Pakistan's government postponed on February 3 its decision on whether to lift a ban on a movie that had offended hard-line Islamists in the Muslim-majority country, after asking a high council of clerics to weigh in on the film.
The Islamists had raised allegations of blasphemy over the film Zindagi Tamasha, or Circus of Life, by Pakistani director Sarmad Khosat, which was to be released in late January. Its debut was scrapped by the Punjab provincial government's information office following objections from the Tehreek-e-Labbaik party and its followers.
Their claims drew further attention to Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law, which carries an automatic death sentence for a conviction of insulting Islam. There have been widespread complaints that the law is used to settle scores and intimidate religious minorities.
The party's supporters argued the movie contains blasphemous content and could spread hatred against people of faith. Party leader Khadim Rizvi threatened to hold nationwide protests on January 24, the day the film was originally set to open in local cinemas.
Raja Jehangir Anwar, the Punjab government spokesman, said a special government committee postponed a meeting scheduled for February 3 to examine the ban. The fate of the movie was referred to the country's Council of Islamic Ideology, a constitutional body that advises the government and legislature. It was unclear when the council would deliver its opinion.
The film's director, Khosat, has denied the allegations against the movie. He was asked by the authorities to appear before the special government committee, which includes officials from the Central Board of Film Censors and a representative of Tehreek-e-Labbaik, to answer questions about his movie.
The film's storyline focuses on a conservative, devout Muslim businessman, Mohammad Rahat Khawaj, whose life unravels after a video of him watching a woman dance at a wedding is posted online and goes viral. His family is ashamed of him and he faces taunts from radical Islamists wherever he goes.
The controversy over the film also underscores the deepening divisions in Pakistani society, where Islamist parties have become more vocal in recent years.
In 2018, tens of thousands of Islamists blocked highways around the capital, Islamabad, to protest the acquittal of a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, of blasphemy charges. She was eventually forced to leave Pakistan last year. Those rallies were organized by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik.
Some observers point out that both proponents and critics of the film in Pakistan had based their opinions solely on a two-minute promotional trailer showing a bearded student, similar to those attending religious schools or madrasahs, having a heated argument with the main character, Khawaj, before beating him.
Tehreek-e-Labbaik was also angered by a scene in the movie of an angry mob chanting its popular slogan, used at party rallies to defend blasphemy laws. The party says the film was also an attempt to tarnish its image.
The director declined to comment to the Associated Press, saying he had said everything he wanted to say in letters to Pakistani President Arif Alvi, Khan, and army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, which he shared on Twitter in January.
“I did not make (the movie) to hurt, offend or malign anyone,” Khosat tweeted, adding that, “as an artist, the last thing I'd ever want to achieve through my artistic expression is anarchy or hatred. No! That's not what an artist does. Or at least I don't.”
“There is nothing offensive or malicious in the film,” he said in the letter to the president. “The space for rational and artistic thinking and expression must not be annexed by a few troublemakers for their political end but I fear this is what will happen if we buckle under this time.`”
Khosat had received Pakistan's prestigious President's Award for Pride of Performance in 2017 in recognition of his work as an artist. He directed an earlier film, Manto, and played a key role in the movie Motorcycle Girl. He has also done television work.
Last year, ahead of its debut at home, Zindagi Tamasha won the coveted Kim Ji-seok Award at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea, drawing praise from the film community in Pakistan.
Pakistan's film industry has seen a decades-long decline, mainly blamed on poor scripts and lack of technological advances used by film producers, compared with neighboring India.