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Speaking up in Pakistan

“Having been so blessed in life, I often think of the things that I should be grateful for. The list always seems to be never ending, but invariably it ends at one thing… that I was born a Man.

“Nothing in the world scares me more than the thought of being born a woman or a eunuch in a country like Pakistan, where obscurantism has deep roots. It is very unfortunate that we make tall claims, full of pride, about the rights of woman granted by our religion and yet when I look around in underdeveloped Muslim countries in general and Pakistan in particular, I find things totally the opposite. Tragically, our interpretation and application of religion seem to begin and end with woman. Leave the five per cent urban educated elite aside, women seem to be the playground (battleground) where we practise a medieval form of religion.”

This is the only statement Shoaib Mansoor will make about his second celluloid venture, Bol, which has forced both Hollywood and Bollywood films to take the backseat at the box office since June 24; setting a new record for first-week earnings, outdoing the last biggest grosser in Pakistan, Shah Rukh Khan's My Name is Khan.

This when the film was released in just select towns and cities of the Punjab and Sindh provinces owing to the fear that a wider distribution to cinema halls elsewhere in the country could attract an adverse reaction to a film that seeks to expose the “wrong use of religion to keep us backward.”

In fact, the entire strategy for the release of the film and the reluctance of director Mr. Mansoor — of Khuda Ke Liye ( KKL) fame — to speak about his latest cinematic offering provide a revealing insight into the limited and shrinking space left for speaking up in Pakistan. Refused interviews, some in the media find Mr. Mansoor's stance ironical; given that his film seeks to instigate people to “speak up” but the man himself prefers to articulate through his work alone.

Having churned out a second success story for the out-of-business Pakistan film industry, not too many are complaining about the conscious choices Mr. Mansoor has made vis-à-vis promoting his film. After all, it is more important that such films continue to be made, not just for offering a fresh lease of life to Lollywood — the Lahore-based film industry of Pakistan — but, more importantly, for poking people's collective conscience into thinking about and questioning some of the fundamental issues plaguing this nation and pulling it backward in time.

If KKL took on issues of terrorism and the taboos attached to music by a certain interpretation of Islam, Bol carries on with a theme that Mr. Mansoor explored in his first cinematic venture — the rights of women — and treads no-go areas like homosexuality and the life of eunuchs besides Shia-Sunni dynamics in a nation dominated by Sunnis.

Shot on location in a dilapidated haveli near Lahore's Badshahi Mosque and Heera Mandi — the city's red-light area — Bol holds an appeal across religious and geographical frontiers. Undoubtedly, Mr. Mansoor picks on issues pertaining to Islam but some of the prejudices that he seeks to challenge hold true across the sub-continent, irrespective of faith.

And, the brickbats did not take time coming though the bouquets far outnumber them, going by the packed houses to which the film is running. Fortunately, the brickbats have only been in the form of hyper-ventilation on blogs where Mr. Mansoor's film has been billed as a production funded by USAID and “meant for our enemies India.”

India will not get to see the film till Eid if Eros International — which has the global rights to the film — does release it by then. Responding to a query from The Hindu on when it would be released in India, a spokesperson for the company said: “We are looking at releasing Bol worldwide during Eid. It's part of the company's release strategy and the festive season of Eid adds to the statement that we want to make for a film of this epic nature.”

In fact, KKL also went through similar problems in distribution and was released in India only a year later but Mr. Mansoor refused to speak about the two experiences, preferring not to dwell on them in the larger interest of better relations between the two countries.

But given the number of times the film's release has been rescheduled — in April, Eros had said the film would be released worldwide on May 20 — Bol seems to be following KKL's trajectory on this count also. In fact, the frequent changes in date is what made Geo Films go ahead with the Pakistan release in the last week of June, rekindling hopes of a revival of Pakistani cinema that began dying in the absence of infrastructural support and was then run over by Bollywood after the Musharraf regime allowed Indian films to open on the big screen.

The industry that 20 years ago used to churn out at least 100 films a year has been so run out of business that as per one count only 25 films were made in 2010 and not many in Pakistan can remember the name of even one.


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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 7:40:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/speaking-up-in-pakistan/article2162165.ece

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