Reader, I have seen Zindagi Tamasha—before and after it was censored.
Without giving the story away, I shall try to address some complete lies and fabrications that have been propagated about the film, both by those whose sentiments have been hurt without watching it and some by those who have loved it without watching it. Remember that the only people who have seen the entire film so far are the members of Pakistan’s censor boards. They include bureaucrats, members of civil society and representatives of our intelligence agencies, people you would think are acutely aware of our cultural and religious sensibilities. And they passed it. Twice.
Is the film about child molestation?
It is NOT. No one is ever accused of molesting children. The subject doesn’t figure at all in the plot, nor is it a part of the subplot. It’s neither mentioned nor alluded to. There was one line in which, during a heated argument, the main protagonist says, “But what about those who molest children?” Censor board cut that line and it stays cut. Child molestation is rampant in Pakistan, in secular as well as religious institutions, in our homes and streets, and one wishes there were a film about it. But this is not that film. The only children you see in the film are happy, shiny children celebrating Eid Milad un Nabi. It’s frightening though, that in a two-and-a-half minute trailer, people see a bearded man in trouble and they assume it must be child abuse.
Does the film make fun of Shuair-e-Islam (tenets of Islam)?
It is the first modern Pakistani film that embraces and celebrates Shuair-e-Islam. It was shot during the Eid Milad un Nabi celebration in Old Lahore. Every believer, or even half-believer will find the spectacle breathtaking, the sounds, the lights, the feeling of a carnival in which entire families come out to celebrate the birthday of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). I have never seen a camera capture religious fervor with such respect and devotion. There are no jokes, no ironies—just the pure joy that you see on 12th Rabiul Awwal in Old Lahore. None of the celebrations have been staged. Eid Milad un Nabi is not a religious group’s private franchise. It’s an open and public celebration.
Does the film show ulema in a bad light?
There are no ulema in the film. The deepest hurt seems to have been caused by the main protagonist who has a beard. He is Khwaja Rahat, a small property dealer who never claims to be an aalim. He is a good enough Muslim, according to the director, Sarmad Khoosat. I’m guessing that the hurt has been caused by the challenging of a stereotype of a fanatic that we often see in popular culture. The protagonist is a compassionate man, who helps out the needy, composes and reads sehras at weddings and makes halva at Eid Milad un Nabi and distributes it. He is not a professional naatkhwan, but he loves reciting naats. In a memorable scene in the film, he is shown rehearsing a naat along with his wife.
Is it a taboo-breaking film?
The only taboo the film breaks is showing a man with a beard doing house chores. It humanises a religious man. I can’t remember the last time a bearded man or any man was shown in a film cooking, doing laundry, doing his ailing wife’s hair. Is showing a bearded man doing house chores an insult to our faith?
Is Zindagi Tamasha foreign-funded?
Sarmad Khoosat did it the old-fashioned way: he sold a plot of land to make this film. SK is one of Pakistan’s most successful drama and film directors. The first* Pakistani drama serial screened in cinemas was Humsafar, directed by him. He directed the critically acclaimed and commercially successful film Manto. Zindagi Tamasha is the first Pakistani feature film in a long time to have won a prestigious international award, at the Busan Film Festival.
I don’t know very many commercially successful directors, who take time off to teach at public institutions and then give their young people breaks. Many of the cast and crew and musicians in Zindagi Tamasha are making their professional debuts in life. For many years Khoosat was the main anchor for the Shaukat Khanum fund-raising campaign. He recently directed a film about the life of the first Pakistani female fighter pilot. He has also hosted Ramzan transmissions and my favourite, a cooking show during Ramzan. He is more Pakistani than our entire cabinet put together.
Why is the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan so upset?
Reader, you should have some empathy and try to understand the trauma the TLP went through recently.
The TLP is upset over other stuff. In the last elections, they emerged as Pakistan’s fourth political party. They came out thumping their chests, and laid siege to our capital. When they did the establishment’s bidding, they were handed thousand-rupee envelopes and called ‘hamaray bhai’. After Aasia Noreen’s acquittal, they called for a mutiny in the army and murder of the highest judges in the land. This is when it was realized that they are not the cuddly bears we were led to believe they were. The state came down hard on them. One day you are being given a pat on the back and a thousand-rupee note after rioting with the police. A few months later, you are being handed fifty-five year prison sentences for rioting with the police.
That is what has hurt their feelings. When the TLP accused Pakistan’s most powerful men of blasphemy, they were put to pasture. The TLP only has a one-point agenda: to scream blasphemy. Blasphemy. Blasphemy. NO good, or good enough Muslim, as Sarmad Khoosat calls his protagonist, is going to ask so what exactly was blasphemous?
In Zindagi Tamasha, there was only one reference to it in which a minor character says: “Lawaan naara gustaakhi da?” Should I cry the slogan of blasphemy against you?
The censors said, cut that line. The director cut that line.
Reader, what should the director cut now?
*Humsafar was the first, not the last, drama to be screened in cinemas. The article has been updated to correct this.
Mohammed Hanif is one of Pakistan’s most celebrated writers and columnists. His latest novel is Red Birds (Bloomsbury). His debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, has just been translated to Urdu. He tweets at @MohammedHanif
This article was originally published on January 23, 2020.