Thieves of Joy(land)

As far as the authorities are concerned, we are a nation of 220 million delicate little flowers, our sensitivities constantly under threat by the weakest amongst us.
Published November 15, 2022

However low your expectations may be of Pakistan’s socio-political landscape, there’s one thing you can consistently rest assured of — even when it seems impossible, it will still find a way to fall short of them.

On Friday, the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting revoked the certification it had granted for ‘Joyland’ to be screened in theatres. The film had received widespread and international acclaim following its screening at the Cannes Film Festival, and was set to be Pakistan’s official submission to the Oscars.

In its infinite wisdom, the ministry declined to mention any specifics about what had rendered the film ‘repugnant to norms of decency and morality’, and thus violative of Section 9 of the Motion Pictures Ordinance 1979. Neither did it explain how, post-18th Amendment, it had the authority to ban it in all provinces.

When viewed in context, however, the reason for the decision is clear: the film is about a transgender person. And despite the fact that this community has lived in South Asia for thousands of years, and was rendered a brutally oppressed minority post-colonialism, many powerful individuals in Pakistan are still offended by their very existence.

You might think the film is terrible, and strongly disagree with its contents. If so, you’d be entitled to your opinion. I wouldn’t pass any such judgment for a simple reason — I haven’t seen it. Neither have any of the people commenting on it, because — and I cannot stress this enough — it has not been released in Pakistan yet. Anyone in this country outside of the cast and crew who claims to have enough knowledge to pass their verdict is deceiving you.

Behind the ban

Who then are the thieves of joy so hell-bent on ensuring that things stay this way, rallying together to try and bury a movie they haven’t even seen?

Well, there appear to be two distinct groups of people supporting the ban.

The first are parties motivated by their interpretation of religion, with Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan at the forefront. The second are elite, self-proclaimed activists, of which the loudest voice is disgraced fashion mogul, Maria B (she who loved starting trends so much, she sent her Covid-infected cook on a holiday-by-bus, apparently prompting the pandemic’s spread to Punjab).

The first group appears to act in adherence to its political opinions and conceptions of morality. Where it goes terribly wrong is that it seeks to forcefully exert those beliefs onto others.

In a video statement, Senator Khan stated that the film was an “attack on the institution of marriage”, and would “promote transgenderism”. With all due respect, Senator, Maula Jutt featured several murders, but it was not an attack on the institution of life. Godzilla vs King Kong was indeed violent, but watching it did not turn anyone into a gorilla. Movies are not real life, and arbitrarily banning them helps no one.

The second group opposing the film, however, isn’t just misguided. It’s malicious. When people like Maria B aren’t spurring stupidity-induced public health crises and recording half-baked apology videos under golden chandeliers, they’re using the subsequent infamy to get famous on the internet.

Controversy gets you followers, and followers boost traffic to your overpriced clothing lines. A quick look at her Instagram page will unravel a sales tactic so vile as to be cartoonish — constantly attacking an already oppressed minority (the transgender community) for the end goal of fame and profit.

The victims

The victims don’t end there. Hundreds of Pakistanis have reportedly worked on this film for over six years. Is it justifiable under any conception of morality to deprive them of their hard-earned livelihood, just a week before the film was set to release? What about the economic impact? What about the ‘positive image of Pakistan’ we’re normally so obsessed with? What about the thousands of aspiring artists who’s dreams we’ve killed before they could even start? To whom we’ve sent a message that the world could be cheering them on, but their own country would shun them anyway?

If you don’t like the movie, don’t watch it. If its themes are mature, restrict it to adults. But for your country’s sake, don’t burn down its freedoms at the whims of the powerful.

This writer would stress in no uncertain terms that the film should be cleared for release immediately, and Pakistani citizens be granted the right to make their own decisions, rather than be force-fed conclusions by charlatans.

But this writer is also well aware of how unlikely it is that those in power will have the moral courage to do the right thing. Because after all, as far as they are concerned, we are a nation of 220 million delicate little flowers, our sensitivities constantly under threat by the weakest amongst us.

Header image: A scene from the film Joyland. Photo courtesy IMDB