Why You Can’t Watch ‘Circus of Life’ in Pakistan

This is the story of an unholy alliance, Pakistan-style.,


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In 2019, more than 80 young Pakistani artists came together to work on a small-budget independent film about a man and his daughter, “Zindagi Tamasha.” Since then, the film has been cleared for release in Pakistan several times, was selected to be the country’s official entry for the 2020 Academy Awards foreign language film category and has won prizes in international festivals. Yet it still can’t be shown in Pakistan — not because of the pandemic, but because it offends some people who haven’t even seen it.

One evening late last January, the Pakistani filmmaker Sarmad Khoosat, a friend of mine, sat on a stage in the British Council’s library in Karachi to introduce “Zindagi Tamasha.” During the talk, he received a Twitter notification accusing his movie of being disrespectful to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).

Soon, Sarmad’s social-media timelines were filled with death threats. He spent the rest of the year trying to save both his life and the film he had made with love and his own money.

There was nothing in “Zindagi Tamasha” (“Circus of Life”) remotely insulting to the Prophet. In it, the Prophet is only referred to in “naats,” poetry written specifically in praise of, and to evoke love for, the Prophet. But soon after its release, Sarmad’s own life turned into a scary circus.

Nine years earlier, he had directed a super successful TV serial called “Humsafar” (“Life Partner”), which made him a household name. Then he made a biopic of one of the most famous Urdu writers, Saadat Hasan Manto. It was probably the only time in Pakistan’s film history that a film about the life and death of a writer ran to packed cinema halls.

Manto” was backed by Pakistan’s biggest media house, but with “Zindagi Tamasha,” Sarmad decided to go independent. To ensure total creative control, he sold one of the two plots of lands he had bought as his life’s safety net. He shunned box-office bankable stars, many of whom had done cameos in “Manto” for a nominal fee just to be in a Sarmad film.

A clip of shots from “Zindagi Tamasha” was released on YouTube as a teaser, set to a tune composed and performed by a young band called Saakin. The band reinterpreted one of the most iconic “naat” in the history of “naats”:

Yearning for the beloved Prophet is especially strong today

Why is my heart sadder than ever before?

Glory be to Allah

There is no one more beautiful than you.

Does that sound like the words of a Prophet’s blasphemer, or lover?

The film is about the conflict between a father and his daughter, but it is set and was shot in Lahore during birthday celebrations for the Prophet Muhammad. There are lights, lights, lights everywhere. People make murals and try to recreate Mecca and Medina in their narrow streets with small sandy hills; they dress up in Arab clothes and get camel rides. Kids bring out their toys to decorate these Arabian Peninsula landscapes, dotting the dreamed-up Holy Land with plastic dinosaurs and dinky cars.

The people of Lahore throw a loud birthday bash for their Prophet, and Sarmad captured his hometown in rapture.

Three censor boards cleared the film for release in theaters in different regions.

The scriptwriter, Nirmal Bano, told me in September, “I felt indescribable joy in writing a male character who did all the household chores without painting him into some kind of hero.” It’s this householder, a caring man and struggling property dealer and, according to Sarmad, a good-enough Muslim, who faces the wrath of his community after a short video of him dancing goes viral. This, even though videos of old bearded men dancing at weddings are practically a subgenre on Pakistani YouTube.

Enter Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a real-life cleric and self-appointed guardian of the Prophet’s honor.

If a character like Mr. Rizvi were shown in a feature film, he would probably be considered over the top. Mr. Rizvi, who died in November, would appear at rallies in a wheelchair wearing spotless, starched white robes and a black turban. He was fiery and funny, mixing in his sermons poetry and curses with quotes from the holy texts.

Mr. Rizvi also thought he spotted blasphemy everywhere, including in Sarmad’s film.

A blasphemy charge in Pakistan is a tricky thing to deal with: One person accusing another of blasphemy can’t say what the insult was because just repeating it would be blasphemy, too. It’s also a dangerous thing.

In 2010, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province, spoke up for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of insulting the Prophet. He visited her in prison, even had a picture taken with her, and called on the blasphemy laws to be amended. Mr. Taseer’s bodyguard, the constable Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, shot him in Jan. 2011. Twenty-seven times.

Mr. Qadri was sentenced to death under the law of the land, and a cult was born: An ordinary policeman had killed a powerful governor, not because of any personal enmity, but because he couldn’t stand an insult against the Prophet. Mr. Rizvi founded the religious party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (T.L.P.) partly around the cause of getting Mr. Qadri released.

Mr. Qadri was hanged in 2016, but T.L.P. kept hunting for blasphemers. Mr. Rizvi latched on to a brief argument between two bearded characters in the trailer for “Zindagi Tamasha,” during which one threatens to accuse the other of blasphemy. He claimed this was an insult to Islamic scholars, and hence an insult to Islam. He said the film would be released “over my dead body.”

Like everyone else I know who had seen the film, I was certain that “Zindagi Tamasha” had not committed any blasphemy. I also knew that the T.L.P. leadership had committed what, in Pakistan, is considered the ultimate blasphemy. And I had a video to prove it.

With Sarmad’s permission, last January I reached out to one of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, the ultimate arbiters of our existence. I can’t name the agency or its officers because they take offense easily; in fact, in Urdu media they are often referred to as “hassas adaray,” sensitive institutions.

I knew how to reach them because they had reached out to me over another slightly less sensitive matter only a week before Sarmad’s film was attacked. Intelligence officials had raided my Pakistani publisher’s office in Karachi and confiscated the Urdu translation of one of my novels. They weren’t quite sure why they had been ordered to do so and they said they wanted to meet up with me to clear the air. I had respectfully declined.

You spend a lifetime avoiding these sensitive types and suddenly one day you’re the one seeking them out.

Our reception at their office was warm; coffee and four types of snacks were offered. The colonel we met wanted a synopsis of the film; he already had a file about T.L.P.’s threats against it. The colonel suggested maybe there should be a “naat” in the film. I said there was a beautiful “naat” in the film. Then I pulled out the video on my phone.

It’s a chilling clip. It’s from late 2018, and in it another leader of T.L.P., Pir Muhammad Afzal Qadri (no relation to Mumtaz), can be heard urging army generals to rebel against their chiefs and top judges and to kill them because Ms. Bibi had been set free and was allowed to leave the country. Invoking Taseer’s fate, Mr. Qadri exhorts the top brass’s guards and cooks to kill their bosses.

The colonel said that, of course, he had seen the video and that, of course, I must know what had happened to these people.

The reprisals had been swift. Hundreds of T.L.P. activists had been arrested after the mutiny call, and many were sentenced to 55 years in prison. Mr. Qadri was made to read out a public apology and was forced to retire from politics. Mr. Rizvi, who in the video is seen mostly sitting and looking on approvingly, was out on bail. T.L.P. was cut down to size in a matter of weeks. “They are a spent force,” the colonel said. Then he took us to see his brigadier.

I was moving up in the world fast.

The brigadier was also all warmth, but he had a cautionary tale. When Mumtaz Qadri was on death row in Lahore, the brigadier had gone to meet him, “to understand the mind-set,” he said. Mr. Qadri had a three-room suite in jail, filled with baskets of flowers, sweets and dry fruit, the brigadier said, and Mr. Qadri had told him he had to ask the prison guards to take the gifts away because new ones arrived every few hours. “There were people like me and you supporting him,” the brigadier told us.

He promised that the T.L.P. would be made to leave Sarmad’s film alone.

A day before the film was supposed to be released in theaters, late last January, all three censor boards canceled their earlier clearance and said the film would have to examined further. The information minister announced that it would be referred to the Council of Islamic Ideology. T.L.P. called off its protest against the film and flooded social media with victory messages.

My friends in the sensitive agency had promised to protect the film from T.L.P. They did exactly that: No film, no protest.

“Zindagi Tamasha” was cleared for screening again in July by the Pakistani Senate’s Human Rights Committee; it, too, found nothing objectionable in the film. But by then the cinemas were shut because of Covid-19.

Mr. Rizvi died suddenly in November after having once more laid siege to Islamabad, the capital, with protests. His funeral was said to be one of the most widely attended in the history of Lahore. Sarmad and the producers of “Zindagi Tamasha” didn’t even contemplate releasing the film then.

Six months, and more awards, later, it still hasn’t been shown to the Pakistani public.

Mohammed Hanif (@mohammedhanif) is the author of the novels “A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti” and “Red Birds.” He is a contributing opinion writer.

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