An addition appended at the start of the presumed theatrical version of Zindagi Tamasha, begins with a man heaving a sigh of relief. The man in front of the camera, Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, the co-writer, director, producer and editor of the film, is overwhelmed by emotional shivers.
He is releasing a film that, despite having clearances from the three censor boards of Pakistan, could not be shown in cinemas. From August 4, 2023, the film is available to stream on YouTube, free of charge.
It is a strange victory; call it a moment of sad hurrahs. You need but see Sarmad’s face to realise the pent-up anguish he, and those closely associated with ZT, may have felt since 2019, when the film was completed, submitted to festivals, and then, ran into a consequent series of blockades in its native country.
The chief of this was the subject matter: a local semi-popular reciter of naats and sana’i (hymns and praises), hailing from a small, conversative residential community in Lahore, dances — oblivious of his own embarrassing display — to an old Lollywood film song. Becoming a laughing stock on the internet (he becomes a popular meme), he is ostracised by the neighbourhood and the professional hymn-reciting fellowship.
Sarmad Sultan Khoosat says all there is to say in his short appended video on YouTube
ZT was deemed too risky to distribute. Even if it got released, cinemas would burn, distributors and exhibitors had told me in confidence years ago. And sure enough, after a series of back-and-forths with the censor boards, interventions by the ministries and advices to approach the Council of Islamic Ideology (a constitutional body that gives the government legal advice on Islamic issues) to review the film on its merits, ZT ran into protests from the religio-political party the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan.
There’s no competition between choosing one film’s release over protests that may lead to the destruction of cinemas. Expected to release on the 18th of March, 2022, the talk of release faded into black.
Sarmad has given interviews time and again on the subject — and indeed, this writer approached him for a conversation, but unfortunately, even with both parties trying to call each other, the timings couldn’t match.
No matter. I believe, Sarmad has already given the best interview any publication would want in the three-minute-long video clip appended at the beginning of his film on YouTube (it is not in the director’s cut on Vimeo), with a humble, thank you follow-up in a separate 16-minute-long video after the film’s release.
The second video is jubilant and free from tensions, he admits. It is an uncut, single-take without punch-ins, unlike in the first video. In fact, Sarmad admits that it took him two days to film the first one. “I would get angry in a few takes, I would look worried in some takes, I would look sad in others,” he says.
Congratulating the audience for the month of August — when Pakistan was established as a free-state — Sarmad says, that in the spirit of liberation, he is setting free ZT.
“I don’t want to recap the controversies which have spread more than the story of the film itself,” he says. “There is a saying in Punjabi: ‘mitti pao’ [let it go], so I want to let it all go.
“There is a sense of loss, which shouldn’t be confined to me — there is a bit of a sense of failure, but not just mine,” he continues. “The failure of the system, the failure of all of our voices not being powerful enough… because I, as a responsible citizen, as a respectable citizen, whatever I could do, in terms of processes, of administrative procedures, of legalities, I responsibly put my money on them and followed through, but still, ZT, became the target of unfairness.”
Showing the three censor certificates, Sarmad points out that ZT cannot be shown in theatres. “The cinematic, collective experience of watching that story, which was meant to be yours — which was meant to be felt by you [the audience, in cinemas], meant to be received by you, will now be received through YouTube.”
There are no conditions to spend money on the directors’ cut uploaded on Vimeo, save that it will assist “artistic independence of a small production house, that is not a corporate giant,” he states.
Sarmad also appeals to someone who had a torrent of the film — and to the audience — to not share the film, since the film is officially made public.
At the time of publication, 18 days after its online premiere, the film has 672,705 views on YouTube. Its conservatively calculated gross box-office business (based on a 700-rupee ticket), would have been 470 million rupees (47 crore rupees) — or 4.7 crore rupees, if 10 percent of the YouTube audience had shown up to spend money in cinemas.
“Zindagi Tamasha is free, and it’s yours now,” he says with a sigh of relief. The emotion reverberates, seeps into the film as the credits start rolling, and out of the screen to the audience.
Published in Dawn, ICON, August 27th, 2023