By Nadeem F. Paracha
Feb 15, 2015
The General Zia regime in the 1980s was most active when it came to banning stuff.
Films, TV shows and books were regularly pulled out of circulation because they were considered to be against the ‘Ideology of Pakistan.’ This so-called ideology often meant the sudden whims of the current lot of rulers.
But all that got banned by Zia almost always managed to sneak its way into the homes of a majority of Pakistanis. And, alas, if one thought that things in this respect would have improved with the demise of Zia’s long moralistic charade, they had another thing coming.
Twenty years after the dictator’s demise in August 1988, the left-leaning PPP was elected by the people of Pakistan to form its fourth government after its radical inception in 1967.
But this once populist-socialist party in its most recent term (2008-13) actually paralleled the banning spree of its former tormentor, Gen Zia.
It banned films, TV shows and websites at the drop of a hat.
Pakistanis have always found ingenious and enterprising ways of getting the banned material into the comforts of their homes. Mainly because there is something not very right about parliamentarians, military hunks and animated preachers with questionable ethics behaving like self-appointed moral compasses of the nation.
If one compares the banning spree (in this context) of the reactionary Zia dictatorship with that of the last PPP regime, one can safely conclude that the thinking of democratic governments in Pakistan is still held hostage by the rather suspicious and pseudo-moralistic mind-set that was so lovingly shaped during the Zia years.
When Zia toppled the first PPP regime in 1977, his Ministry of Information immediately banned actors, writers, journalists and producers from state-owned media outlets who were suspected of having sympathies with the fallen regime and/or were leftists.
Then the ministry drew up a list of TV plays and films that were not allowed a rerun on the mini-screen. These included the serial, Khuda Ki Basti — a 1974 TV rendition of celebrated writer Shaukat Siddiqui’s novel of the same name that explores incidents of exploitation (by petty-bourgeoisie capitalists) in the congested shanty towns of Karachi.
Once the regime got rid of Pakistan’s ‘immoral past,’ from the country’s big and small screens, it then moved to rid them of material that could put wrong ideas in people’s minds about Pakistan’s glorious new path to ‘Islamisation.’
First to go was a TV serial written by Shoaib Hashmi called Baleela (1979). It was a simple comedy about a slacker family that keeps selling parts of an old car (called Baleela). The series was abruptly taken off the air.
The censors claimed that Baleela the car was meant to be Pakistan and the family that sold it bit by bit symbolised Zia and his merry men. They believed Hashmi was mocking the Zia regime and alluding that it was selling Pakistan.
The same year the dictatorship then banned director Jamil Dehlavi’s Blood of Hussain. A surreal modern-day saga inspired by the 7th century struggle between supporters of Imam Hussain and the Ummayad Caliph, Yazid, this rather sloppy piece of cinema gained a cult status when its release was banned and its director chased out of the country.
It was not that Dehlavi depicted Zia to be a contemporary Yazid; but it was a scene in the film in which a man is shown dressing his pet monkey in a general’s uniform that ticked the censors off. They claimed that the film was depicting Zia to be a monkey (which it most probably was).
Blood of Hussain also became one of the first banned movies in the country that quietly appeared in the then emerging VHS market and made a small fortune for video rental outlets that slipped it to their customers under the counter.
It’s a pretentious slice of cinema that looks like an acid trip gone bad, but thanks to its banning at the time, Dehlavi (for a bit) became the Francis Touffut of Pakistan!
Next to go was Salman Peerzada’s Mela — a film based on the struggle and torment of an angry young man who is inspired by ancient Sufi saints who challenged the authorities to support the rights of the poor people.
Again, this film too is largely amateurish in look and studded with the most obvious clichés associated with the time’s ‘art films,’ but this didn’t stop Zia from hounding poor Peerzada out of Pakistan. Zia had a distinct distaste for Sufism, anyway.
Among the many books banned during this period was Stanley Wolpert’s Jinnah (1984). A biography of Pakistan’s founder, it was taken off the racks because it radically contradicted the image of the kind of theocratic Jinnah that the regime was busy assembling.
During the same period, PTV was running BBC’s famous comedy series, Yes Prime Minister. The show was taken off air in 1986 when it was felt that the clumsy prime minister in the show, his scheming bureaucrats and bumbling cabinet looked quite like the farcical ‘democratic government’ that Zia had constructed after the 1985 ‘partyless election.’
Some columnist somewhere in some Pakistani newspaper had alluded to this (in jest), but this was enough for some bureaucrats to suggest (to Zia) that the show should be banned. And it was.
All this was going on in the name of protecting the innocent Pakistani society from deviant ideas. Yes, but all this noble moralistic maneuvering was taking place during a time when heroin, guns, militant and sectarian outfits and literature were actually being allowed to infuse the soul of the same innocent society.
Let’s now very briefly see how the last PPP government fared in this respect.
In the name of protecting the sanctity of the faith, it off and on banned social websites like Facebook and Twitter and then blocked YouTube.
Though quick to ban social websites, it almost did nothing to check the continuous growth of sectarian hate literature or the kind of violent indoctrination still taking place in a number of seminaries.
The PPP government claimed to be democratic and liberal but in reality it seemed to be nothing more than a blundering pile of knee-jerk actions and reactions.
Thus, it was rather hilarious when one saw the same regime periodically become the society’s moral guide.
Not much has changed after the last regime was voted out by the centre-right PML-N in May 2013.
Crackpots continue to come on TV and mouth off tirades smacking of unabashed bigotry, and moulding concepts of morality in their own mutant image; and terrorists and criminals still seem quite able to cause scenes of carnage and mayhem — and that too after the tragic episode in which terrorists mercilessly slaughtered students at a Peshawar school shocked the society out of its long slumber of pathetic denial.
Though one understands that the irresponsible silliness that takes place in certain sections of the West in the name of freedom of speech just cannot be tolerated in sensitive Muslim societies, but films and TV shows being banned for supposedly ‘giving Pakistan a bad name’ is rather ridiculous.
Zero Dark Thirty (film); Homeland (TV series); Call of Duty and Medal of Honour (video games); YouTube … Bans are not entirely wrong, as such. They can help define certain reasonable moral and ethical boundaries in a society. But unfortunately in Pakistan when we see — according to our particular perceptions — two ‘evils’, we somehow instinctively move in to curb the lesser evil while either ignoring the bigger one or, in some cases, actually invite it to sleep in our beds.
In a democracy, it is the people who elect and reject and make their own choices — and not self-appointed guardians of morality whose own characters are greatly suspect.
Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com