Verna, the story of a rape survivor, was banned by the Punjab Censors' Board last month. (Photo: Dunya News)

The move to give provincial authorities oversight of censorship and film exhibitions has led to greater politicization of censors’ review boards, critics say.

On November 14, the Punjab Censors’ Board decided to ban the film ‘Verna’, three days before it was due to be released. This meant that the film’s premiere, scheduled just after that, was also canceled.

“The subject is very sensitive. The film portrays government institutions in an undesirable manner (sic)” a letter signed by Rao Perviaz Akhtar, the board’s secretary, explained. The letter said the film would be sent to a full board for review and a final decision on what to do.

Verna, starring Pakistani actress Mahira Khan, is the story of a rape survivor. The film was directed by Shoaib Mansoor, whose previous two movies ‘Khuda Ke Liye’ and ‘Bol’, also generated controversy for being critical of religious orthodoxy and highlighting social taboos.

A day after the initial decision, Verna was cleared after the director agreed to undertake minor edits and the film opened in theaters all over Punjab on November 18.

“The main issue of the film wasn’t the depiction of rape, but the fact the incumbent government was showed in such a negative light,” a censor board official told Asia Times. “From police to government officials, many high-profile positions were targeted in the film.”

Sources within the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) revealed that the government’s concerns had been shared with the censors’ board. “If you notice the storyline, it moves from the subject of women’s rights and violence against women – which is a cause that deserves attention – to unnecessarily bringing in the political angle,” a PML-N leader said to Asia Times. “Near the climax, the film appears to have become more political propaganda than a social critique.”

Director Shoaib Mansoor’s son Sahib Mansoor confirmed to Asia Times that objections were raised by the review panel. “They said the governor, the Inspector General of Police and Interior Minister shouldn’t be specifically mentioned in the film, claiming that it appears as though the filmmakers were deliberately targeting the government,” he said. “No issues with the theme of the film were mentioned. Just the political angle taken was questioned, but the film was finally given the green signal following the full board review.”

While the Punjab censors’ board banned the film, albeit for a day, the Sindh censors’ board gave the film the go-ahead as per schedule, so it was able to be released in that province on November 17.

This was reminiscent of the Sindh government’s ban on the film ‘Maalik’ last year, which saw it temporarily taken down in the province, for depicting a security guard killing the Sindh Chief Minister. The ban, which was actually imposed weeks after Maalik was released all over the country, was later overturned.

Qurat Ul Ain Rafi, a former member of the Central Board of Film Censors, believes that the decision to allow provincial authorities to take over censorship issues from the Culture Ministry has caused censors to become more politicized.

The ministry’s affairs were devolved in 2010 after the 18th Amendment redistributed matters mentioned in the Concurrent Legislative List. This meant oversight for censorship and film exhibitions was transferred to the provinces, which spurred the creation of separate censor boards (although boards in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunwa are yet to be completed).

“What is happening now is that if a film depicts the Sindh government negatively, their board will ban it, and if one is critical of the Punjab government then they will have issues,” Rafi said to Asia Times.

“The initial ban on Verna is a clear demonstration of the politicization of the censors’ board. The Punjab censors’ board was clearly influenced by the PML-N leaders, who are already embattled in multiple crises. It is their insecurity, especially with general elections looming, that prompted the ban – even if temporarily,” she said.

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