"Power di game saari, power di game ah, Ullu di pathi tenu samajh kyun ni aandi ae?"
(It's a power game, all a power game, Don't you get it you, foolish girl?)
The beat of Xpolymer Dar's rap theme rips through the cinema hall as the film opens. The lyrics, by the film's director are like a whip on a horse's back. Rape/politics/power-games and more. This is explosive stuff.
I am watching Verna, perhaps the most eagerly awaited film in Pakistan this year. As usual with its celebrated director Shoaib Mansoor (Khuda Ke Liye, 2007, Bol, 2011), it was shot under tight-lipped secrecy. As the film progresses, there are many predictable gasps, and a few unexpected giggles. Perhaps the gravity of the topic makes people awkward. Or has Mansoor, inexplicably and accidentally got it horribly wrong?
A few days before the release of this controversial film, based on the rape of a young teacher played by Pakistan's best-known star Mahira Khan, no one was quite sure it would even be viewed by a Pakistani audience. The Lahore première was cancelled at the last minute by Shoman Films (Mansoor's production house) and HUM TV, the film's distributors on account of non-certification.
The Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC), one of three in the country, was not inclined to let it go as is. Five members of the 21-member board, which controls what passes before people's eyes in Islamabad as well as cantonment areas throughout the country, saw the film. Four of those objected. Of the 12 cuts reportedly requested, all referred to the political content in the film and not the physicality or social context of the rape. Not even the hard revenge story that escalates as the film progresses. Mansoor refused to comply with the board's demands and asked for an appellate review. The social media uproar over the ban helped; Pakistani Twitter rallied against the idea of muting or cutting the film. Verna was reviewed and certified for general release.
Simultaneously in India, Rajputs raged over Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmavati with lead star Deepika Padukone's life being threatened by hardliners. Padukone chose this time to support her counterpart in Pakistan. When asked in an interview about the ban on Verna she said: "Sad that a small section of people do not understand the power of cinema and what it can do to the world."
Of course, it could be said that the powers-that-be in Pakistan fully understand the power of cinema, which is why they were so anxious about a film that accuses a governor's son of rape.
Cinema in Pakistan had dwindled during the 1980s and 1990s due to a combination of unrelated circumstances; the Zia state's clamp down on filmmaking meant that producers had to deposit about 20% of the budget into government coffers as safeguard before initiating filming. Already burdened by the onslaught of Indian films becoming widely — and illicitly — available on VHS tapes in video markets for pennies a night, Pakistani producers increasingly found making films unaffordable and untenable.
In 2007 Shoaib Mansoor's Khuda Ke Liye, a gripping account of a young musician's radicalisation, heralded the return of Pakistani cinema and the arrival of Fawad Khan in films. Many see Mansoor's debut movie (ostensibly funded by the PR wing of the Pakistan army) as a game-changer and a watershed in Pakistani cinema. It's rather affectionately called a "revival" by journalists and the film fraternity alike; though the filmmakers who make up the fraternity have changed.
Crucially this is not a revival of Lollywood, the movie industry based in the heart of the Punjab, where films are now rarely made. Shaan Shahid's remake of Mahesh Bhatt's Arth being one of the exceptions. The spotlight has moved to Karachi, where almost all the new directors are either film school graduates or from the advertising world. Others like Nadeem Baig — whose films Jawani Phir Nahin Aani (2016) and Punjab Nahin Jaoungi (2017) have been the two biggest blockbusters in Pakistani film history — have traveled to film via successful TV serials like ‘Dillagi' (2016). To all of these young Turks, Shoaib Mansoor is sort of the paterfamilias of modern Pakistani cinema.
Mansoor, however, has become increasingly reclusive after his success, choosing to live away from the rest in the more sanitized environs of the capital, Islamabad. He doesn't give interviews, and doesn't really discuss his work with the film fraternity or the media. While Mansoor is reported to have consulted with the War against Rape (WAR) organisation, which focuses on activism around sexual violence against women in Pakistan, he did not show the film to them or seek an opinion on the story he chose to tell. Hence the success or failure of Verna is entirely his own.
Official film poster for Verna — Source: Wikimedia Commons
So, why is Verna, flawed in part and hammered by many critics in Pakistan, nonetheless such an important film? For one, it addresses the issue of sexual violence against women head on, unflinchingly and without concession to young patriots on social media who point out that Pakistan's statistics are much lower than India's.
In truth, for several social reasons the reporting and prosecution of rape cases in Pakistan is thought to be low, and hence the data incomplete. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan states that sexual violence against women in Pakistan is "rampant" and WAR contends that at least four women are raped daily. Cases which do make it to the media are horrendous; earlier this year a young girl of 16 was ordered to be raped by a man in full view of villagers as punishment for her brother's rape of his sister.
But for every case that comes to light, there are possibly hundreds that are hushed up. In 2014, WAR estimated that of the 383 sexual assault cases reported in hospitals across Karachi, FIRs were registered only in 27.67% of the cases. The stigma of rape plays out in any country in the world, but especially in a country like Pakistan, where reputation and honor are such loaded words, and where so many girls think first of killing themselves rather than reporting a rape. The HRCP reports that almost 800 rape survivors had either attempted to take their lives or had committed suicide — the stakes are incredibly high. So on a simple level, a film focusing on rape so intensely, directed by the country's most famous director and featuring its most prominent actress draws attention to a hidden world shrouded by the obsession with honor and suffocated by the feeling that women are physical repositories of this honor.
When a woman is raped in Pakistan, it is her whole family that feels a loss of honor, which ad often imposes a silence on her experience to protect their reputation. Verna spotlights this muteness at length, fervently espousing a woman's right to speak up and also stating that what is wrought on her body does not take her dignity away.
Some Pakistani reviewers have said the film is fundamentally flawed. Writing in Dawn, the newspaper's culture editor Hamna Zubair worries that by presenting Sara (Mahira Khan) as "a male director's fantasy female avenger," the film glosses over the trauma and mental anguish faced by rape survivors. "People need to see the trauma caused by sexual violence," she tells me. "They need to know this is a life changing event. Verna failed to communicate that."
It is also true that the aftermath of rape is not experienced the same way by every woman. Rape trauma syndrome lists various behaviors that survivors exhibit: some women become emotionally numb or use disassociation as a front-line defense against the shock of the assault. Anger or hostility is also perceived by rape counselors as a perfectly normal coping mechanism though less common because society doesn't encourage women to express outrage. The rape survivor is often also angry at those around her, who may not be supporting her to the extent she needs. So Shoaib Mansoor's Sara is not totally beyond the realm of possibility.
Where Verna does, however, begin to stumble is when Sara decides to submit to a second night with her rapist in order to gather evidence against him. At this point it would be important to show she is conflicted or even repulsed if only to make the episode more believable for Pakistani viewers. I think that Mansoor overplayed his cards here because you have to take your audience along with you in a film such as this. The scene could have been just as shocking but played less mockingly and with more variance and hesitation than a brief change of expression on the heroine's face. The acclaimed Pakistani director Jami (Moor, 2015) vented on Facebook: "Showing a victim going back to be raped again was a new low." Last year Paul Verhoeven's Elle received accolades across the board for its nuanced and unconventional storytelling of a woman getting on with her life immediately after her rape and more controversially getting involved with her rapist before avenging the crime. But Elle is a complex, probing film that doesn't take easy avenues. The issue with Verna is that while it is heavy-handed and didactic in the main, it tries to be nuanced in the most difficult scene in the film. You can't have it both ways.
Mahira Khan in Verna
Verna veers between modernity and conventional filmmaking in an inconsistent manner and tries too hard to take on all the burdens of the world. Some depictions, like the uncouth manner in which Sara's husband (Haroon Shahid) doubts that she fought her rapist hard enough are probably truer to life than one would wish, but his later transformation is unconvincing. Where it does succeed is its understanding of the power structures in Pakistan and how political power-play and corruption combine to subvert basic rights. And these were precisely the areas the censors were worried about.
Ironically, both Padmavati and Verna — films on different sides of the border — focus on rape in different ways. While the Pakistani film, despite being clunky, urges women to live and fight back after sexual assault, the Indian one potentially valorizes a character who opts to die for "honor" in anticipation of rape. The latter in my estimation is a far more dangerous message to send out to women in South Asia, especially in a country where, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, 93 women are raped every day.
*Fifi Haroon is a senior producer for the BBC.
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