FocusPK, the first of its kind conference held for the progress of entertainment production in Pakistan, was held in Karachi over the weekend. One of the sessions caught our eye as incredibly pertinent: Censorship Policies. Before one can delve into the exact events that unfolded at the session, it’s necessary to understand the context and for that, one needs to be well versed in the laws and legislatures that control Pakistani cinema today.
Thanks to the Chairman of the Central Board of Film Censors, (CBFC) Mobashir Hasan, the audience at the session learnt that there are three main laws that currently govern the CBFC: Motions Picture Ordinance (1979), Censorship of Film Rules (1980) and Code of Censorship (1980). It’s safe to say that these rather outdated laws are vaguely worded, giving unlimited power to the government to ban/censor almost anything they deem fit, as is evident with the recent banning of Ashir Azeem’s Maalik, as well as documentaries Among the Believers and Besieged in Quetta. The session ultimately revolved around the following question: Is there really a need for censorship in the new age?
Seated in the panel were renowned names who have either faced the brunt of illogical censorship or are on the other end of the spectrum: Bushra Ansari, Imran Aslam and Hameed Sheikh spoke against regressive censorship while Hasan and Usman Peerzada, Deputy Chairman of the Punjab Censor Board, tried to shed light on the decisions taken by the censor boards as veteran actress Samina Ahmed moderated the session. Also present was Information Minister Maryam Aurangzeb who was supposed to be in the panel but surprised everyone by sitting in the audience instead.
Hasan spoke freely to the audience, stating that the board wanted to hear suggestions and propositions that could help in making censorship laws better and “more liberal.” Hasan was immediately confronted by Sheikh, who announced that he went through a tough time trying to release his film Abdullah: The Final Witness, which was based on the Kharotabad incident that claimed the lives of five innocent travelers in Quetta.
Sheikh, who delivered a phenomenal performance in Moor, highlighted the hypocrisy of Pakistani media which shows such incidents freely and easily on television in the form of news but one has to go through an arduous process to show the same events in an artistic manner. He sarcastically added that if there has to be censorship, why is it only applicable to cinema? Why not online, or on television for instance? The witty Bushra Ansari then jokingly asked the Chairman who was responsible for censoring Pushto films of the late seventies as it seemed as though those films were released uncensored.
Ansari then went on to criticize the board members and how the bureaucracy could not be entrusted to do what artists should be doing. “Artists should not be censored by people who do not have creative sensibilities,” she noted. Imran Aslam, President of the Jang and Geo TV network, was quick to add that he genuinely didn’t believe in the need of censorship at all, explaining that censorship policies all over the world had changed to a more facilitative role as opposed to the controlling and restricting censorship policies of Pakistan. What we needed was certification, not censorship.
However, when Maalik was being discussed, Usman Peerzada was quick to correct the opinions of everyone. “That film wasn’t only banned because of its political commentary or mention of the CM. It was because in the film, the protector kills the person he was supposed to be guarding and the entire scenario was too similar to Salman Taseer’s untimely death.”
The Information Minister soon took her leave after busily chatting with her colleagues throughout the session and left a message for one of her colleagues to deliver to the stage. In it, the Minister had invited the entire panel to sit together with her to work on adjustments on the existing legislature. While this was an encouraging step, it still remains to be seen whether the government will actually do anything concrete.
Eventually, the session opened the floor for questions and two filmmakers, Anam Abbas and Tazeen Bari, were rightfully outraged as they proceeded to question the Chairman regarding why their film festival’s documentaries about Lal Masjid and the Hazara community were banned from being screened. Legally, film festivals do not need any certificates from the censor board for showcasing their films. The Chairman answered that the films had glaring holes that were simply not acceptable. For instance, the film about Lal Masjid showed Maulana Mohammad Abdul Aziz freely roaming about the country without any issues. To this, Ansari quipped “But that’s true. Isn’t that what’s actually happening?”
As the discussion came to an end, it further became clear that our current censorship policies are merely existent to control artistic voices. A chat with some reliable sources also revealed that sadly, this is the agenda of the establishment. As cinema cannot question the establishment there is actually no question of expecting a difference.
FocusPK was a good platform to bring together all the concerned people in one room so that such a discussion could even happen in the first place, but whether the government will actually do anything to solve censorship issues remains to be seen.
This article was first published in Instep, 6th December 2016.