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What does the banning of ‘Zindagi Tamasha’ say about freedom of expression in Pakistan?

What does the banning of ‘Zindagi Tamasha’ say about freedom of expression in Pakistan?

Ameera Nadeem Iqbal
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Freedom of expression has historically faced challenges in Pakistan. This has manifested in a variety of ways. Forced censorship, written or verbal threats, killings, harassment and abductions are all commonplace among journalists and media groups alike. The most recent disregard of freedom of expression in the country has come in the form of the attempted banning of the film ‘Zindagi Tamasha’.

Zindagi Tamasha is the latest film by ‘Manto’ actor Sarmad Khoosat. The trailer keeps the plot intentionally vague; a clergyman is accused of vulgar behaviour due to a leaked video, resulting in immense criticism from all those around him. In the description of the film, Khoosat describes it as a ‘scorching political commentary’. The real drama is the series of events that followed since the release of the trailer.

First, the trailer was removed from YouTube. After approaching the Central Board of Film and receiving clearance for the movie after some cuts, Khoosat released it again. A week before the release of the film, Khoosat shared a lengthy note on his social media handles explaining that a group was attempting to ban his movie due to assumptions made from the trailer. He followed this up by another lengthy note explaining how he was being threatened and abused and sought the advice of ‘beloved Pakistanis’ as to whether he should withdraw the film.

These events signal a dangerous trend in Pakistan. Historically, freedom of expression has faced serious challenges in the country and ‘Zindagi Tamasha’ is not the first casualty to be caught in the mire between freedom of expression and hurting people’s sentiment’s. Since the Zia era, there have been extreme censorships on journalists and media houses alike. Political films such as ‘Tere Bin Laden’ and ‘Maalik’ have faced a similar fate by being banned due to ‘inappropriate content’. Oftentimes, the foundation of this ban is the protection of national or religious interest. However, it’s worth questioning why our national or religious interest is so fragile that it requires immense restrictions and censors in order to be upheld. Moreover, it is also worth noting that these restrictions have resulted in the gradual and tragic decline of Pakistani cinema.

Freedom of expression, although unprotected in our constitution, is a fundamental human right and a democratic ideal. Moreover, it allows the free flow of alternative ideals and opinions, which has the potential to improve society and bring about economic prosperity.

Free exchange of ideas is essential for the production of new knowledge, which in turn leads to greater economic prosperity. It is not a coincidence that most economically and socially prosperous and industrially advanced countries protect and guarantee freedom of expression. It is impossible to become an economically prosperous country without first ensuring the free exchange of ideas.

This fundamental right is particularly significant when it comes to artistic expression, such as films. Cinema is meant to be a reflection of society and the human experience. Khoosat, in his initial letter directed to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, even said “Like any other film, made in any other part of the world, ‘Zindagi Tamasha’ is a reflection of it’s setting”. It is important for works of art to explore themes relating to the society they are created in as a part of making their art relatable to the experience of the audience, or to tell a story to a completely new audience. Part of this includes exploring controversial and sensitive topics. If you take a look at some of the most popular movies in the Western world, almost all of them explore different and diverse themes making them able to reach various audiences. Touching upon uncomfortable topics in the process of story-telling is also paramount in evolving the thought process of society. Without this, there is no chance for Pakistani society to evolve.

Moreover, freedom of expression and democracy reinforce one another and arguably, are mutually indispensable. For democracy to evolve, screening of films and documentaries can never be denied for reasons based on mere speculation or under the guise of security concerns. It is therefore imperative that Pakistani authorities should look towards protecting freedom of expression, rather than suppressing it.

An interesting way to look at it is this; upon coming into power, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that the Prime Minister’s House would be converted into a world-class university. While this initiative is laudable, it is important to keep in mind that Pakistan can never have a world-class university without first ensuring freedom of expression. Fancy buildings are of no use if scholars and intellectuals are not allowed to engage in free exchange of ideas.

Keep up to date with more news at ProperGaanda: Pakistani films are beginning to make a strong impression on millennials

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