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Pakistan Bans Films, TV Shows and Websites at the Drop of a Hat



Of Shades and Sprees

By Nadeem F. Paracha

February 03, 2013

The reactionary Ziaul Haq dictatorship in the 1980s was most trigger-happy when it came to banning stuff. Films, TV shows and books were regularly pulled out of circulation because they were considered to be contrary to the interests and ideology of Pakistan and Islam.

Of course, these interests and ideology being no more than diabolic convolutions constructed by a handful of military men and Maulanas who still like to keep things like free speech and open debate at bay.

So maybe that’s why all that was banned by these hammerheads almost always managed to sneak its way into the homes of a majority of Pakistanis.

But, alas, if one thought that things in this respect would have improved with the demise of Zia’s long Islamist charade, they had another thing coming.

Twenty years after the dictator’s death in August 1988, the left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was elected by the people of Pakistan to form its fourth government after its radical inception in 1967.

Now here’s the irony: This once ‘socialist/secular’ party that eventually evolved into a populist social democratic entity, has, in its most recent term (2008-13), paralleled the banning spree of its former tormentor, Ziaul Haq.

It has 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, and closets packed with all kinds of skeletons, behaving as the moral compasses of the nation.

If one compares the banning spree (in this context) of the reactionary Zia dictatorship with that of the current ‘liberal’ PPP regime, one can safely conclude that the thinking of democratic governments in Pakistan is still held hostage by the rather paranoid and pseudo-moralistic mindset shaped during the Zia set-up.

When Zia toppled the first PPP regime in 1977, his Ministry of Information right away banned actors, writers, journalists and producers from the state-owned media outlets who were suspected of having sympathies with the fallen regime and/or were leftist.

Then the ministry drew up a list of TV plays and films that were not allowed a rerun on the mini-screen. This 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 the petty-bourgeoisie) in congested shanty towns of Karachi.

Once the regime happily got rid of the country’s big and small screens of Pakistan’s ‘immoral, un-Islamic past,’ it 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. A simple comedy about a slacker family that keeps selling parts of an old car of theirs (called Baleela) to make a living. 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 military men and bureaucrats.

Then in 1979, the dictatorship banned director Jamil Dehlvi’s Blood of Hussain. A modern-day version of the 7th century struggle between 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 Dehlvi had meant Zia to be the modern 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.

Blood of Hussain also became one of the first banned movies in the country that quietly appeared in the then booming VHS market and made a little fortune for video rental outlets that slipped it to their customers under the counter.

Next to go was Salman Peerzada’s Mela — a film based on the struggle of an angry young man who was moved by those Sufi saints who challenged the authorities to support the rights of the people. Peerzada too was hounded out of Pakistan.

Among the many books banned during this period was Stanley Wolpert’s Jinnah (1984). A biography of Pakistan’s founder, it radically contradicted the image of the kind of ‘Islamised’ Jinnah that the regime was constructing.

During the same time PTV was running BBC’s famous comedy series, Yes Prime Minister. However, the show was taken off the air in 1985 when it was felt that the clumsy prime minister, his scheming bureaucrats and bumbling cabinet shown in the series seemed just like the farcical ‘democratic government’ that Zia had constructed after the 1985 ‘party less election.’

All this was going on in the name of protecting the innocent Pakistanis from deviant ideas. However, this also went on during a period when heroin, guns, militant Islamist and sectarian outfits and literature were actually being allowed to penetrate the soul of the same innocent society.

Let’s now very briefly see how the current PPP government has fared in this respect.

In the name of protecting the sanctity of the faith, it has off and on banned social websites like Facebook and Twitter and recently blocked YouTube.

Though quick to ban social websites, this government has almost done nothing to check the continuous growth of sectarian hate literature or the kind of violent indoctrination still taking place in a number of Islamic seminaries.

This is a government claiming to be democratic and liberal but in reality, it has seemed to be nothing more than a blundering hoard, almost completely inept at addressing the many economic and social problems faced by the country and the ubiquitous spectre of terrorism.

Thus, it is rather hilarious when one sees the same regime periodically become the society’s moral guide!

Crackpots continue to come on TV and mouth off tirades smacking of sectarian and religious hatred and bigotry, and moulding the so-called ‘ideology of Pakistan’ in their own mutant image; terrorists and criminals seem almost free to cause ultimate scenes of carnage and mayhem; state and government institutions are riddled with accusations of corruption. And yet films and TV shows are being banned for ‘giving Pakistan a bad name?’

Zero Dark Thirty (film); Homeland (TV series); Call of Duty and Medal of Honour (video games); Facebook, Twitter, YouTube …

A government and state that (quite literally) is struggling with putting lids over boiling manholes, are so quick to block sites, films and TV shows. Shades of Zia.

Let the people evolve, grow and be bold to debate everything out in the open.

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.