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Ban on 'Bin Laden' comedy sparks uproar in Pakistan

Censors block movie with claims of security concerns over the Bollywood film, but critics say it is more worried about the anti-US tone of the prooduction

"I don't see a point why the movie should be banned," says Ali Zafar, above, who plays a journalist in <i>Tere Bin Laden</i>.
"I don't see a point why the movie should be banned," says Ali Zafar, above, who plays a journalist in <i>Tere Bin Laden</i>.

ISLAMABAD // A Bollywood comedy featuring an Osama bin Laden lookalike has been banned by censors over fears it could trigger attacks, leaving its popular Pakistani star mystified as to why it will not be shown in his home country.

Tere Bin Laden (Without You Bin Laden) stars Ali Zafar, the pop star-turned actor, who said he knew that the film would cause some controversy, although he never thought officials would block the movie from theatres. While announcing the ban on Tuesday, Pakistani officials expressed concerns that Osama bin Laden's characterisation in the movie could lead to attacks by extremists. "I don't see a point why the movie should be banned," Zafar said on Friday in an interview with The National. "The movie is a very subtle, humorous remark on the war on terror. I think we needed a movie like that."

Zafar plays the role of a Pakistani journalist desperate to get an American visa. After several attempts to secure a visa fail, he comes up with a scheme that would guarantee emigration to the United States: orchestrate an interview of the world's most-wanted figure, Osama bin Laden, by hiring a look-alike. The film was the first by the director Abhishek Sharma and was produced by Aarti Shetty and Pooja Shetty Deora. Tere Bin Laden was released in India and several other countries on July 16.

The move to ban the comedy has met with widespread criticism in Pakistan. Angry editorials in favour of freedom of speech have been written in the local press. Zafar, speaking by telephone from Mumbai, where he was promoting the film, defended the work. "It talks about the discrimination that Pakistanis have faced everywhere in the world, especially in the United States after 9/11," he said. "They are looked at with a suspicious mind and eye. It has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden."

Instead, Zafar said, the film is a satire on the war on terrorism and shines a light on how the average Pakistani Muslim views the US's foreign policy in the region. Zafar, through his role in the movie, is treading on sensitive grounds. Pakistan has been racked by militancy and terrorism ever since it allied itself with the US in the war on terror under the former president Pervez Musharraf. The result has been a deep societal, cultural and religious divide in the country. Those who support US policies are as vocal as those who oppose these them. Suicide attacks have become commonplace. The military has launched several operations against militants in the country's restive north-western tribal areas, which are considered Taliban and al Qa'eda strongholds.

Given the volatile state of the country, Zafar said he had second thoughts about accepting the role. "Initially, I was apprehensive as well. But when I read the script I thought that there was nothing offensive in it. People will laugh their heads off. "There are so many jokes about American policies anyway, so many caricatures of former president Bush that I don't see any harm in a movie like this."

He dismissed the security concerns of Pakistani officials. "So many mosques, shrines have been bombed recently. Does that mean people stop going to such places?" "Our full board have watched the movie and the majority has decided it's not suitable for exhibition," Masood Elahi, vice chairman of the Censor Board of Pakistan, told Reuters before the ban was imposed. He gave no reasons for the ban. In some ways, the movie represents a coming of age for Zafar, who had remained fairly apolitical in recent years.

Still those close to him expressed a different explanation of the ban. Yousaf Salahuddin, a friend of Zafar and a former member of parliament, said the ban was political posturing by the government. "They did not ban the movie because of security concerns. Nonsense," Mr Salahuddin said. "It is an anti-American film that exposes the Americans" and their double-standards. He said the Pakistani government did not want to offend the Americans.

Mr Salahuddin said US policies in Pakistan and Afghanistan had ravaged both countries. "Pakistan was a peaceful country before 9/11. Look what has happened since then." He blamed the US military presence in Afghanistan and continued drone missile strikes in the tribal regions as the main cause of turmoil in the country. "I am not anti-American. My three children have studied in the United States, but American policies force me to be critical."

The official ban will have marginal impact here, as pirated DVDs of English and Indian movies are easily available. Indian movies are hugely popular in Pakistan and stars of Bollywood are household names here. While Indian cinema has thrived in recent years, the Pakistani film industry has gone into a downward spiral. Local artists often cross the border to India in search for further fame and fortune and Zafar taking a role in a Bollywood film left him open to nationalist critics who see such crossovers as deserters.

Syed Noor, one of the best-known Pakistani film directors, was critical of Zafar. "I have not seen the movie but I want to stress that Pakistanis should at least think about the dignity of their country," Noor said in a phone interview last week. "We are already facing a crisis. Even then our actors, acting deaf, dumb and blind, keep going to work in Indian movies. Maybe, Ali Zafar should have exhibited more responsible behaviour."

Noor added: "It is bad if the movie ridicules anyone. And the ban is equally bad because Indians will get another opportunity to criticise us." Zafar, however, was indifferent to such criticism. "It is a very pro-Pakistani movie," he said while acknowledging the irony that it has been written, directed and produced by Indians. "You will get a better sense when you watch the movie." @Email:smasood@thenational.ae