The death of joy

Kamila Hyat
Thursday, Jan 19, 2023

The ludicrous ban on the film ‘Joyland’ by the Punjab government shows us the desire of authorities to cast darkness across Pakistani society. Joyland is the first Pakistani movie to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best International Feature Film category. It made history at the Cannes Film Festival.

‘Joyland’ is playing in federally controlled areas in the country and Sindh. It is also playing in France. It will soon be released in cinemas in the US and the UK. Punjab has banned its screening. Actor Rasti Farooq – who plays the role of ‘Mumtaz’, one of the several central characters in the beautifully choreographed drama shot through the lens of Joe Saade – has said that the movie transformed her life. Work on it began in 2021. In her interview, she says that the ban in Punjab is an emotional heartbreaker, given the fact that the movie is set in Lahore.

The people of Lahore have shown their love for art. Many residents have been driving to Islamabad to watch the film. The recently dissolved Parvez Elahi government succumbed to religious pressure, with extremists arguing that particular scenes from the movie were ‘objectionable’ and that its content was ‘too graphic’, and imposed a ban on the entire film.

Unless people are allowed to enjoy theatre, music, film, dance and other forms of art, what lies in their lives? Are they condemned to watch what are substandard and equally retrogressive television plays which cast women in subservient roles and portray the idea of ‘good girls’ set against their more devious sisters?

Are our young men and teenagers condemned to watch porn in dingy cafes? Perhaps offering other forms of entertainment could open up their minds and change this trend. And of course for young women too, who remain restricted in their homes, there is no entertainment at all. They must simply survive. This explains the high levels of depression many Pakistani women suffer. Different organizations monitoring mental health have released their data on the rising depression cases among women. And then of course we have social media addiction which international analysts say has created a generation that is the most anxious, the most vulnerable to mental illness and the most unbothered about lives outside their screens through the ages.

The case of Joyland is not the first time an attempt has been made to erase festivities and lively activities from the country. For centuries, Basant had been a popular occasion in Punjab, with the colours of the rainbow dotted across the sky in the form of kites and the sound of ‘dhols’ (drums) in the air. It was also the only non-religious festival on the calendar. Its ban in 2007 was a result of opposition from regressive elements. We have an entire generation who has grown up without knowing the many delights of the occasion. The argument that the use of kite string caused fatal accidents and injuries does not stand. After all, we do not ban cars when fatal accidents occur or a sport when a player is unfortunately killed due to a mishap. Of course, accidents like the slitting of throats were horrendous. But harmful kite strings should have gone out of circulation instead of snatching away joy and celebrations from people.

Besides this, we have had a ban on dance at schools since 2018 even though some forms of dance have returned on a low scale. Again the objection to girls dancing and the disapproval of the overall activity is rooted in obscurantism. Dance is a basic activity in almost every culture around the world. This is also true for Punjab. There is absolutely no reason why it should not be encouraged by teaching all forms of dance ranging from folk to classical varieties and promoting confidence in children through an activity which may also spot talent among some.

In the past, we have seen bans on circus displays and other similar performances. Some may be based on solid grounds. But for the most part, they deny people what should be a routine part of their lives and which is especially important to them at a time when so many people live in extreme hardship. Perhaps the focus on placing a ban on joy is a reason for the high rate of crime including rape, physical illness and other ailments which afflict our society.

Quashing creativity can only harm people and prevent young people – such as the group which makes up the cast and crew of Joyland – from showing the world the kind of talent that exists in Pakistan. Surely this will be the best way of putting forward a brighter, better image of the country. The daring roles taken on by actors who played them with superb skill suggests that Pakistan can match the world as far as the quality of its films go.

Unfortunately, this quality has been lost especially in recent years when violence has dominated many of the films coming out of Lollywood. Films that show society through a realistic and extraordinarily sensitive lens can make a big difference. They must be encouraged. So do other activities including theatre, stand-up comedy and other events. Our efforts to stop people from enjoying life have already had a horrific impact on the kind of society we have created.

For the future we must try and change this by opening up all avenues which allow talent and amusement in any form that does not hurt others. And of course those who object to the content of any play, movie or musical performance are perfectly free not to attend it or to turn off their screens.

Pakistan has made its citizens proud many times through the award-winning works of directors such as Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and now Saim Sadiq and Joyland. Yet too many of our people who gain international honour ranging from Dr Abdus Salam to Malala Yousafzai and now the creators of Joyland are shunned in their own homes. We must take pride in all that Pakistan can offer and use this opportunity to put it on the map of the world not as a country stained with blood but one filled with laughter, joy and the many colours of life.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor. She can be reached at: