When A Movie About Rape Gets Past Pakistan's Censors

Cleared by the Central Board of Film Censors on appeal, top Pakistani director Shoaib Mansoor's 'Verna' is a flawed film, but a wake-up call for a nation obsessed by patriarchal honor.

Leading Pakistani actress Mahira Khan stars as a teacher who fights back after being raped.
Leading Pakistani actress Mahira Khan stars as a teacher who fights back after being raped.
Fifi Haroon*

"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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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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