The real reason Sarmad Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha is banned in Pakistan

Watch Zindagi Tamasha for its beautiful and enchanting scroll, watch it to humanise the damned, watch it for its heart-breaking humanity, but most importantly, watch it because a Pakistani has made some damn good art.
Published August 28, 2023

The difference between good art and bad art is that good art is subtle. Pakistan struggles to do subtle. There is certainly your everyday slapstick comedy, the tragic heroine, and the flippantly violent hero. But no, Pakistan is not at all good at subtle, which is why Sarmad Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha is banned.

To put it succinctly, this film is about how a non-minority becomes a minority. The protagonist is a religious devout, who gets an instant rogue status for the crime of loving to dance effeminately. Had our hero danced unnoticed, he would have survived, but he gets caught [on camera] by the ridicule-addicted world of viral social media take downs and cancel-culture. Zindagi Tamasha is old world meets new, but it’s also the worst of both worlds.

We are a country that prefers staying within social constructs. A daughter must be dutiful towards a father. The respectable must not have whims. The wives must be able-bodied. The community must have only men and women. This is the only script that the gatekeepers of morality will accept — the grossly hypocritical. The utterly unrealistic. The fashionable lie. The rest is punishable.

Art that aligns completely with power is called propaganda. Zindagi Tamasha completely aligns with the circus of life.

The film, now finally released but on YouTube, has vindicated the idea that Pakistan is not just a fertile haven for bad art, it will do anything for good art to become commercially unsuccessful. Here, the creative process is marred by the fear of rejection, which is why we are inspired by the few artists who overcome their artistic terror and still show up in the arena.

Yet, as things stand now, the fear of the film board’s license refusal is bigger than your audience throwing rotten tomatoes at you. To be an artist in this country, first, you silence your inner critic and create art, then you face the likelihood of being silenced in the cinemas, despite creating art. It is no wonder then that artists either move abroad or move on to pamphleteering.

An award-worthy movie

Shakespeare and Mirza Ghalib said it before Sarmad Khoosat did — “All the world’s a stage and the men and women merely actors” and “Bazeesha-e-Afal hai dunya mere agay [The world is just a sport of children and nothing more to me]”.

Yet, no one said it as dramatically as the Punjabi theatrics, Punjabi nuances and Punjabi lyricism that Khoosat directed in Zindagi Tamasha. He said it in the film because the characters are impulsive and brutish, and then he said it again at the introduction of the YouTube release.

In both film and publishing, the fact remains that whimsical people do whimsical things, on the set and off the set, script or no script. What the former does particularly well is that it brings to life the loud, uncanny, and in-your-face discrepancies between what we believe in and what we want others to believe about us. The dialogue, short and snappy, the characters believable and cherished, and the cinematography, seared in the museums we collect in our minds.

This is an award-worthy movie. A movie that should go out in the world, even at the risk of rotten tomatoes.

Anyone can make a film about humans not following the scripts of life and ending up in disaster, but it is Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha that makes it about a compliant gentleman, who still manages to fail colossally. How?!

An unlikely hero

This hero of ours — an old, frail-hearted man who follows the moral, political, social, and familial script to the tee — somehow still manages to get into the crosshairs of the power brokers. How does he manage to anger all at once the clergy, the political dynamic, the social fabric, the family system, and his fans? Here is our hero, clergy as clergy can be, a devotee, and a man who finds only ways to praise the Lord. How can his cute and harmless knack for fun become so exploitable?

Juxtaposition is dangerous, supposedly.

All mess occurs in clusters, so we have the meme-infested youth, who hardly understand how consent works or even how responsibility works for that matter. Then there are your usual people, who drop you the instant they feel your behaviour doesn’t check out with the proverbial state-sanctioned understanding of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Or whatever the theme of the decade is.

These people will stop accepting your food, stop inviting you to their kids’ weddings, and stop by your house to yell insults. The Jones’s need not be kept up with because the Jones’s hate you, they admonish you, they take your social equity out of your range, and they may even hurl you off a cliff if they can.

In Pakistan, it is easier to accuse those you hate of something that is unpardonable instead. Something that can get you mob-lynched instead. So it goes that our hero, an old compliant man who even washes clothes at home, did a small unconventional thing [in this case, danced effeminately] and ended up with a big bad death at his doorstep. If Zindagi Tamasha leaves you with one thing, let it be that you can die if you are not liked.

We may have become a nuclear state, built the orange bus networks, evaded a default, and forged meaningful human rights treaties, but we haven’t found a way to allow people to be individuals. We want them to be collective state-sponsored ambassadors, even in their own company, even in living rooms, even in their heads.

The rest of the world has mostly given up on this way of governance. They manufacture ideas and tech and keep crime low. We instead are still keen to ensure everyone behaves. We fear that freedom will erase us, whereas it is clear now that it is containment that threatens to eradicate us.

It is also clear that when the respectable ones are put out to dry by power, it is the dispossessed, the outcasts and those who don’t fit into gender binaries who come to give a helping hand, attend funerals, dance at their kids’ weddings, and help them belong again.

Watch Zindagi Tamasha for its beautiful and enchanting scroll, watch it to humanise the damned, watch it for its heart-breaking humanity, but most importantly, watch it because a Pakistani has made some damn good art.