NEW YORK, Dec 26 (APP):Prominent Director Shoaib Mansoor’s films not only make a mark within Pakistan but also invariably commented on internationally.
His latest “Verna”, starring top Pakistani actress Mahira Khan, has emboldened women to speak out about rape and injustice, the subject matter of the film, in a country, where the discussion of such topics is discouraged, The New York Times said in a report Tuesday that also deals with the ups and downs of Pakistan’s film industry.
“The film (Verna)” which overcame an initial ban imposed because of its subject matter “has inspired Pakistani women to tap into the spirit of the viral #MeToo campaign to expose sexual harassment and create their own public platform for victims and their supporters,” Times’ correspondent Mehreen Zahra-Malik wrote.
“With the Pakistani film industry struggling to survive and wary of issue-oriented projects, the film’s release has provided a timely opportunity to talk about a difficult topic.”
The dispatch said that “Verna” was banned for its “edgy content”, but a public outcry, fueled by extensive news coverage and a social media campaign, #UnbanVerna, bore fruit when an appellate board lifted the ban, pointing out that it has “done moderately well at the box office.”
“It’s so ironic that at the heels of a global #MeToo moment, a fictional piece about a rape survivor fighting with authorities is banned, bringing the problem even more to the forefront of debate in Pakistan,” said Iram Parveen Bilal, a Pakistani filmmaker based in Los Angeles who has publicly praised the film.
Mahira Khan said the film was a part of the #MeToo movement insofar as it sent the message that remaining silent in the face of injustice was “no longer an option.”
“That’s what my character in the film does, she speaks out” and that’s what Pakistani media, audiences, social media users and fans have done by asking for the film to be unbanned,” she said in a recent interview.
She said the censors had objected to her film largely because it dealt with political and sexual inequalities in Pakistani society and the difficulties that victims of even the most heinous crimes faced as they sought justice.
“People spoke up for my film because they understand that rape is not just an act of sexual frustration; it is an act of showing power,” Mahira Khan was quoted as saying. “And when people came out and said un-ban this film, what they were saying was, we won’t let these powerful people intimidate us anymore.”
The film is reminiscent of the real-life case of Mukhtar Mai, who was gang-raped as a teenager in 2002 on the orders of a village council as a punishment for her younger brother’s affair with a woman. Instead of killing herself, as rape victims sometimes do in rural Pakistan, she pressed charges against her attackers and became an international campaigner for women’s rights.
Hasan Zaidi, a Pakistani filmmaker, said he did not believe that even films that generated a lot of discussion, like “Verna,” would be enough to revive Pakistan’s ailing film industry.
“There is always a reaction to a strong woman who wants to fight, who wants to go public with injustice, whether it’s a real Mukhtaran Mai or a fictional representation of someone like her,” Ms Bilal, the filmmaker, was quoted as saying. “But what is important is that people in Pakistan are ready to talk about and tackle these issues.”
Other Pakistani films have addressed difficult subjects, the Times pointed out. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s “Saving Face,” about the victim of an acid attack, and the biographical “A Girl in the River,” which depicts the survivor of an attempted honor killing, both received Academy Awards in the United States. Mansoor, the director of “Verna,” has also produced two commercially and critically successful films dealing with subjects like religious extremism and the plight of transgender people.
But while the Pakistani censor board’s decision to lift the ban on “Verna” is being seen as a victory for women’s right to be heard, few analysts think the film will turn the tide for an industry that has been declining for decades, the Times said.
In 1981, it was pointed out, Pakistan was one of the top 10 film-producing countries in the world, churning out more than 100 feature films each year. But with the country then under the reign of an ultraconservative military dictator, Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, the film industry nearly collapsed, said Aijaz Gul, a Pakistani film historian, with barely 20 films a year released by 2005.
In the late 1970s, Pakistan had more than a thousand movie theaters, but by the early 2000s only about 45 screens remained. “Lollywood as we knew it was all but over,” Gul said,
The success of “Khuda Kay Liye,” a 2007 film by Mansoor, gave the industry a much-needed lift, the Times said. People flocked to the theaters again after decades, putting pressure on the government to ease restrictions on the screening of Indian films, which were banned in Pakistan in 1965. But the film industry is still a long way from its peak, it said.
“Every two years, one film does really well,” said Hasan Zaidi, a filmmaker who helped establish the Kara Film Festival in 2001 in response to the declining state of the Pakistani film industry. “How is that a resurgence? We are not there yet, and the road is littered with setbacks.”