Shoaib Mansoor’s third ever film had been riding waves of enthusiasm and excitement. But in a bid to ensure that we all end the year on a miserable note, the CBFC (Central Board of Film Censors) lived up to its legacy. How did it do this? Why, by ensuring that the most pertinent film of the year was nipped in the bud of course! And don’t let the semantics of ‘it’s not banned we just haven’t made our minds up yet’ confuse you, Verna has been censored. (Yes, I will be using the word in all its trite glory.)
Now, I realize that I sound really chirpy in our videos, but I need you to imagine red hot rage as you read this.
To be honest, I wasn’t surprised. In fact, part of me was waiting for something like this to happen. A film that deals with sexual abuse, and gendered violence, and power relations. I’m surprised the guardians of ghairat didn’t accuse Mr. Mansoor of ‘shaming’ the country.
Oh, wait. No, that did happen. But it was relegated to angry YouTube comments, so nobody cared.
Anyway, I’m just about ready to join my internet brethren and sharpen my tweets. Declare that this means war and plunge into the verbal diarrhea that is breaking the internet as we speak.
But let’s not underestimate the enemy just yet. My A Level economics teacher said that that isn’t what gladiators do (shout out to Mrs. Farouqi). And I fancy myself a gladiator. So, let me begin with a timeline. I’ll start with the facts. Meticulously recalled. Devoid of any emotion. (LOL.)
On November 14, 2017, Verna’s Lahore premier was cancelled. It was cancelled because the CBFC didn’t issue the film a censor certificate. It didn’t issue the certificate because board members hadn’t decided what they thought about the movie.
An official press statement reported that director Shoaib Mansoor had appealed to the board for “the urgent relief of Verna.”
Later that day, some ‘industry insiders’ announced via new media that the film had been “banned” (!!!)
CBFC members responded, arguing that they hadn’t banned the film. They just hadn’t decided whether to release (or un-ban) it.
On November 15, 2017, Pakistan Nari Tehreek, which combines a hundred women’s organizations, released a statement. They called Verna “a film which addresses the ill of our society and the gaps in the system.” And were not pleased with the CBFC’s decision to not make a decision.
They also revealed that the Lahore and Karachi branches of the board had been fine with the film. The Islamabad office was yet to decide. Yes, this fact has been repeated by every news site. No, it does noting to explain how the CBFC operates.
On the same day, the CBFC announced that it was waiting for a “formal request” from Shoaib Mansoor. Which is something that is needed in order to begin something called a “second review.”
Does the ‘second’ imply that the board had indeed made a ‘first’ decision? I don’t know. I am literally regurgitating facts.
The Censored Truth
Okay, I’m going to put the bureaucracy to the side now. I am also subtly going to link Nusair Teli’s guide to spotting BS right here. The specifics of this situation are confusing, but brass tacks; we don’t know if the film is going to premier tomorrow. Also, this is just the latest in a string of films to be censored.
And the real issue continues to be the ‘why’. Why did this film raise censoring eyebrows? What about it is questionable?
Let me just put any morale brigade member who might have wandered here by accident to rest; the ‘immoral content’ thing, is not a thing. Hips have been shimmied and rape jokes cracked to no avail. If none of those bawdy ‘romantic comedies’ were censored, this film shouldn’t be either.
There have been debates regarding the alleged ‘bold’ subject matter of the film. But as I have already discussed in our analysis of the film, all Shoaib Mansoor movies deal with such issues.
If we’re talking about gendered violence, Khuda Kay Liye had a subplot about marital rape. You know, that thing that the most pious amongst us refuse to acknowledge.
If we’re talking about sexual abuse, Bol looked at child sexual abuse before Udaari was even a thought. It even threw the plight of intersex children into the mix!
So no, I don’t buy the ‘the subject matter is too dark for Pakistani audiences’ argument. Mr. Mansoor always makes films like this.
The Criteria (again, LOL)
When a film like this is censored, I can’t help but think of all the films that display torture and violence but get a free pass. (Incase you haven’t heard; I don’t like blood.) Films like Waar and Yalghaar were brimming with uncomfortable interrogation and torture scenes. Yet, they weren’t deemed problematic at all.
I like to do my research. And please believe me when I say that I have tried to find the CBFC’s criteria for banning the films that they ban. The best I could find was this archived page, last updated in 2006. It mentions six things that will get a film censored. According to the list, the grounds for banning a film are rather specific, but also not. For example, while the “glorification of vice or crime” is on the list, so is “hurting national sentiments.” The former is simple enough to understand, the latter changes depending on your politician of choice.
But also, when the CBFC has banned films recently, it has deviated from this list. A lot.
My favourite example is Aksbandh. The small budget horror movie was banned right before its touted release date. When asked why, the CBFC chairman said that, “Three out five members [of the panel] considered the film frustrating and without a central theme.” Adding that it didn’t follow a “unanimous viewpoint” and relied on “individual observations” instead.
No, no. Don’t fight it. Let your jaw drop. A film was banned because it didn’t have a theme. It was banned because the board didn’t agree with its creative choices.
Why it is different this time
So, this wasn’t a surprise. This is what the censor board does. Making decisions willy-nilly and changing its mind at the last minute is its loveable quirk.
But something is a bit different this time.
Listen, can you heart it? Can you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men?
Okay, they’re not singing; they’re tweeting. And it isn’t really the song of ‘angry men’. I’d say there are more ‘angry women’ than men. But in theory, it’s basically the same thing. This time, people are not happy.
In the past, a ban has raised a few eye-brows and garnered some well positioned retorts. But this time, it is different.
I feel that this is because of the timing. Coincidentally, (because Mr. Mansoor can do a lot, but he can’t predict the future) the film coincided with the #MeToo frenzy. And regardless of what side of that argument you were on, you have to admit that it got people talking about sexual abuse. And then, here was this mainstream film, staring the national sweetheart, which dove into the subject headfirst. Of course people were excited! So, when it censored this film (as they haven’t banned it apparently) all of that excitement turned into anger.
Particularly when explanations were so very tone deaf. In an interview, a representative from the Sindh Board of Censors said, “The topic is rape, and the culprit is the governor’s son. The film doesn’t have to be banned. And can be tweaked and censored a bit to be deemed fit for release.”
In a strange turn of events though, not only has the controversy made the film more of a phenomenon, but it also proved its central premise. According to the cast, apart from tackling sexual violence, the film deals with the power relations. It aims to asses how those that can, use their power without fear of repercussion. It also focuses on a protagonist who refuses to stay silent.
#PowerDiGame indeed, and #PowerToThePeople.