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Photo Source: Dawn

Pakistan Reader# 489, 27 December 2022

The Joyland Controversy: An unjoyful insight into the censorship of Pakistan's cinemas



Why was the movie censored in Pakistan, and what does it say about creativity and censorship

Bhoomika Sesharaj

On 11 November, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting repealed the certification that permitted ‘Joyland’ to be screened in theatres. According to the ministry, the film was “repugnant to norms of decency and morality” and violated the Motion Pictures Ordinance of 1979. The CBFC’s jurisdiction has been limited to Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, with separate censor boards for Punjab (Punjab Film Censor Board, PFCB) and Sindh, as the Sindh Board of Film Censors (SBFC).  The CBFC maintains an unofficial dominant stance in the boards and are meant to “regulate the public screening of films” under the Motion Picture Ordinance of 1979.
 
There was no clarification about how the ministry had the authority to ban it in all the provinces. It entailed reactions from religious and political leaders who exerted their opinions extensively and said that the movie is an “attack on the institution of marriage” and is “promoting transgenderism”. The movie was also banned for showing “highly objectionable” content.
 
What is the movie about?
The movie was the first film in the South Asian subcontinent to win the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the 75th Cannes Film Festival on 27 May 2022. The film also won the Prix Queer Palm and was Pakistan’s rudimentary entry into the Oscars. The film is a drama about a family based in Lahore in the strong grip of deep-seated patriarchy. It narrates the revelations that Haider, a young boy and Biba, a transgender dancer experience together. The movie explores themes of misogyny, stereotypes, and the expectations that Pakistani society at large deals with.

It is the debut feature of writer-director Saim Sadiq, who sets the narrative of a transgender person in a Muslim country plagued by elements of uncertainty and societal transition. The movie's premise defies the conventional roles of the man and the woman – with Haider’s wife assuming the responsibility for the family – and Haider being hired as a backing dancer to the trans female performer Biba at a local nightclub. Sadiq’s treatment of the lead characters transcends as an acid test for Haider to figure himself out and lands Biba to protect herself in the vicariously layered prisms of Pakistan’s society. The movie consistently battles the stern unacceptability of the changing dynamisms of the norms in society.
 
How has censorship plagued cinema in Pakistan?
The ban on ‘Joyland’ underlines the history of censorship in Pakistan, largely led by political and social repression. Themes exploring the reality of the political and socioeconomic situation of the country are victims of censorship, with official boards refusing to validate their reservations against the films and not submitting official certificates for the same. Censorship in Pakistan has existed as early as 1959, with the movie ‘Jago Hua Savera’ seeing the cut for depicting the struggles of East Pakistani fishermen during the regime of General Ayub Khan and Aurat Raj, the first “feminist” movie in the country being subjected to a ban in 1979 for exploring the reversal of gender roles. In 2016, a documentary named ‘Besieged in Quetta’ was barred by the CBFC for portraying a “negative image of Pakistan” which narrated the story of Quetta’s Hazara community.
 
Pakistan’s CBFC has a history of restricting movies that look at controversial issues. Though Joyland is one of the movies that faced the cut for mostly showcasing real narratives of homosexuality and patriarchy but also precedes other movies that touch on similar themes. Movies in the early 2000s included actors and artists from India too. Khamosh Pani, an Indo-Pakistani film was based in the late 1970s during Pakistan’s rising religious radicalisation under General Zia-ul-Haq and was banned because it featured Indian actors. The bans on movies deter reasoning, with Slackistan, a movie slated for release in 2010, being banned by the CBFC for “using too many English and Urdu swear words.”
 
The censorship ban in Pakistan is a larger repression of free social expression and stops local cinema from exploring the true reality of society.
 
These bans are mostly aimed at conformity and forced ideas of normative realities, and seep into the idea of how the transgender community and the LGBTQ+ community are in the country as well. The censorship makes it nearly impossible for artists in the country to depict homosexuality and socio-economic restraints in the country and reflects the future of the country in tackling and adapting newer realities. Pakistan, since its conception and countless struggles to understand women, men and relationships, every household and institution in the country has led a dichotomous interpretation of sexuality and gender and deduced that homosexuality is a sin that downplays national and religious interests.
 
The lasting effect of censorship of Pakistani movies comes from their impending fates of being determined “screen-worthy” by the 3 censor boards of the country, where the internal conflicts between the boards have left little for the cinema industry to deal with. Other than being a logistical challenge for all three boards of the country to convene on films that could easily be discussed by one central authorisation, the censorship dilemma of the country poses a bigger risk than the actual risk of lending real artistic perspectives through films.
The existing political, religious and legal system has left the film community very little to deal with, with their spaces leaning closer and their resolves turning stronger to live in a country that continues to berate them of their expressions. Filmmakers and artists in Pakistan have consistently questioned the country’s policies and outlook towards local cinema, free artistic expression and the faring of cuts in Pakistani cinema that looks to show the realities of the society they are housed in.
 
References:
Fahad Naveed, “Is Joyland’s crime that it mirrors society to a fault?” Dawn, 21 November 2022
Irfan Aslam, “Punjab bans Joyland as it hits screens in Islamabad, Sindh today,” Dawn, 18 November 2022
Ibad Hassan, “Joyland: The politics of censorship and 'Joy' in Pakistan,” The Gazelle, 21 November 2022
From ‘Zindagi Tamasha’ to ‘Aurat Raj’: Pakistani films that were banned in its country of origin,” The Express Tribune, 16 November 2022
“Irfan Aslam, “Should Censors Be Banned?” Dawn, 26 March 2017
 

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