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Letter from Pakistan

A few months before Bush’s re-election, I took a job at a university in Lahore, the first “liberal arts” university in Pakistan, to teach a one-year course in film and video production. While I really should have gone to Florida and helped monitor the polling stations, I thought I could also do my part by making documentary warriors out of my students over here.

On the first day of class, we watched Fahrenheit 9/11 and one of my students asked if she were to make a documentary about General Musharraf and state-sponsored terrorism in Pakistan, what is the guarantee that she wouldn’t get shot? Talk about getting straight to the point. Human Rights Watch has listed a number of political journalists in Pakistan who have been arbitrarily detained or arrested on charges of sedition in 2004. Makhdoom Javed Hashmi of the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, and the leader of the opposition in parliament, was also recently sentenced to 23 years in prison on sedition charges for releasing an anti-Musharraf letter that might have been written by someone inside the military.

The television broadcast and film industry still has to abide by censorship rules defined (though somewhat revised) in the Motion Pictures Ordinance created by General Zia’s government in the late 1970s. While the Ordinance “encourages artistic expression” on the social realities of contemporary existence such as intolerance, dishonesty, exploitation, etc., it maintains that the artist must remain responsible to society at large by not being contemptuous of national security, religion, or morality in general. Essentially this means no contempt of Pakistan (Armed Forces included), nothing that blasphemes or disrespects Islam, no “glorification of adultery, promiscuousness, lustful passion, lewdness, or excessive drinking.” And absolutely no nudity, which goes without saying.

Of course, everyone gets around this by subscribing to cable, which includes at least ten Indian channels, CNN, Fox, HBO Asia (sans Sex in the City), Arabic channels, and new Pakistani channels that crop up almost monthly. The privately owned Pakistani channels get around the censorship rules in large part by broadcasting television from Dubai or Hong Kong—but still with no nudity and no critique of Musharraf. For that, you have to go to the pirated DVD market, where everything is available: American films, Iranian cinema, Bollywood films, French flicks, everything. Even as theaters showcase the regional cinemas of Pakistan (Punjabi and Pashto films in the largest number), everyone would agree that there is a crisis in the film industry in terms of both production quality and lagging viewership.

On a more positive note, there is a rapidly growing alternative cinema with independent filmmakers shooting both documentaries and low-budget features on digital video and exhibiting through film festivals here and internationally, as well as at local cafes and generally wherever they can. Bilal Minto’s World Ka Center (The Center of the World, critiquing the importance of 9/11 around the world by portraying an utterly ordinary day in Lahore as it happened on September 11, 2001), and Hasan Zaidi’s Raat Chali Hai Jhoom Ke (simply described as After Hours set in Karachi) have both, among others, shown in New York and in other international film festivals.

My students are part of this cinema “revival,” and I’d say that they have no sense of self-censorship when they do their video assignments. Humor, anti-authoritarian critique, and “lustful passion” seem to pervade everything they do—they are all 19 and in university, after all.

As one assignment, I asked my students to film a phone call between two people, an exercise on shooting to edit with continuity in mind. One group made a pretty hilarious short film in Punjabi where a man having difficulty masturbating to dirty pictures in a bathroom calls his sex therapist for advice, who turns out to be too distracted by his own success at it to be of any help to his client. The documentaries the students have proposed for this semester cover subjects including the harassment of women in public markets, the presence of UFOs in Lahore (don’t you doubt it!), and the more terrestrial threat that plastic toymaking poses to the indigenous terracotta toymaking industry.

That still begs for a film on Musharraf, the President, and the Army Chief. Since his coup in 1999, the military has penetrated every social and economic institution in Pakistan, becoming the biggest corporate industrial group around, and the loudest public voice. Moreover, the military has become the largest landowner in the country, having aggressively usurped land from farmers in the Punjab as well as raided low-income housing developments in cities to expand their own neatly organized housing colonies.

Most liberal-thinking urban Pakistanis will say they are not happy with military rule, but in general they either don’t seem to mind the General (at least he’s secular and the economy is growing), or they don’t believe that there is a culture of activism here that they can participate in publicly. Of course that is not true, as every society has people pushing at the edges to challenge the status quo and every society has groups vying for political power. Here there is the people rights movement, there are the religious parties who want Islamic rule, and there are many people in this area who cannot stand another day of Musharraf’s Bush-sponsored hunt for Osama.

I’m new in this country, but these are the topics I’m learning about in my effort to understand Pakistan. And what I can say about Musharraf right now is that I appreciate how straightforward he is about power. It’s so much easier to fight when you know what is going on. We spend so much energy in the U.S. deconstructing the truth about power and then trying to prove again and again that we’re not expounding conspiracy theories. In the meantime Bush continues to rule our country much like Musharraf does, all the while proclaiming to be the leader of the free world.


Mridu Chandra

Mridu Chandra is a filmmaker and writer living in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2005

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