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ISLAMABAD: Driving towards the Central board of Film Censors (CBFC) office in Islamabad, I had mixed feelings. Where the post-rain view of Sector F-6 was quite calming, especially for a Karachiite like me, the thought of the person I was going to meet wasn’t as comforting; mainly because of the decisions he has taken in the past.
It’s a huge building and the entrance wall is plastered with pictures of Pakistani film stars of yesteryears. Most of the staffers are sitting idle. Reality check: no matter how glitzy it looks, it’s a government office at the end of the day. Finally, I am escorted to the chairman’s office and that’s when his support staff leaves. Sitting in front of a large office desk with a Quaid-e-Azam portrait in the background, Mobashir Hasan greets me with a firm hand shake.
During a brief tenure of two years, Hasan has become responsible for some of the most controversial and challenging decisions in the history of film certification in Pakistan. This, ironically, has come at a time when the CBFC has been robbed of most of its power, with its decisions only having an impact on Islamabad Capital Territory and cinemas located within garrison and cantonment areas across the country.
Yet, censor boards in Punjab and Sindh usually abide by CBFC’s final call. They may give different ratings as compared to those of the central board, but despite all the liberty that they presumably have, the centre is very much the nucleus of bigger matters – the banning decisions. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark and in the execution of the 18th Amendment.
“Provincial censor boards are totally independent. I don’t know why there’s an impression that the CBFC is pulling the strings. If they’re saying so, then it’s something between them and the distributors. They are as autonomous as we are,” Hasan tells The Express Tribune, rubbishing what provincial censor boards and local distributors consider to be a fact.
Hasan, who has graduate degrees in both politics and political science from Staffordshire University, took charge as CBFC chairman in December 2014. Earlier, he was working as director of Prime Minister’s Youth Programme and also served as a counselor at the Pakistani embassy in Egypt.
His responsibility at the censor board is to implement in letter and spirit the Motion Pictures Ordinance, 1979, along with Censorship of Films Rules, 1980. These documents were written under the supervision of General Ziaul Haq and have since then been used to certify Pakistani and international films.
Hasan doesn’t find anything wrong or objectionable in the laws that allow for a direct interference of the federal government, at any point in time. “The law books are very simple and clear. It’s like 2+2 =4 … you don’t even need to interpret it. Everything is crystal clear in the ordinance and rules. There’s no confusion or lack of clarity. I think the 1979 ordinance is the ideal ordinance,” maintains Hasan.
One wonders why we are still utilizing laws made during the Zia era, when we should be aiming towards a more refined and progressive law book. Existing regulations give the federal information ministry the right to interfere at any time and room, to create more instances such as the ban on Maalik. “One should not forget that we are a developing democracy. We respect freedom of expression and all other freedoms as enshrined in the Constitution but also expect that freedom of expression should come with responsibility.”
As keen as Hasan is to protect freedom of expression, the ministry’s continuous intervention might end up turning CBFC into a headless chicken. “We will go by the rules; we will go by the book. If the book gives [them] the right to interfere to our administrative ministry, so be it. They have the right to anything and everything,” he adds.
The recent ban on Happy Bhag Jayegi came as a major shock to local cinema owners. A Bollywood film with catchy music and a Pakistani girl in the cast were just what they needed to get out of their pre-Eid box-office slumber, but that couldn’t happen because the federal interior ministry had other plans.
Technically, the CBFC should be responsible for taking up economic ramifications with ministry bigwigs before they slap a ban on any film. “On one hand you have the economics and the plight of the cinema industry and on the other you have the sanctity, reputation and integrity of Pakistan. I’d gladly pick the latter,” Hasan says, sipping on a cup of tea.
But can a film really harm the integrity of a state? “Ideally it shouldn’t because our country is strong-footed. But usually, it’s an intentional effort to damage our identity through sarcasm and subtlety.”
With films being dragged into the political tug-of-war between India and Pakistan, it is clear that art will continue to suffer. And this is not a very wise thing to do when our box office mainly relies on Bollywood films to generate revenue. “It’s not any kind of mentality. They can do what they can and we will do what we want to. Can you tolerate someone mocking Jinnah in front of his picture in an Indian film? If the censor boards are losing credibility with one decision, then they’re gaining something else with another,” explains Hasan.
“Let’s say if we ban an anti-Pakistan Indian film, the Indians would think more than 10 times before coming up with such a concept and will not turn Pakistan into a laughing stock, once again.”
Could the CBFC be thinking too much about a particular film while all the audience is concerned with is entertainment, I ask. To this, Hasan responds, “It’s not entertainment they care about, its healthy entertainment. To somebody, entertainment could be deep kissing, but someone sitting next to you may find that offensive. So we go by what the majority of people are thinking and not what the minority wants.”
According to Hasan, our “social values, norms and traditions” are yardsticks for evaluating films. Panel members hail from the same society as we all do, and they don’t compromise, at least on culture. But do we actually know what our culture is? Especially when our collective identity is made up of so many distinctive subcultures and value systems, how can we ever come up with decisions that satisfy everyone?
“We consider very basic things pertaining to our culture. First of all, nothing should hurt our national interest and for me national interest includes Pakistan’s integrity, security and all the state institutions at large,” says Hasan. “Even if something hurts the integrity of a basic health unit in a small village, it is against national interest. Its reputation shouldn’t actually be compromised.”
Earlier this year, the CBFC received flak for stopping the public viewing of Among the Believers, a documentary made on the notorious Maulana Abdul Aziz and the Lal Masjid operation. Earlier he had cited the National Action Plan for the ban, Hasan now says it was banned for being impartial.
“Pakistan has been doing a lot in against terrorism but the documentary on Maulana Abdul Aziz shows that the people of Lal Masjid incident are still roaming around freely with weapons. It doesn’t mention how many of our resources were wasted on the operation. It shouldn’t be a one-sided story. It has no version of the state,” defends Hasan. He stresses on the fact that CBFC treats every film like a work of art and does not have any preconceived notions in mind, even about Indian content.
However, this very CBFC that stresses objectivity in cinema so much had okayed a propaganda film like Waar, without any excisions. The Bilal Lashari film conveniently curates a simplified, popular narrative about a rather complex issue. “But it at least gives the state’s version and also tells the terrorist’s side of the story,” Hasan says.
Despite all the bad press the CBFC gets every time it bans a film, Hasan strongly believes in what he and his staff of 30 are up to. After all, he is the state’s servant and takes pride in defending it. “I would request people who hate the CBFC for its decisions to keep hating us because a day will come when they will be proud of the censor board.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 1st, 2016.
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This article was originally published on http://tribune.com.pk/story/1173606/meet-censor-board-chairman-everyone-loves-hate/