The Pakistani Punjabi-Urdu film ‘Zindagi Tamasha’ (Circus of Life), was originally scheduled for theatre release in 2020, but after numerous delays due to threats from religious hardliners, the film was finally made available to viewers on YouTube on August 4, 2023. Director Sarmad Khoosat says in the introduction to the film, “In the month of [Pakistan's] independence, I am letting my film be independent and free.”
Why was the film controversial?
The 2019 Pakistani drama film tells the story of a devout Muslim who sings and even records Naʽats, which is poetry in praise of the Prophet Muhammad. His life takes a dramatic turn after a video of him dancing to a Punjabi song, with the eponymous title, ‘Zindagi Tamasha’ goes viral.
The film premiered at the 24th Busan International Film Festival in October 2019 and served as Pakistan's official submission to the 93rd Academy Awards (The Oscars) in 2021, although it didn't receive a nomination.
It was scheduled to be released theatrically in Pakistan in January 2020 after being cleared by the censors’ board, but the release was suspended due to widespread protests led by Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a far-right Islamic extremist political party. A spokesperson of TLP deemed the film blasphemous, claiming that the characterisation of the naat-reader may lead the public to deviate from Islam. The other contentious issue was the film's reference to bacha bazi, which is the sexual abuse of young boys by clerics and older men. As a political outfit, TLP demands that the Islamic Sharia law be declared the official law of Pakistan. TLP was banned in Pakistan in early 2021, but the ban was lifted in November 2021.
The fight for its release
In January 2020, director Sarmad Khoosat filed a petition against the TLP in a Lahore court for interfering with the film's screening and release. The Senate Committee for Human Rights approved the film for screening while dismissing all objections against the film in July 2020. However, shortly thereafter, a petition seeking a lifetime ban on the film was filed in a Lahore court.
The movie was rescheduled to be released on March 18, 2022, but the screening was halted once again.
The film was eventually published on YouTube in August 2023, and it has received acclaim from critics and appreciation from fans on social media, with many people questioning the basis of the objections against the film.
Author and TV presenter Zarrar Khuhro posted on X (formerly Twitter):
— Zarrar Khuhro (@ZarrarKhuhro) August 13, 2023
Journalist and film critic Umair Sandhu questioned:
Watched #ZindagiTamasha, a film banned in #Pakistan. The film truly depicts the religious-hypocritic standards of the typical Pakistani urban society. Wondering what the hell made the justification to ban the film?
Still feeling Goosebumps after watching it pic.twitter.com/GmCL2fAbDD
— Umair Sandhu (@UmairSandu) August 4, 2023
Aeshvaraya Thakur, a writer and architect from India shared her own commentary after watching the film online:
Long awaited & controversial Pakistani film ‘Zindagi Tamasha’ leaves you with deep disgust for a society that always hovers above our heads with prying judgemental gaze.
What's wrong with a (religious) man dancing ? Why does one have to be ultra-righteous to fit societal norms? pic.twitter.com/pirNuUtj3Q
— Aeshvarya Thakur (@mayamatchstick) August 30, 2023
Minhal Awan, a student from Lahore, Pakistan, wrote on Facebook:
We still believe in a steady state that religion is primarily a communal action, performance, worship of God, a cult. We, the people of the post-postmodern world, I must say, are still entangled in the issues beneath the surface. Here, an individual, as per Durkheim's perspective, should subordinate himself to the prerequisites of religion and can't chop it down to his own size. May we get a sense that life and particularly Religion exists beyond the tradition-regulated church and chapel. May Allah help us out of our sick conscious.
On August 14, 2023, Pakistan’s Independence Day, Sarmad Khoosat was honoured with Sitara-i-Imtiaz, the country's third-highest civilian award, for his contribution to Pakistan's art and culture scene. Khoosat, best known for directing the super-hit TV dramas Humsafar (2011) and Shehr-e-Zaat (2012), is also the co-producer of the Pakistani movie Joyland, which was shortlisted for the best international film at the 2023 Oscars. An X user pointed out the irony of the award in a post:
What a country. Sarmad Khoosat to get Sitara e Imtiaz for his contributions to the arts. But his art cannot be displayed in cinemas in Pakistan.
— Faisal Bari (@BariFaisal) August 16, 2023
In a September 2023 interview with BBC Urdu, Sarmad Khoosat revealed that despite the approval from the censor boards, the film could not be released, and he never received an official written order banning the release of the film.
The director’s cut of the film is available on Vimeo for a fee, which includes some scenes which were censored and are not present in the YouTube version. This will likely help the filmmakers compensate for the financial loss incurred over the film's delayed theatrical release.