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To pass or not

Film censorship is a complicated affair in post-18th amendment Pakistan

To pass or not

Roughly two weeks ago, the premiere of Parwaaz Hai Junoon (PHJ) was cancelled at the last moment — because the Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC) had deemed some bits of PHJ unsuitable for exhibition, announcing a full-board viewing before granting the film a censor certificate.

Interestingly PHJ, a film backed by and made with the assistance of the Pakistan Air Force, was already cleared by the Sindh Board of Film Censors (SBFC), an autonomous censor body of the provincial government that grants clearances and certifications to motion pictures exhibiting in cinemas. Not only that, the film received a clean bill of health (i.e. cleared without cuts) from the Punjab Censor Board.

Now, before this gets confusing let me clarify: the 18th amendment to the constitution of Pakistan in 2010 has empowered the provincial censor boards to make their own decisions — whether ludicrous or not.

Unlike the Sindh and Punjab boards, CBFC has marginally more weight and notoriety. It holds jurisdiction over Pakistan’s Federal Territory (Islamabad Capital Territory), Cantonment areas, and two of four provinces — Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Technically, a film stopped at the federal level would still be able to make it to cinemas if it is passed in either Sindh or Punjab.

The problem, though, is bigger than one particular motion picture.

Verna, a Shoaib Mansoor film from last year, was also stopped before exhibition. The official statement at the time was the issue of rape, which the CBFC deemed “unacceptable”. Unofficial sources painted a far graver picture, where the powers-that-be stepped in to ‘ban’ the film all over Pakistan because the story shows a wealthy, elected official’s son sexually violating a woman out of malice, simply because he could.

Verna, of course, was cleared, like PHJ, when the then Minister of Information and Broadcasting Marriyum Aurangzeb came to the film’s rescue.

The question then is, why the difference of opinion? Especially between the boards. Each board is, roughly, comprised of the same headcount of 20 members that includes filmmakers, journalists, government employees and individuals from security agencies.

Is the regulation and points-of-view between provinces so gaping and contradictory that decisions based on logic feel illogical to the layperson?

“Our principal interest is to consciously support Pakistani motion pictures that project a positive image of the country, irrespective of the genre,” says Danyal Gilani.

Khalid Bin Shaheen, a veteran actor from television who has recently taken up the chair of the SBFC, confirms the autonomous state of film boards. He, however, prefers to create a free-flow of camaraderie between censor boards, opting to talk things over if there are differences of verdicts. “At the back of our minds, we believe in not creating controversies — especially when there isn’t room for them in the first place,” says Shaheen. “Because we are called the censors, it does not mean that we can exercise our authority to cut a film without reason”.

“I don’t think the censor board has problems with most pictures,” says Danyal Gilani, while talking to TNS on phone. “We have been clearing Indian and English films. If we weren’t, then movies wouldn’t be showing in cinemas,” he says.

“One of the reasons why there are last-minute controversies is that we only get to see a film a few days before it is due to release,” says Gilani. “Because the CBFC sees the film at the last moment, and if reservations arise from the panel, then it’s not really their fault.”

Gilani does, however, understand that filmmakers are often tied up in post-production, so last-minute submissions cannot be helped in some scenarios.

“We don’t ban motion pictures. It’s not our job. We just withhold or deny the censor certificate,” he adds. Which, in other words, stops a cinema owner from showing the movie.

Having just joined the CBFC, Gilani was not able to reflect on past judgements. “Our principal interest is to consciously support Pakistani motion pictures that project a positive image of the country, irrespective of the genre,” says Gilani.

There is another problem: the classification system; both boards have their own standards.

Following universal systems, the SBFC rates films on a scale of U (Universal, approved for general audiences), PG (Parental Guidance), PG-13 (‘Parents Cautioned’ of some elements), PG-15 (for 15 years and older), and 18+ (for Adults).

At CBFC, the certificate categories are a bit different. The uncannily similar U and F (suitable for Families) classifications, are followed by PG and A (Adults). F is a strange choice, because it incorporates elements generally covered by PG (PG in CBFC is akin to PG-13).

If the system is divided at this basic level, it’s a wonder why any board actually functions in the first place.

One can, however, easily write-off anyone, be it filmmakers, films, actors, or authorities. The system is arcane and juvenile. But, Shaheen says, they are working hard to create a strategy that facilitates filmmakers, and in turn, audiences. “That is what the censors are for. Helping make the right decisions,” he says.

Now whether those “right decisions” come in on time from any board is another matter entirely.

Mohammad Kamran Jawaid

The author is an international motion picture consultant and film critic. He tweets @KamranJawaid

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