IN his life, Saadat Hasan Manto continually faced charges of obscenity for his short stories. This led him to declare: “If you cannot bear these stories then the society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society, which itself is naked. I don’t even try to cover it, because it is not my job, that’s the job of dressmakers.” Decades later, the ‘dressmakers’ continue to find new reasons to cloak uncomfortable truths. Filmmaker Sarmad Khoosat experienced the spectacle first-hand, with the commotion created around the release of his film Zindagi Tamasha. Despite being cleared by various censor boards that are known for being ‘strict’, the growing pressure from religious hardliners — based on assumptions they formed while watching a two-minute-long trailer — led to an unspecified delay in its release date. Members of the TLP called for protest rallies against the film, leading to the governments of Sindh and Punjab blocking its release. Meanwhile, Mr Khoosat felt compelled to clarify that he was a “believer” like the protesters after he began receiving “dozens of threatening phone calls and [messages]”. Now, the special assistant to the prime minister on information and broadcasting has informed us that the Central Board of Film Censors has approached the Council of Islamic Ideology for its opinion. While this has resulted in the TLP calling off its protest for the time being, it sets the wrong precedent. Should the council be expected to judge the artistic merit of films in the future?
Far too often, the state cedes to the demands of undemocratic mobs. A refusal to look at reality with all its nuances or have honest conversations about sensitive issues has resulted in a distinctive hypocrisy that permeates Pakistani society. Art has the power to plant the seeds of doubt and challenge long-held prejudices, by creating empathy with those we deem to be very different from ourselves. It is tragic that this threatens some so deeply.
Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2020