x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Only a movie has the courage to speak about prejudice

In Pakistan, a successful new film has opened doors to discussion of issues rarely mentioned: the place of women, contraception, prostitution, censored art and music, unequal girls' education and more

A film has asked questions of Pakistani society that many people cannot utter in public. Bol, an Urdu word roughly translated as "speak up" is a story of the financially struggling family of Hakim Sahib, his seven daughters and hijra (eunuch) son.

All of the male prejudices that reside in Pakistani society are voiced in this movie through a web of social norms, conventions and culture, rehearsed by the character of Hakim Sahib as he negotiates his world - a wife who is constantly pregnant and struggling to feed her family; daughters who are forced to remain indoors; and the constant imposition of the social order to threaten and control.

And apparently it is a message that resonates with many Pakistanis. The film established a new box-office record in the national cinema, grossing 22 million Pakistan rupees (Dh935,000) in the first six days. Abdur Rauf, a well-known TV presenter and the group director of Geo TV, which released the movie, saw its success as a landmark for the Pakistani film industry. The industry has been struggling since the military dictator General Zia ul Haq crushed it during his imposition of a strict interpretation of Islam in the country.

"This film has reinvigorated the Pakistani film industry and spurs a hope that finally it may be the time for Pakistani cinema again," Mr Rauf told me. "Perhaps it could very well prove its moment of revival."

One of the messages of the movie is apparent in the character Hakim's treatment of his son Saifi. The father is kinder, in a way, to his daughters, even allowing them to study until the fifth grade. But Saifi is reviled, never shown in family gatherings or at dinner when the father is there, nor allowed to leave home because of the shame to the family.

Ultimately Saifi is killed by his father after he is sexually assaulted. Hakim proceeds to bribe police 200,000 rupees to cover up the results of the physical examination.

In a message to the audience, the director Shoiab Mansoor wrote: "Nothing in the world scares me more than the thought of being born a woman or a eunuch in a country like Pakistan, where obscurantism has deep roots. It is very unfortunate that we make tall claims, full of pride, about the rights of woman granted by our religion and yet when I look around in underdeveloped Muslim countries in general and Pakistan in particular, I find things totally the opposite ... Leave the 5 per cent urban educated elite aside, women seem to be the playground (battleground)."

In a society where doublespeak is so prevalent, Bol provokes Pakistanis to speak against problems that include rape, domestic violence, attitudes towards transgendered people, contraception, prostitution, censored art and music, and unequal girls' education.

The strap line on the film poster reads in Urdu: "You don't need permission but courage to speak up." The film also tries to reinforce a message of unity between Sunnis and Shiites.

With fully formed characters, powerful dialogue, and reflections on pain and emotion, the movie has struck a powerful chord with audiences. "Bol tackles subjects most films don't dare to venture into. The movie is not controversial but it speaks about the situation that exists in our homes," Mahira Khan, who plays one of the daughters, told the Pakistani newspaper The Express Tribune. "It is a film that will provoke dialogue and that will be an achievement in itself."

Khan's character falls in love with her nextdoor neighbour, a Shiite, and runs away to marry him with support from her sisters and the mother.

The film has received an overwhelming public reception, playing to full houses, despite the common consensus that liberal sentiments are subdued out of fear of reprisals from religious groups.

Tazeen Javed, a Karachi-based journalist, has remarked that "none of the usual suspects" have declared the film un-Islamic for its messages of family planning and the virtues of a small family.

"One character openly asks others to take off their hijabs, leave the four walls of the home and experience life; yet the film has not attracted any major fatwa," Javed writes in the English daily Dawn. "I know it is not much but it gives me hope for a Pakistan where people are tolerant and fatwas are hard to come by."


Murtaza Shibli is the editor of 7/7: Muslim Perspectives, and the secretary general of the World Kashmir Diaspora Alliance