Asim Abbasi, Osman Haneef discuss self-censorship at KLF 2021
There have been a number of historical instances where art and literature introduced ideas and elevated discussions among the masses.
Osman Haneef, the author of The Verdict, said this during an online session titled Freedom of Expression in Art and Literature on the second day of the Karachi Literature Festival. It featured himself and Churails director Asim Abbasi, and was moderated by author Safina Danish Elahi.
“What is freedom of expression to you,” Safina asked Asim.
“I guess it is the ability to tell our stories honestly,” Asim said. “Every storyteller is trying to figure out some kind of authenticity to the story they are telling.” This honesty encompasses all areas of discussion, he said. It doesn’t make people look bad, who are willing to engage in honest conversations and want a better future.
The Verdict tells the story of a Christian boy accused of blasphemy, a crime punishable by death in Pakistan. Lawyer Sikander Ghaznavi takes it upon himself to fight for the boy as he returns to Pakistan after several years. A corrupt system unravels as the story progresses and the fates of its key characters lie in uncertainty amid religious extremism in Quetta.
The trial depicted in the book is similar to the one the late human rights activist and lawyer Asma Jahangir is known for — of 11-year-old Salamat Masih, who was accused of writing blasphemous words in a mosque in 1993.
“I didn’t want to tell the story of a single trial,” Osman responded when asked why he fictionalised Salamat’s trial. “It’s a story about characters and broader injustices in society.” Fiction is one of the few art forms where one can enter someone else’s point of view and see things from their perspective, he added.
The discussion then shifted to Churails, a web series challenging the hypocrisy of patriarchal societies that continue to oppress the weak. Child abuse, male dominance and sexism were some of the topics shown in the series that starred Sarwat Gilani, Nimra Bucha, Mehar Bano, and Yasra Rizvi.
In October 2020, Churails was removed for Pakistan-based viewers from ZEE5 Global for its “vulgar” content, but was back within 48 hours.
“I don’t think I did anything [in the series] to get that reaction,” Asim said in response to the criticism. The filmmaker added that he was showing a plethora of women in the series and that it would have been a disservice to say that all 30 women were heterosexual. “I needed to be as honest as possible when depicting women from all different kinds of backgrounds,” he remarked.
For Asim, Churails was a play of ‘veiling and unveiling”, with women having to hide and losing something (burqa) that puts them back in an oppressive society. “It was taking the ownership of things that are usually used to put women in the background,” he said, adding that there was a cultural reference, but not a deliberate religious one, as it was perpetuated.
These thoughts did, however, cross Asim’s mind, but what kept him going was his team and the excited cast who couldn’t have produced such content for television in Pakistan.
“We do have historical examples of instances where art has introduced certain ideas into the national consciousness,” said Osman, mentioning how Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Oscar-winning A Girl in the River led to an anti-honour killing legislation and prompted discussions on the subject. “It is proof that art, literature and film can start conversation essential for any change.”
The panel also discussed hurdles that self-censorship creates during content production. “It plays a huge role,” said Asim. “Cake  was such a simple story and yet I had told keep holding my hand back when the sisters [played by Sanam Saeed and Aamina Sheikh] would crack a joke which I thought would become indecent.”
Asim said he wasn’t as concerned for Churails as it was for an international company, which was going to release it in 190 countries. “The only people you do disservice to are your own,” Asim remarked, adding that creators would be less interested in producing content for a country where its future is uncertain.
For a writer, on the other hand, it is important to not be worried about content while they are writing it. “It prevents you from producing anything worthwhile,” said Osman. “But it’s easier for us to talk about these things because Asim and I live in the UK.”
“We have to make the environment conducive,” said Asim. Viewers need to stand behind content that’s different and not be scared of it affecting their “morality”. We need to change the public narrative that anything that is different is bad, Asim added.