A Punjabi-Urdu drama, Zindagi Tamasha, by award-winning Pakistani actor-filmmaker Sarmad Khoosat centres on a family man in Lahore whose life hurtles from confusion to chaos after a video of him dancing provocatively to a famous ‘item number’ in the company of his friends goes viral. The middle-aged, portly Rahat Khawaja (portrayed powerfully by Arif Hassan) soon gets engulfed in a swirl of social and religious coercion. Much to his shock, he goes almost overnight from being a respected elder, a singer of devotional songs and a small-time realtor in Lahore’s crowded middle-class quarter, to a scorned figure in public, especially among the puritanical interpreters of the faith.
This perhaps explains why the movie, which was screened to a select online audience by the Southasia Peace Action Network (Sapan) recently was banned in Pakistan. The reasons for the ban could be many, but the most pronounced was Khoosat’s frank portrayal of a bully cleric, who, in the film, threatens Khawaja with the charge of blasphemy because of his viral dance video.
That the male protagonist, the supposed head of the family, was shown lovingly nursing his ailing wife and doing household chores cheerfully also did not go down well with the upholders of patriarchal social codes.
Born into a family of artists, Khoosat has won several awards, including for the television family drama series Humsafar (2011…) and the 2015 film Manto, in which Khoosat played the role of the legendary writer Saadat Hasan Manto to much acclaim.
Zindagi Tamasha was set to be released in Pakistan cinemas last March but had to be postponed in the face of protests from local radical groups. An Islamist political party protested against the film, accusing Khoosat of blasphemy for ‘criticising’ an Islamic figure of authority and for allegedly making ‘accusations’ of child abuse against Islamic clerics. “It is unfair because this is technically not a ban. I think it is the failure of the system that despite having certificates and clearances from the authorities, anyone with political power can call for a ban,” says Khoosat. “Besides, banning is not the route to be taken anywhere. You can rate films, you can caution viewers about the content if there is violence, nudity, etc,” he adds.
Pakistan’s Central Film Censor Board eventually told the director to approach the Council of Islamic Ideology “for critically reviewing his film”.
Nothing is expected to come of it, but Zindagi Tamasha has gained popularity abroad. Following screenings overseas, including in Venice, it won several international awards, including the prestigious Kim Ji-Seok Award at the Busan International Film Festival; Snow Leopard Awards for Best Film and Best Actor for Arif Hassan at the 6th Asian World Film Festival in Los Angeles.
Khoosat Films, the production company that the filmmaker runs, has made the film available on digital platforms worldwide from August 4. The company also has the distinction of producing Joyland, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival last year, and is the first Pakistani film to be shortlisted for the Oscars.
The film not only pits individual freedom against religious dogma, but also against family and community. The lead character Khawaja is presented as a devout Muslim, whom his daughter looks up to as a role model who takes good care of the most important woman in his life, his wife. But Khawaja also has another unexpected side to him: he is an aficionado of old romantic film songs and had no hesitation whatsoever in entertaining his friends with uninhibited erotic dance moves. The question the film raises is: cannot an individual be devout as well as light-hearted? When does religion stop and enjoyment of life begin? Can’t one be a singer of songs that praise the Almighty and recite the Quran and still be easy-going, dutiful to your wife and shake a leg once in a while?
After a video of him dancing to the beguiling tunes of the 1979 song ‘Zindagi Tamasha Bani’ by Afshan was recorded in a private setting by a youngster who later uploaded it, Khawaja’s dance evokes mixed responses. His clients want to take selfies with him because he is trending online, and some youngsters find him a ‘cool uncle’, but it enrages religiously rigid elders and radicalised youth. More importantly, what portends the downward trajectory of his future is his beloved daughter’s reaction. A producer at a TV channel, she is shattered when she comes across a viral video of what she views as her father’s shameful performance.
Soon, the daughter begins to distance herself from the dad, who is distraught at the earth under his feet slipping away. The neighbours stop communicating, friends fall out, and young men heckle and call him a pimp. The only heartening, and touching, response is the one by his wife—played evocatively by Samiya Mumtaz, who is incidentally the daughter of one of Pakistan’s most prominent women’s rights activists, Khawar Mumtaz. Bedridden and unable to move independently, Khawaja’s wife is only mildly amused by his act. She laughs it off and stays non-judgemental. So are eunuchs who treat him with warmth— something we’ve seen them do in Mani Ratnam’s movie Bombay. When the whole city reels under communal violence in 1993, they are the ones who display kindness and love to the needy.
To help Khawaja wriggle out of this personal crisis even as his daughter sulks, his son-in-law and a friend arrange a meeting with a cleric, who instructs him to apologise publicly on camera to atone for his so-called sins. Cocky and repugnant in his demeanour, the cleric humiliates Khawaja and, at one point, goes further and asks Khawaja to speak out against the US and for the Palestine cause. Unable to stand the arrogant young maulavi’s malice and ill-intent, the straightforward Khawaja refuses to apologise. An exchange of hot words and punches ensues. Khawaja also threatens to expose the cleric’s sexual abuse of children.
The director deserves praise for what he himself describes as his effort to make a “correct representation” of characters that bring to the fore the “slices of life,” the multiple layers of human behaviour. Suave and articulate, Khoosat believes art should not have the burden of being ‘woke’ and socially reformative by design, even if personal and community reformation may sometimes be the natural outcome when a film is authentic and presents reality in all its nuance. As a director, Khoosat does not try to whitewash any character in the movie, especially Khawaja, who is shown on another occasion as a homophobe. After seeing Khawaja’s dance video, his closest friend, a DVD shop owner, takes Khawaja along to a gay party of sorts assuming that Khawaja too has such inclinations. But Khawaja is outraged and later complains about his friend to a policeman for “immoral acts”.
In the movie, Lahore becomes a character, too, as the director invests a lot of time and energy shooting in the by-lanes of the old city. Many of the public scenes are not staged, even if the compelling cinematography would fool you into believing so. Silence serves as an evocative tool of communication in the film. The long pauses after dialogues as characters try to come to terms with the cascade of events—that Samiya Mumtaz refers to as the “sitting of the moment” in an interview—touch the viewer to the core. The reversal of gender roles as Khawaja cooks and his wife instructs him in singing devotional songs is done with commanding artistry.
Religious fundamentalism also comes under sharp attack in the film. Impactful and searing in its portrayal of the ‘circus of life’, the 44-year-old Khoosat uses his cinematic expertise to build emotional tensions to the last scene in this nuanced, multi-layered view of the politics of power. The movie, produced by Khoosat’s sister Kanwal Khoosat and written by Nirmal Bano, also stars Eman Suleman and Ali Kureshi. “Lahore is my home. These lanes are familiar to me. I have emotional and physical connections with them. In the movie, we let Lahore be its gracious self. We did not make any production design changes,” Khoosat notes.