Arif Hasan and Eman Suleyman in a still from ZINDAGI TAMASHA-1580109366335
Arif Hasan and Eman Suleyman in 'Zindagi Tamasha'. Image Credit:

Acclaimed actor and director Sarmad Khoosat’s second feature, ‘Zindagi Tamasha’, may have hit a major roadblock, as far as its commercial exhibition in theatres is concerned.

In an unexpected turn of events, Pakistan’s Central Board of Film Censors’ (CBFC), after having greenlit the film’s January 24 release, has reached out to the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) — a constitutional body which advises the legislature on whether a certain law is repugnant to Islam — seeking expert opinion on what it deems as the “sensitive” subject matter of the film. The film’s worldwide release has also been suspended.

There is no precedence in the history of Pakistani cinema where the approval of CII was sought on a film’s content.

Reportedly, ‘Zindagi Tamasha’ tells the story of Khawaja Rahat, a small-scale property dealer in Old Lahore, who is well respected for his naat khwaani, recitation of poems in praise of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), but falls into disgrace with the locals, as well as clergymen, after a video showing him dancing at a wedding goes viral.

Last year, the film picked up the coveted Kim Ji-seok Award at the Busan International Film Festival. But on the home front, its troubles have only increased ever since its first trailer came out early this month. Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a hardline religious party, was outraged by the (allegedly) negative portrayal of a Muslim cleric and for throwing shade at the country’s blasphemy laws.

The CBFC, as well as the censor boards of Punjab and Sindh, which had earlier cleared the film for public exhibition, were compelled to review it again, this time passing it with a cut or two in anticipation of a backlash. Director Khoosat, fairly happy with the decision, went ahead and launched a full-fledged marketing and publicity campaign together with his core team members — lead actors Arif Hassan, Samiya Mumtaz, Eman Suleman and Ali Kureshi; producer Kanwal Khoosat, and writer Nirmal Bano. The team toured cities, holding media junkets and engaging with the young students in different educational institutions. The idea was to inspire a culture of healthy discussion and rational thinking.

But the TLP was not appeased. The party leader, Khadim Rizvi, came on record, threatening to hold mass protests across the country if the film ever saw the light of the day. Khoosat complained of being trolled and bullied and receiving death threats. It got to a point where the 40-year-old, recipient of Pride of Performance, known for creatively tackling offbeat subjects like ‘Manto’, asked the government to intervene.

In a heartfelt letter, addressed to the country’s president, prime minister, chief of army staff, chief justice, Ministry of Information, and “my fellow Pakistanis,” Khoosat wrote: “There was never any intention to attack, to point fingers at or humiliate any individual or institution.”

He also rejected the “assumptions made from the two and half minute long trailer.”

Three days later, he tweeted: “Getting dozens of threatening phone calls and msgs. Should I withdraw ‘Zindagi Tamasha’?” The director attached images of another “open letter” he had penned, this time addressed to no one in particular, where he reiterated that the film was “about a ‘good enough Muslim’ — there was/is no mention of a sect, party or faction of any sort. Neither in the uncensored nor the censored version.”

In the following lines, his voice became more emphatic: “I don’t want anyone to have the pleasure of banning my film because legally, officially and morally, no one can.”

Later, Khoosat’s father, Irfan Ali, a veteran actor, filed a petition against the TLP for trying to interfere with the release of the film. On January 21, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan announced that the film had been sent to the CII for re-examination. In a carefully worded tweet, she also barred Khoosat from screening the film till the final verdict is out.

Irfan Ali ultimately withdrew the petition, citing no particular reasons.

The civil society, film fraternity, and sections of media came out in support of Khoosat. They also criticised the government for succumbing to pressure from extremist elements. In an extensive blog on Samaa, author Mohammad Hanif tried “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.” Having had the privilege the watch the film “before and after it was censored,” he stated, loud and clear, that ‘Zindagi Tamasha’ did not make fun of the tenets of any religion, nor is it about child molestation.

Senior columnist Ghazi Salahuddin noted in The News, “[It’s] a film that explores the reality of our life and also mourn the environment in which a message of love and tolerance can so easily be subverted, thanks to the spinelessness of our rulers. Obviously, they need to be distracted by other forms of a ‘tamasha’.”

As of now, the fate of ‘Zindagi Tamasha’ hangs in the balance. The ball, clearly, is in the court of the CII. To quote its spokesperson, the CII is supposed to prepare “a comprehensive report on the central idea and possible impact of its release on people’s minds.”