Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s government has lifted the ban on the film Joyland, the country’s official entry for the Academy Awards, paving the way for its nationwide release on November 18.
The U-turn by the central censor board comes days after the information ministry banned Joyland for containing “highly objectionable material”.
Set in the eastern city of Lahore, Joyland tackles issues of gender and sexuality – taboo topics in Pakistan – through the story of a married man who falls in love with a transgender dancer, played by transgender actress Alina Khan.
In another twist on Thursday, Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province reversed its October decision to release the film. The ban notification stated that the permission for the film was recalled “in the wake of persistent complaints received from different quarters”.
Punjab’s about-turn meant the film would not be screened in the province, the country’s most populous, but other provinces could still go ahead with the screening.
Provincial Minister for Culture Malik Taimoor Masood told Al Jazeera there were some concerns from right-wing groups about the movie.
Masood said that considering the polarisation in society and the sensitivity involved, the government would review the movie to ensure “no sentiments are hurt”.
“I have called a meeting on Friday to review the situation and will announce a decision regarding the release in the province at the earliest,” he said.
Praised in Cannes, banned at home
The debut feature by director Saim Sadiq has been praised globally and shown at international film festivals this year. It has won numerous awards, including the Jury Prize as well as the Queer Palm award at the Cannes film festival, where it had its world premiere.
It received provincial and federal censor board approval for its release in Pakistan in August, but the federal board withdrew its approval on November 11 after a lawmaker from a religious party complained about it, triggering a huge backlash on social media.
A film needs federal as well as provincial approval to be shown in theatres. Between August and November, Joyland was only viewed by members of the censor boards.
While there were no street protests, and campaigns for and against Joyland were playing out on social media, the government was under pressure from conservative elements to ban the movie, which it did. The ensuing public pressure online led the government to hurriedly form a review committee on November 14, and eventually walk back its ban decision.
“The film #Joyland has been cleared for release by the Censor board review committee formed at the direction of PM @CMShehbaz,” Salman Sufi, an aide to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, announced in a tweet late on Wednesday.
Freedom of speech is fundamental right & should be nourished within ambits of the law. #JoylandBan https://t.co/vQodv7fjOk
— Salman Sufi (Get New Covid Booster Today) (@SalmanSufi7) November 16, 2022
Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, the Jamaat-e-Islami party lawmaker who objected to the movie, expressed his displeasure at the government’s decision to lift the ban.
“In front of the pressure of the foreign, secular lobby, the government collapsed. It is a misfortune for Pakistan that a movie in LGBTQ category, nominated for Oscar is granted permission for release,” tweeted Khan.
حکومت بیرونی،سیکولرلابی کےدباؤکےآگےڈھیر،پاکستان کی بدقسمتی,آسکرکےلیےنامزد#LGBTQ کیٹیگری والی فلم کونمائش کی اجازت،@GovtofPakistanکےلیےمغربی سفارتکاروائسرائےہیں،ایسافیصلہ متوقع تھا،کیا تعلیم،انٹراپرنیورشپ،یوتھ امپاؤرمنٹ،صحت،غربت،کرپشن فلمی دنیاکےلئےکوئی موضوعات نہیں؟ #BanJoyland pic.twitter.com/3tITlgEbTy
— Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan (@SenatorMushtaq) November 16, 2022
“The foreign diplomats are like viceroys for the Pakistani government. This decision was expected. Was there no topic related to education, entrepreneurship, youth empowerment, health, poverty, or corruption for the film industry?” he continued.
The norms of Pakistani society
Sufi told Al Jazeera Joyland had been cleared by a 14-member review committee, formed by a government under pressure, with “minor edits in the film that have been conveyed to [the] filmmakers”.
A member of the review committee told Al Jazeera there had been concerns about the movie because of its language as well as its depiction of transgender people in society.
“The movie contained a lot of foul language. Therefore, some cuts and edits were suggested to the filmmakers. The review committee has given an adult rating to the film,” said the member, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The committee member added that, taking into account Pakistani culture and societal norms, there was room for improvement in the movie.
“The critics, as well as filmmakers, have equal rights to present their point of view,” said Sufi, who heads the prime minister’s strategic reforms unit.
“The film had no such content that amounted to be against the norms of Pakistani society. Transgenders are human beings and their lives should be equally valued,” he added.
The transgender community faces deep-rooted societal ostracisation in Pakistan and is subjected to increasing violence and discrimination. According to Amnesty International, at least 18 transgender people were killed in the country between October 2021 and September 2022.