A Pakistani film about a rape victim who fights to bring her politically powerful attacker to justice has rankled Pakistan’s censors but emboldened women to speak out about sexual assault in a country where the discussion of such topics is discouraged.
The film — which overcame an initial ban imposed because of its subject matter — has inspired Pakistani women to tap into the spirit of the viral #MeToo campaign to expose sexual harassment and create their own public platform for victims and their supporters.
With the Pakistani film industry struggling to survive and wary of issue-oriented projects, the film’s release has provided a timely opportunity to talk about a difficult topic.
In the film, Verna, Pakistan’s most popular and highest-paid actress, Mahira Khan, plays a teacher who is abducted and raped repeatedly by the son of a regional governor. After failing to get justice from the police or the courts, the teacher takes matters into her own hands.
Pakistan’s Central Board of Film Censors banned the film for its “edgy content,” which the board said was “maligning state institutions.” But a public outcry, fuelled by extensive news coverage and a social media campaign, #UnbanVerna, bore fruit when an appellate board lifted the ban. The film opened on November 17 and has done moderately well at the box office.
Last month, in the wake of accusations of sexual harassment and assault against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and a growing number of other powerful figures in the United States, Pakistani social media platforms were flooded with messages from women with their own tales of abuse and rape. One digital media company, ProperGaanda, posted a video of men reading the real stories of Pakistani victims.
“It’s so ironic that at the heels of a global #MeToo moment, a fictional piece about a rape survivor fighting with authorities is banned, bringing the problem even more to the forefront of debate in Pakistan,” said Iram Parveen Bilal, a Pakistani filmmaker based in Los Angeles who has publicly praised the film.
Khan, the lead actress, said the film was a part of the #MeToo movement insofar as it sent the message that remaining silent in the face of injustice was “no longer an option.”
“That’s what my character in the film does, she speaks out — and that’s what Pakistani media, audiences, social media users and fans have done by asking for the film to be unbanned,” she said in a recent interview.
Khan, who previously starred in an Indian film with Shah Rukh Khan, perhaps Bollywood’s biggest name, said the censors had objected to her film largely because it dealt with political and sexual inequalities in Pakistani society and the difficulties that victims of even the most heinous crimes faced as they sought justice.
“People spoke up for my film because they understand that rape is not just an act of sexual frustration; it is an act of showing power,” Khan said. “And when people came out and said unban this film, what they were saying was, we won’t let these powerful people intimidate us anymore.”
The film is reminiscent of the real-life case of Mukhtar Mai, who was gang-raped as a teenager in 2002 on the orders of a village council as a punishment for her younger brother’s affair with a woman. Instead of killing herself, as rape victims sometimes do in rural Pakistan, she pressed charges against her attackers and became an international campaigner for women’s rights.
But Mai’s work has earned her many enemies, including powerful feudal lords and Pervez Musharraf, the president at the time of her case, who said crying rape was an easy way to make money or get a foreign passport.
“There is always a reaction to a strong woman who wants to fight, who wants to go public with injustice, whether it’s a real Mukhtaran Mai or a fictional representation of someone like her,” said Bilal, the filmmaker. “But what is important is that people in Pakistan are ready to talk about and tackle these issues.”
Other Pakistani films have addressed difficult subjects. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Saving Face, about the victim of an acid attack, and the biographical A Girl in the River, which depicts the survivor of an attempted honour killing, both received Academy Awards in the United States. Shoaib Mansoor, the director of Verna, has also produced two commercially and critically successful films dealing with subjects like religious extremism and the plight of transgender people.
But while the Pakistani censor board’s decision to lift the ban on Verna is being seen as a victory for women’s right to be heard, few analysts think the film will turn the tide for an industry that has been declining for decades.
In 1981, Pakistan was one of the top 10 film-producing countries in the world, churning out more than 100 feature films each year. But with the country then under the reign of an ultraconservative military dictator, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul Haq, the film industry nearly collapsed, said Aijaz Gul, a Pakistani film historian, with barely 20 films a year released by 2005.
In the late 1970s, Pakistan had more than 1,000 movie theatres, but by the early 2000s only about 45 screens remained.
“Lollywood as we knew it was all but over,” said Gul, referring to Pakistan’s affectionate nickname for its Lahore-based film industry.
The success of Khuda Kay Liye, a 2007 film by Mansoor, gave the industry a much-needed lift. People flocked to the theatres again after decades, putting pressure on the government to ease restrictions on the screening of Indian films, which were banned in Pakistan in 1965.
The newly available Indian films drew hundreds of thousands of viewers, and multiplexes were built to meet the demand. Today, Pakistan has more than 100 movie theatres, according to the Cinema Owners Association.
But the film industry is still a long way from its peak.
“Every two years, one film does really well,” said Hassan Zaidi, a filmmaker who helped establish the Kara Film Festival in 2001 in response to the declining state of the Pakistani film industry. “How is that a resurgence? We are not there yet, and the road is littered with setbacks.”
The industry suffers from underinvestment and, above all, a lack of government support. Last year, Pakistan imposed an 11-week ban on the screening of Indian films in response to political and military tensions with India, and movie audiences dropped by about 70 per cent.
“So the momentum that had been building since the mid-2000s was broken, and investors got scared again,” Zaidi said. “With no people to fill the cinemas, many Pakistani film projects were canned. In a sense, we were almost back to square one.”
Films like Verna, he said, are not the answer.
“These types of films come out every now and then and they raise all the right issues, and that is great,” Zaidi said. “But what the industry really needs for a revival are films that make money. Right now, more than content, it is a question of survival.”