Censorship has always been the subject of hot debate in the arena of filmmaking in Pakistan. From scenes being slashed to titles being rewritten, the discussion surrounding cutting, censoring and banning the reel never ceases to raise the question if censorship is justified unless the content is illegal.
Although OTT platforms have made accessible the content we couldn’t have imagined on our television screens before, conventional film continues to bear the brunt of uncalled for edits if it doesn’t lie within the moral bounds of the censor board.
In Pakistan, the history of film censorship is not only packed with popular titles from Hollywood and Bollywood, but local releases that hit the screen during the “revival” of Pakistani cinema after Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol in 2008 as well. But a look back at this list shows that the decisions are often made on a whim.
Filmmaker Abu Aleeha, whose highly anticipated Javed Iqbal: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer (starring Yasir Hussain and Ayesha Omar) is slated for release in December, told SAMAA Digital how films that have little to do with fiction are often targeted for being “realistic”.
“My cinema is not commercial,” said Aleeha. “I can’t show characters singing and dancing. I try not to show abuse and nudity, but if I am making a film on Javed Iqbal, who killed 100 children, then portraying him to be someone other than what he was would be unconvincing to the audience. I have to show the reality.”
Aleeha’s Sheenogai, a film inspired by strong reaction to the Lahore-Sialkot motorway rape case, has been cleared in Sindh and Punjab, but only after the censor swallowed massive chunks of 20 minutes on the reel. And when it came to the Islamabad censor board, Sheenogai was slapped with the objection that it “challenges our values and shows Pakistan as an unsafe country for women”. Therefore, it will not be cleared.
“It’s an amusing situation,” said Aleeha. “I’m not saying they should approve everything. But if a film shows something that is happening in society, then there should be no objection to the content.”
An appeal has been sent to Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry to review the censor board’s decision after Sheenogai's double rejection. Aleeha revealed he has already started receiving “signals” that Javed Iqbal will not be cleared either.
Many titles have been banned in recent years. Ironically, Sarmad Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha, which was barred from release following a complaint by the TLP last year, went on to win several awards at international film festivals and was submitted for Oscar consideration as well.
Ashir Azeem’s political drama Maalik (2016), and Verna starring Mahira Khan (2017) too made news for not making the cut due to “objectionable” content.
When did it start?
Censorship in cinema began with WZ Ahmed’s Roohi, which was released in 1951. The film explores class hatred and a rich woman’s affair with a single young man. The ban was lifted in 1954.
10 Commandments (1958)
Cecil B. DeMille’s film was banned for cinemas because it shows Moses (AS). But the movie ran on TV many years later.
Aman renamed Ye Aman (1971)
Directed by Shaan’s father Riaz Shahid, Aman was initially banned but released as Ye Aman after massive cuts.
Begum Jaan (1977)
The movie did well in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but it was not screened in other cities. Begum Jaan is about a woman from the Frontier who goes door to door selling items and gives birth to a child out of wedlock.
Aurat Raj (1979)
Aurat Raj, directed by comedian Rangeela, is counted among the first feminist movies in Pakistan. It was released to much hype, ran in cinemas, and then banned. This satirical take on a patriarchal society featured Rani, Waheed Murad and Sultan Rahi in lead roles. The film failed to leave a mark on the box office but went on to become a cult in Lollywood.
The Blood of Hussain (1980)
Jamil Dehlvi’s film was banned by the late Zia ul Haq as it shows a fictional coup by a military dictator, which might not have sit well with Zia.
Benazir renamed Be-nazir Qurbani (1985)
Zia ul Haq objected to the title and the film was subsequently renamed.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Steven Speilberg’s historical drama could not come to Pakistan due to “religious sensitivities”. It was about the Holocaust and depicted the treatment of Jews in Poland during the Hitler years.
The Da Vinci Code (2006)
The Da Vinci Code, based on Dan Brown’s bestselling novel of the same name, was not released in Pakistan and India following protests by Christians.
Tere Bin Laden (2010)
Ali Zafar’s film was banned for “vulgar and anti-state” content. Its title was a subject of controversy too.
Kabir Khan’s action thriller, starring Saif Ali Khan and Katrina Kaif, was banned for “vulgar and anti-state” content.
Maalik was already showing in cinemas when it was banned by the federal information ministry despite having documentation and clearance.
Dangal, which is Bollywood’s highest-earning film, was removed from cinemas after Pakistani artists and technicians were banned by the Indian Motion Pictures Producers’ Association across the border.
The film shows Shah Rukh Khan as a Muslim terrorist and was Mahira Khan's Bollywood debut too. It was banned on the big screen but aired on TV and proved profitable.
Nandita Das’ Manto starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui wasn’t cleared by the Central Board of Film Censors.
Shamoon Abbasi’s gory tale about cannibals was banned before release. Censor board stated it was not appropriate for local audiences. However, it was released after major cuts.
Veere di Wedding (2019)
Veere Di Wedding, featuring an ensemble cast of Kareena Kapoor, Swara Bhaskar and Sonam Kapoor, was barred for ‘vulgar and anti-state content’.
Zindagi Tamasha (2019)
Sarmad Khoosat’s film was banned after a complaint was filed against it by the TLP, citing what they called “blasphemous” content. Read Mohammed Hanif's exclusive essay from when the controversy unfolded.
'Ban comes on whims and fancy'
According to the former owner of Star Cinema, Zulfiqar Ramzi, a great example of what can and cannot be screened was The Carpetbaggers (a film based on a Harold Robinson novel loosely based on the life of aviator Howard Hughes).
“This film had several spin-offs too,” Ramzi had told SAMAA Digital. “But what’s interesting is that the book was banned but the movie was imported here and screened. It had George Peppard as Jonas Cord, the main character.”
What you have to keep in mind, Ramzi said, was that in those days films were not easily available.
“We would have to wait two years for a film to come out. Now you have the internet so things are easier. Sofia Loren’s films would come out in Pakistan two years later and only after someone who had gone abroad would return and start talking about it so people would get interested.”
Ramzi’s father is known for producing Pakistan’s first colour film Sangam (1964), starring Waheed Murad. He was the first chairperson of the Sindh censor board in 2013, but he stayed with it for less than a year.
“Movies have been banned [depending] on whims and fancy: the name isn’t right, it is against X or Y, then there are a lot of pressure groups as well.”
Anyone can watch the film, he said, adding that banning films in isolation for cinemas only is not just “derogatory” but also deprives the segment of cinema audiences of their fundamental rights.
Razmi highlighted the rampant culture of piracy as well. “We’re like ostriches…piracy mein dekh lo, sub theek hai…but you can’t watch it officially. Even today, Indian films are banned but you can get any DVD you want [torrent or stream it as well].”
Do bans on the big screen make a difference?
According to Atrium Cinema’s Nadeem Mandviwalla, Dangal was banned in Pakistan by the government but “can you find anyone in the country who hasn’t seen the film?”
As for The Message, Geo President Imran Aslam had said. “We bought the rights and broadcast the film in Urdu. It was well received and greatly loved. The film was dubbed in Pashto without any issue with extremists holed up in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. We did show the film to our scholars and ulema privately and they were moved by it.”
These bans are not just limited to the big screen. Asim Abbasi's web series Churails, starring Sarwat Gilani, Nimra Bucha, Mehar Bano, and Yasra Rizvi and produced originally for ZEE5 Global, was removed for Pakistan-based viewers in 2020.
“I don’t think I did anything [in the series] to get that reaction,” Asim had responded to the criticism mounted on his "bold feminist series" at the 2021 Karachi Literature Festival. The filmmaker remarked that he was showing a plethora of women in the series and it would have been a disservice to say that all 30 women were heterosexual. “I needed to be as honest as possible when depicting women from all different kinds of backgrounds."
However, banning films or web series doesn't necessarily mean that viewers won't be able to access them on the internet. From Veere Di Wedding, Manto to Schindler's List, and with new titles not being screened at cinemas any more, every banned movie is easily available online. It may affect the distributors but for viewers makes little difference.
With reporting and research contributions by Tooba Masood.