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KARACHI, July 20: A short film based on how life was during Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s rule in the late 1970s and 1980s in Pakistan was screened to a packed audience at The Second Floor on Thursday night.

The film, titled Haal (Nirvana), is directed by debutante director Assad Zulfiqar Khan as a part of his final project of his studies at the London Film School. The film is currently being screened at several film festivals abroad.

It focuses on two central characters, a dancer portrayed by Nighat Chaudhry and a journalist who works for a paper that published a pamphlet against Zia-ul-Haq. Ms Chaudhry is shown observing the increasing intolerance in society around her; she is accosted while teaching dance to her students and while walking the streets modestly dressed but without covering her head. The journalist is ‘kidnapped’ supposedly by an intelligence agency and is tortured until he reveals the identity of the person who wrote the text of the anti-Zia pamphlet.

In one especially jarring interrogation scene, the audience cringed when one of the fingers of the journalist was cut off. Towards the end of the film, the journalist is seen back in his office, but is told by a co-worker that a certain Zafar sahib has been imprisoned in the Shahi Qilla because the authorities found out that he was the one who wrote the pamphlet.

Haal ends with a scene in which a torch-bearing angry mob is assembled outside the house of Nighat Chaudhry, hurling abuses at her and setting her house on fire while she clandestinely escapes through the backdoor.

During the question-answer session that followed the screening of the film, Assad Zulfiqar Khan alleged that Nighat Chaudhry had suffered the same treatment under Nawaz Sharif’s first government.

Excerpts from General Zia-ul-Haq’s speeches with footage from public floggings and executions that took place during his dictatorship are shown in various points during the film. “The footage is all real,” said the filmmaker. He said it was available in the archives of the BBC.

“We still haven’t gotten over Zia-ul-Haq in our country,” said the filmmaker when questioned about the relevance of his film today. “He still lives,” he added mentioning the recent incident of the burning of a mentally unstable man, allegedly for desecrating the Quran, by an angry mob in the Ahmedpur East area of Bahawalpur district.In light of the content of the film, the filmmaker criticised the army’s role in the politics of Pakistan throughout its history. “Is the army the ideological protector of our country or are they there to protect our borders?” he said. “I can’t do a public screening of something like this because the censor board would never approve of this film,” he said when asked whether he planned to release the film in Pakistan.