from the movie sung by Noor Jehan and Mujeeb Alam, Saathi Kahan Ho, had meaningful lyrics:

Sub dastoor hain jhootay jag kay, jhooti hain saari rasmain
Yeh manzoor hai kab duniya ko, mil ke rahain aapas mein

The song targeted the Two-Nation Theory and yet writer Sarhadi, who had strong communist leanings, was forgiven for choosing Partition rather than a contemporary setting as the film’s beginning sequence. But films released around the same time as LME with contemporary settings were heavily censored, citing patriotic or religious reasons.

The ban placed on a couple of Indian films in recent times by Pakistan’s censor authorities once again raises the question about who should decide for cine-goers what they can see and what they are not allowed to see. The issue, however, is not a new one. Icon looks back at the history of censorship in Pakistan

It all began in the 1950s with W.Z. Ahmed, a celebrated director and producer who had migrated from India to Pakistan, becoming the first victim of the censors. A veteran of half-a-dozen films in the undivided subcontinent, he established W.Z. Studios in Lahore and directed Roohi, which was banned in 1954. The reason given was that Roohi promoted “class hatred” because the film depicted illicit relations between a rich, married woman and a young, single man. W.Z. Ahmed went on to direct the super hit Waadah (1957) with Santosh Kumar and Sabiha Khanum in the lead roles but never did he or his son Fareed Ahmed ever attempt a bold subject again.

W.Z. Ahmed directed Waadah (1957) with Santosh Kumar and Sabiha Khanum | Photos: Guddu Film Archive
W.Z. Ahmed directed Waadah (1957) with Santosh Kumar and Sabiha Khanum | Photos: Guddu Film Archive

Saeed Fazli, too, had his share of cuts. A nephew of the Dopatta fame director Subtain Fazli, Saeed directed just one film, Waqt Ki Pukar (1967) with Zeba in the lead.

When the Tashkent Declaration of 1966 was signed between India and Pakistan, the film was under production. Penned by poet and scholar Raees Amrohvi and its music composed by Nisar Bazmi, the film ended up violating a clause of the declaration where both sides were to discourage any propaganda directed against each other. The word India and all other related references were removed from the film’s ‘final’ cut and WKP bombed at the box office. The popular Mehdi Hassan song, Janeman aaj tu jo paas nahi, was also included in the ill-fated film’s soundtrack.

Riaz Shahid, the father of actor and director Shaan, was a big name in the film industry. A script writer par excellence, he was also a director known for making noteworthy films. He scripted films such as Neend, Shaheed, Farangi, Khamosh Raho and Zarqa.

Lakhoon Mein Eik, now considered a classic, was released in 1967
Lakhoon Mein Eik, now considered a classic, was released in 1967

One of the films he wrote dialogues for, Mafroor, got in trouble with the censor authorities. Produced by veteran actor Agha Talish, Mafroor had Sudhir and Zeba in the lead roles. The story drew inspiration from Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier’s The Defiant Ones, but the villain in the Pakistani version resembled the Nawab of Kalabagh, an influential figure in those days. The censor board at the time had the ‘bad guy’ completely removed from the story. Initially scheduled for release in 1967, it got delayed as a new villain had to be inducted. Mafroor was eventually released with a new title Jang-i-Azadi in 1969, but it didn’t turn out to be the way it was originally conceived.

Riaz Shahid also produced, directed and wrote Aman, a film which highlighted the Kashmir liberation movement. With powerful dialogues, excellent locales, melodious songs and a gripping story, it had all the ingredients of a classic. The film was made way ahead of its time and was chopped by the censor authorities. It was released as Yeh Aman with changes and did not prove to be successful at the box office as the cuts had ruined its plot. Riaz Shahid died a broken man in 1972. It was later, in 1975, that the then Prime Minister of Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto announced the first protest day on Feb 5 in support of the Kashmiris. Yeh Aman was shown on PTV Home on Kashmir Day earlier this year, and it was nice to see the songs from the forgotten film being used as promos with young Kashmiris from today fighting for their liberation.

Gen Ziaul Haq came to power in 1977 and the censor laws that followed literally killed film production values. During his rule, Punjabi films ruled the roost as the makers of Urdu films either left the country or ventured into other businesses. The new rules, where a producer had to register himself and await clearance from the culture ministry, did anything but to promote filmmaking.

Actor and director Rangeela’s Aurat Raaj was also pulled from the cinemas after a successful run. In the unconventional film, men (such as Waheed Murad and Sultan Rahi) performed women’s roles and Rani and other actresses took on the roles usually associated with men. This was found too subversive for the audience by the authorities as was a reference to a “women’s army” and transgender candidates announcing themselves as “independent” in elections.

The screening of Dil Bhi Tera Hum Bhi Tere was halted by the CBFC Islamabad after citing objections that included something as basic as the the heroine’s outfits | Guddu Film Archive
The screening of Dil Bhi Tera Hum Bhi Tere was halted by the CBFC Islamabad after citing objections that included something as basic as the the heroine’s outfits | Guddu Film Archive

At the turn of the century, Saeed Rizvi, the man behind Pakistan’s first sci-fi film Shanee made his only romantic film Dil Bhi Tera Hum Bhi Tere (DBTHBT). The film had Meera, Saud, Mohsin Khan and Sahiba in the cast. Officially shot in Thailand, DBTHBT was cleared by the Karachi branch of the Censor Board and was released on schedule. Two weeks later, the screening was halted by the CBFC (Central Board of Film Censors) Islamabad after citing objections that included something as basic as the the heroine’s outfits.

Strict censor rules of the Zia era led to protests in different ways. Full body stockings shown in Pushto cinema were a direct response to the rules which prohibited skin showing. Double entendres became common in Punjabi films of the 1980s, and later found their way into Urdu films. It was the easiest way of escaping the scissors.

The game has changed drastically worldwide for filmmaking but the way things function in Pakistan led to the banning of Ashar Azeem’s Maalik in 2016, which had the character of a corrupt provincial governor. The Fahad Mustafa-Javed Shaikh starrer Na Maloom Afraad 2 was also banned, then previewed and then cleared again in October 2017, while veteran director Shoaib Mansoor’s Verna, starring Mahira Khan, had its share of pre-release drama as it tackled the sensitive issue of rape. The film was finally released without any cuts by the CBFC. So, if anyone thinks that the censor games are not an old phenomenon, think again.

Published in Dawn, ICON, February 18th, 2018