By Yasser Latif Hamdani
I consider myself not just a patriot but an ardent one at that, even if it is unfashionable in some circles to be one today. Therefore, I am programmed to be supportive of films that seek to ignite genuine patriotic fervour amongst Pakistanis. Yet I am disappointed every time a film, claiming to be a patriotic thriller, is released, because it is always, without exception, a hatchet job, sending invariably the worst message possible out to the world on what passes for patriotism in Pakistan. Now, let me frankly admit that I have not seen Maalik, but I have seen enough of these “thrillers” that are marketed on the premise of green and white flag, including such ridiculously farfetched films as WAAR to know the genre very well.
Essentially the formula is simple for these films: The protagonist is almost always an army officer, either serving or retired. The villains are either corrupt politicians or scheming foreigners, who are inherently evil and mean-spirited. In the end, the good guys defeat the bad guys. Obviously this is pretty standard for patriotic films all around the world, including Hollywood and Bollywood. However the question is should Maalik, the film directed by and starring Ashir Azeem, the long forgotten lead of the PTV drama serial Dhuwan from 1994 and a serving civil servant, be banned simply because it follows the same formula? In my view, the film Maalik, by all reports in the media, has crossed certain red lines, which in Pakistan’s case, and especially given our peculiar history of military intervention and political violence, should not have been crossed.
According to reports, the film ends with the security guard of the Chief Minister of Sindh killing him on duty, leading to, again going by media reports, to sustained cheering in the cinema halls where the film was screened. In other words the film condones vigilante action by self-styled patriots or “maaliks” of Pakistan against an ostensibly elected chief executive of the second largest province in Pakistan. What the hell were the writers of the script thinking? Have we not had enough of such vigilante action in Pakistan? It has barely been a few months since the state finally executed Mumtaz Qadri for having resorted to this precise act in the name of religious honour. There could hardly be anything more irresponsible than re-enacting an eerily similar scene, this time in the name of national honour? What message did Ashir Azeem, as scriptwriter, want to send? That it is alright to resort to deadly violence if you have – in your estimate- a righteous cause? This is calling forth a flood of anarchy. It is also unlawful.
The film also is said to be outright offensive to the sentiments of Sindhis, the second largest ethnic group in Pakistan. This is especially tragic because Ashir Azeem himself comes from a religious minority that is often stereotyped and persecuted in Pakistan. Ethnic slurs therefore were the last thing one expected from Ashir Azeem, who, as I mentioned earlier, is a serving official in the civil service of Pakistan. On that note it would be interesting to find out how or why a serving official of the government is allowed to enter into private ventures such as filmmaking? Surely there must have been a few laws bent here and there. Would that not amount to corruption?
Significantly, however, the corrupt politician (read villain), the Chief Minister, in the film is an exceptionally cruel Sindhi feudal lord, who picks on innocent and patriotic school masters just for fun. This caricature of your run of the mill Sindhi politician is a jab against the Pakistan People’s Party, which has been in power in that province for a very long time. Now connect the dots. It is the PPP, whatever its flaws and there are many, that has often been at the receiving end of violence, losing its tallest leaders to it. And then of course Salmaan Taseer whose assassination is re-enacted in the film was also a PPP leader. The message being sent out is that PPP, Pakistan’s only (slightly) left of center national party, is a party of corrupt and cruel Sindhi feudal lords. It is no wonder that the Sindh Government reacted by banning the film first but then quickly backtracking on it. Pakistan’s federalism is much more important that any shady or dubious idea of patriotism.
Then there is the question of the tagline “Mein Pakistan ka maalik hoon”. What does that mean precisely? Constitutionally a citizen is bound to the state through a compact, which is the constitution. A citizen has rights as well as duties. A citizen is sovereign in the sense that he or she may elect their representatives to provincial and national legislatures. Being the “Maalik” of the state does not mean that a citizen is free to break the laws and resort to vigilantism.
I am glad, therefore, that the Federal Government had the good sense of banning the film throughout Pakistan. Obviously censorship is not ideal and should be resorted to in the rarest of circumstances. I argue that this is indeed is a case where such censorship was legitimate and the only recourse for the state. The fundamental right of freedom of expression under the Pakistani Constitution is subject to certain exceptions. One such exception is the “incitement to an offense”. Lionizing the wanton killing of a politician by a self-righteous security guard falls squarely within the incitement category because it is telling the would be “patriots” and “maaliks” that it is not just alright to bump off a politician you do not like but indeed is the right thing to do. Pakistan cannot afford such patriotism.