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Pakistanis Won't Get To Watch Their Country's Oscar Submission


Pakistan's Oscar entry for the best international feature category is a quiet study of how a good man sees his life unravel in a conservative society. It might grab international attention, but it's not going to be screened in its home country. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Islamabad.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: The film follows Muhammad Rahat Khawaja, a real estate agent. He also sings devotional poems in praise of the Prophet Muhammad. But one day he's caught on tape dancing to an old Pakistani song, "Zindagi Tamasha." It means, life is a circus. It's also the name of the film.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: That one act upends his life. The video goes viral. And from being respected in his community, he's now seen as vulgar. The kids in his alley who once loved him for the sweets he gave out during religious celebrations now hurl insults at him.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, non-English language spoken).

HADID: He's pushed out of poetry evenings. A cleric even threatens to accuse him of blasphemy, which, in Pakistan, can be deadly. Just days before the film was to be released, life started to resemble art. An extremist Islamic movement became enraged by the trailer because of how it portrayed the cleric.


HADID: They threatened the director. And then, like the protagonist of his movie, Sarmad Khoosat too says his life was upended.

SARMAD KHOOSAT: I would be added to these WhatsApp groups where mysterious people would just send me messages with gross, horrifying images of beheaded people on social media. The Twitter was, like, on fire with ban "Zindagi Tamasha," and, kill this bastard, end blasphemy. All of that is happening.

HADID: Following the outcry, the government shelved the movie. Still, in November, a committee of independent filmmakers selected "Zindagi Tamasha" as Pakistan's Oscar submission for best foreign film. Hamza Bangash was on the committee.

HAMZA BANGASH: This is a film that really kind of upends a lot of hypocrisy within our society, and it does so with humor. And it's so gentle.

HADID: But he doesn't expect the nomination will change anything. In fact, he calls "Zindagi Tamasha" a cautionary tale.

BANGASH: Because it tells you you can pour your heart and soul into a film, and you might face death threats at the end of that.

HADID: Critics say the fate of the film reflects how Pakistani authorities have long submitted to pressure from the religious right.

RAZA RUMI: It's been a trend that has been there for a long time. And it's been growing over the decades, you know, with more and more pressure from the religious lobbies.

HADID: Raza Rumi is the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College and the editor of a liberal outlet called Naya Daur.

RUMI: Every government attempts to appease them because it's a risk to anger the mullahs. Mullahs have street power in Pakistan.

HADID: It's not just the mullahs or religious clerics. A few months ago, the government pulled a jaunty biscuit advertisement off the air.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: That was after a newspaper editor complained that a woman dancing in long, flowy dresses looked promiscuous. The country's conservative middle class has clamored for bans as well, like of a series called "Churails" - witches. It's about women who open a detective service to catch cheating men. But one scene caused outrage on Twitter, where a woman says she got promotions for giving her boss sexual favors. The series was pulled off air until the scene was cut.

There's been temporary suspensions of TikTok, a ban on a famous Pakistani novel and video games seen as distracting the youth. When we asked the information minister, Shibli Farraz, about all of this, he said in a statement that he expects artists to preserve the country's cultural and moral values. Critics say that means following the dictates of the country's noisiest conservatives. And the director of "Zindagi Tamasha" says that's what saddens him about the fate of his film, which was set in the beautiful old quarter of the Pakistani city of Lahore.

KHOOSAT: It is a film with a lot of personal nuances and details to the city that I love so much.

HADID: Khoosat says his film wasn't meant to be shorthand for the country's intolerance.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF A FOREST MIGHTY BLACK'S "REBIRTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.