Politicising film censorship

The Punjab Censor Board’s decision to ban Verna last month made little sense. Most of all because it lasted a day, and all it could achieve was spoil the film’s premiere on Thursday.

It has since been revealed that the issues the Censor Board officials had was not that it narrated the story of a rape survivor – as had been earlier reported – but the fact that politicians and officials were being targeted. For instance, the Governor, Interior Minister, IG Police were mentioned.

Imagine a Hollywood movie showcasing politicians in a negative light being questioned – let alone being victim of any censorship. One would’ve said the same of Bollywood as well, where scathing movies on politics are made regularly, but they’ve taken a ridiculous turn themselves recently – case in point Padmavati.

While Verna was aired after review, it remains unknown what exactly was tweaked. What one could see, however, that one scene showcasing the discussion of the film’s rape case being transferred between federal and provincial governments had its audio removed but the subtitles were running – which is how one could tell that the federal and provincial exchange was being discussed, and that this is what would have bothered the Censor Board officials as well.

The word is that the ruling party’s leaders were upset that the federal government were showed as culprits in a film depicting an issue as sensitive as rape. Insiders also say that the film looks like propaganda considering that the moral of the film, as showed in the final scene (spoiler alert) was that the ruling government shouldn’t get any votes.

The fact that a rape survivor deemed its best to politicise the crime committed against her, and present not voting for the culprits as the solution to the prevalence of violence against women, is beyond cringe-worthy – and perhaps that could’ve been taken up as a cause for censorship (not that it should have).

But a film was to be taken down just because certain ruling government and police officials were targeted?

How do you explain that in any civilised part of the world?

This is exactly what happened with Maalik last year. First it was released all over Pakistan, and then the Sindh government realised after a couple of weeks that it’s the Sindh Chief Minister who is killed in the movie, and so decided to ban it. That too was temporary, and Maalik too eventually ran again without any edits.

And so, with neither of the two films actually being permanently banned – or even censored – neither government managed to get what it wanted. In fact, what they did manage to do is hype up two extremely ordinary films and ensure that significantly more people ended up watching them, than the turnouts otherwise.

Even so, the most hilarious part about the Verna one-day ban was the fact that it was only in Punjab, and the film was released in Sindh. Maalik too was initially only banned in Sindh, then nationwide, then restored.

This trend depicts just how different provincial governments would treat movies differently, depending on which governor or chief minister is targeted. This in turn further adds to the absurdity of the politicised censorship, for it is also subdivided into provincial politicisation.

This circus of censorship owes itself to the devolution of the Culture Ministry to provinces in 2010 after the 18th Amendment redistributed the subjects mentioned in the Concurrent Legislative List, meaning the transfer of censorship and exhibition of cinematography films to provinces, two of which (Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunwa) are still awaiting their own boards.

Censoring art and any form of expression – unless it incited violence, which is the classic definition of hate speech – has its own perils for any society. But this politicisation of film censorship, drawn along provincial lines, will further flame the already innumerable fault-lines in the country. Not to mention this is an addition to a wide gamut of censorship in the country, where the PTA sends SMS with ultimatums to silence free speech.

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