Zindagi Tamasha (ZT), translated as Circus of Life, takes its own title seriously. In a cruel twist of art imitating life, fate rolled up its sleeves and took the title seriously in retaliation.
ZT’s story had been misconstrued as a statement since its trailer came out. It was prejudged to be taboo-level dangerous, and was lopped with every imaginable critical graveness that was deemed agenda-driven, mad and fatal for the religio-societal culture of this country.
There had been much talk about it — as there always is, and a lot of it was souped up by vocal liberal filmmakers (the kind who find causes to support by inflating them out of context) or champions of freedom of expression and artistic liberations, but little clarity was given of the exact issues — especially from 2022, when the film was set to release and then put in a purgatory of bans and committees.
Sarmad Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha has finally released… on YouTube. Contrary to heated speculations about it, but perhaps aptly, it is actually a touching story about human fallibility and the sensationalism that make people outcasts in their own communities
Was the film shaming religion, or highlighting homosexuality?
It was deemed to, from the trailers.
Were the censor boards withholding its exhibition to safeguard the sanctity of a decades-old bylaw that specifically takes a strong stand on religion, responsibilities, ethics and moralities embedded in narratives — or, as it appeared, were they pressured into submission?
On the first part: Yes, the law does serve as a watchdog on these points… but it didn’t really have anything to do with the film, because the film had no such narrative to propagate.
ZT is about family turmoil, human fallibility, harmless-if-embarrassing-to-look-at kinks, the exploitation of religion, and sensationalism, which makes people outcasts in their own communities — and later, how one tragedy is enough for people to give up their fickle, antagonistic attitudes.
At the start of ZT, available to stream for free on YouTube — with a director’s cut available to rent on Vimeo (we’ll get to that later in the review), Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, the film’s co-dialogue writer/director/producer/co-editor, in an introductory preamble for the film, shows censor certificates from Sindh, Punjab and Islamabad with their respective U, U and A ratings that clear the film for theatrical release. Immediately afterwards, as if raising the middle finger to naysayers, follow labels of international accolades.
ZT has won the Kim Jiseok Award at the Busan International Film Festival in 2019; the Sabeen Mahmud, Best Ensemble Performance and Best International Feature at MISAFF 2020; Best Narrative Feature at the 6th Indie Meme Film Festival; Best Actor and Best International Feature Film at the Asian World Film Festival, 2020; Best Film at the UK Asian Film Festival, 2021. It was also the official selection at the Vancouver International South Asian Film Festival, 2021, and the I-View World 2021 International Film Festival 2021.
Then comes the final zinger: a text tells us that ZT was also Pakistan’s official submission to the 93rd Oscars … without having a theatrical release in its own country.
According to Sarmad, ZT was content being just a story he wanted to tell; the preamble on YouTube turns it into a statement. If controversy could’ve been avoided, the statement wouldn’t have come across with such blunt force.
Sarmad’s film, made from Nirmal Bano’s screenplay (she also co-authored the story and dialogues, is the first assistant director, and also one of the editors), opens like the calm in the middle of a storm.
Rahat Khawaja (Arif Hasan), one of those middlingly popular na’at khwaans with a quivering, hardly lyrical voice, stands in front of blue fairy lights reciting a na’at for the camera.
Rahat is famous enough to record an album, and write and sing sehras for his neighbor’s son on his wedding day. People love him — or at the very least, respect him — but the circle of reverence is boxed within old conventions.
Sarmad literally shoots them from a top-shot, showing us the confined frame of his neighborhood’s eventual mindset; it is one of the film’s many creatively inclined, contextually relevant shots.
The mental incarceration is mostly societal — a fact Rahat learns the hard way when he dances, yes dances, with flailing arms, awkward gyrations and chest presses, to an old Lollywood song Zindagi Tamasha Bani, performed by Afshan, from the film Nauker Vohti Da.
Hardly a minute back, Rahat had told his neighborhood friends — one of whom is the father of the groom whose sehra he had recited, and who jovially cajoled him into dance a step or two — that his father beat him black and blue when he once caught him dancing like Lollywood heroines and vamps when he was a kid.
The beating, we realise, had put a stop to Rahat’s dancing, but not his love for old Pakistani movies; especially those with inelegantly choreographed dances. As minutes pass, we realise that his apparent-love hides an addictive and eventually disastrous kink — one that plays out quite effectively in the climax.
If Rahat had any other tilts in sexual indulgences, cultural and religious pressures might have snuffed them off. He is a pious, mostly silent passive man who has an inquiring, incisive glare in his light-coloured eyes. Despite his docile persona, and his sad story, he appears as an unappealing protagonist who chooses to be unintelligent and oblivious to things outside his peripheral vision.
It is not that bad things don’t affect him; he just steps back and lets time handle it best. Maybe his actions stem from wisdom — wisdom that took a temporary leave of absence when he danced his heart out.
Rahat’s inelegant dance, filmed with such deliberate awkwardness that it embarrasses his friends and the audience, is secretly recorded by a young man, and becomes a viral internet meme the following morning.
Rahat’s daughter Sadaf (Eman Suleman), a morning show producer for a news channel, who is married to an obliging, henpecked husband Danish (Ali Kureshi), sees the meme explosion happen in real-time.
Rahat and Sadaf’s relations take a nose-dive; things might have been divisive between them for years, it seems. The one link keeping them close is Farkhunda, Rahat’s wife — Samiya Mumtaz, in an award-worthy performance.
Farkhunda is bed-bound and pessimistic about her remaining life on earth, but she still possesses a good-enough singing voice, and may have been Rahat’s muse. There is genuine love between the two, and Rahat is a caring husband who isn’t burdened by his wife’s illness.
Sarmad excels in telling a minor story that is laden with heavy-handed, in-your-face, black-and-white points-of-view. It is a well-crafted narrative that has a clear direction and motive — people are fallible, arrogant idiots, despite their simple yet intricate natures.
The film paints realistic villains from minor arguments, like in real-life. Religion, though omnipresent in the story, is never picturised as evil; rather, religious ideals force Rahat to condemn people that make a business out of depravity.
At one critical juncture in the story, Rahat finds himself in a secret place where men with gay tendencies assemble. The lair of debauchery includes queer, intoxicated men who dance like vixens.
Sarmad cameos as one of the presumably drunk dancers. The director’s cut, available to stream for a one-day rent from Vimeo includes a minute and three seconds (give or take a second or two) of Sarmad’s up, close and personal dance with two men. This indulgent minute, and its 11-dollar price tag supports Khoosat Film’s next venture, but brings little additional value to the film that is already out on YouTube.
Sarmad’s film, on the other hand, is hardly indulgent. In fact, by the time I watched the director’s cut, barely two hours after watching the full film on YouTube, I felt it breezing away faster than before — and no, I wasn’t watching it with x1.5 speed.
Sombrely shot by Khizer Idrees (the cinematographer of Verna and Superstar, and the director of the serial Badshah Begum), and briskly edited by Nadeem Abbas, Bano and Sarmad, one sees tell-tale signs of mature filmmaking in ZT’s every crevice; it is a perfect precursor/companion piece to Sarmad’s far superior — and far more intricate — follow-up venture, Kamli: a different tale of fallibilities, anguish and sadness, that, like ZT, has a wallop of an ending.
Executive produced by Irfan Khoosat, produced by Kanwal Khoosat, Zindagi Tamasha has an assortment of censor certificates. Given its subject matter, I would give it a PG-13 — Parents cautioned, though only because the story is for adults, but does not have explicit subject matter
Published in Dawn, ICON, August 27th, 2023