Pakistan Reader# 527, 20 January 2023
Abigail Miriam Fernandez
The film Joyland, directed by Saim Sadiq has stirred up controversy in Pakistan for showing “highly objectionable” content. The film which is Sadiq’s feature-film debut narrates the relationship between a married man and a transgender dancer caught in the shackles of patriarchy and conservative principles of society. The film also explores the themes of concealment, secrets, hidden truths, repressed desires, and societal expectations. The film premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival on 23 May 2022 in Un Certain Regard, making it the first time for a Pakistani to premiere at Cannes Film Festival. Since then, Joyland saw success as it won the Cannes Queer Palm prize for best LGBT, “queer” or feminist-themed film. Later it became Pakistan’s official entry to the Oscars for the international feature film award. However, despite the international praise, back home the film landed in controversy.
How did the film reach Pakistani screens?
Following its international premiere, Joyland was to release in Pakistan on 18 November after the Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC) issued it the necessary censor certificate in August. However, on 11 November, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting cancelled its license stating: “Written complaints were received that the film contains highly objectionable material which do not conform with the social values and moral standards of our society and is repugnant to the norms of ‘decency and morality' as laid down in Section 9 of the Motion Picture Ordinance, 1979.” This U-turn drew in criticism across the country, compelling Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to form an eight-member committee to examine the complaints and recommend action. On 16 November, the head of the Prime Minister’s Strategic Reforms announced that the film was once again cleared by the censor board review committee claiming that freedom of speech is a fundamental right and should be nourished within ambits of the law.
However, just one day before the release, the film hit another roadblock with the Punjab government issuing a notice stating that the film cannot be exhibited in the jurisdiction of the province. The recall was done once again due to the “wake of persistent complaints received from different quarters.”
What role does the censor board play in Pakistan?
In Pakistan, there are three boards. After the 18th Amendment devolved most ministries to the provincial level, films receive certifications from the Sindh Board of Censors (SBFC), the Punjab Board of Film Censors (PBFC) and the Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC, for Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan). However, the problem is that the three bodies have clashing opinions and often never agree on a particular subject.
Why did the film land in controversy in Pakistan?
This is not the first time where a film has been banned in Pakistan because it taints the nation’s image. The first film to be banned in Pakistan was WZ Ahmed’s film Roohi (1954) which was criticised for portraying an affair between a married woman and a young man. Similarly, dozens of films have been banned in Pakistan including recent films Durj (2019), Javed Iqbal: The Untold Story of A Serial Killer (2019) and I’ll Meet You There (2020) for portraying the real truths and realities of society.
Similarly, the realities portrayed in Joyland were met with criticism because they went against the stereotypical images of society propagated by one section of society. The film became controversial for the following reasons.
1. The portrayal of a transgender woman and her relationship with a married man
The Khawaja Sira community in Pakistan has been subjected to categorisation both within the community and larger society. Most often they are ostracized from society for deviating from gender norms of society. Thus, when the film portrays a transgender woman living a normal life and having a relationship with a socially accepted married man, it becomes a hard pill to swallow as this is not acceptable in society.
2. Second, the defiance of stereotypical themes and characters
Most often films that depict out-of-the-box themes and characters are criticised for not aligning with the cultural and social values of society. This was seen in the wording of the government’s bans which said that film did not “conform with the social values and moral standards” of society and that it was clearly “repugnant to the norms of decency and morality.” Thus, when the film portrays the ills of society when it comes to gender roles and patriarchal pressure, it becomes a matter of one’s image that needs to be saved and not the harsh realities that are being portrayed.
3. The backlash from fundamentalists in Pakistan
The criticism hurled at Joyland came from the fundamentalist in Pakistan, who termed the film as “un-Islamic.” The ban was filed under Section 9 of the Motion Picture Ordinance, 1979 which states the Government of Pakistan has the power to deem a film ‘uncertified’ if it is “satisfied that it is necessary to do so in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or to prevent the commission of, or incitement to, an offence.” The ban was upheld by several ultra-right-wing political parties and leaders such as the Jamaat-e-Islami. Additionally, prominent leaders of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf also vehemently upheld the ban. However, the opposition towards the transgender community in the country has been consistent throughout time. As recent as September, several legislators and clerics rallied for amending the landmark Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2018, which they believe directly contradicts religious teachings and values. Thus, when the film portrays a socially accept man engaging with a transgender woman who is trying to live her life in society it translates into a film destroying families by promoting transsexuality.
In the case of Joyland’s ban, the fear of ruining the country’s image and values has resulted in both opposing the transgender community and restricting the flow of creativity. It also highlights the increasing paranoia over any endeavours to change these ideologies and practices.