In spite of winning the Kim Jiseok Award at the 24th edition of the prestigious Busan International Film Festival in 2019, Sarmad Khoosat’s exquisite film, Zindagi Tamasha, has hit several nerves back home in Pakistan. The film has struggled for a theatrical release in Pakistan thereafter, leading Khoosat to finally release the film on YouTube on August 4, 2023.
Like Joyland (2022), Zindagi Tamasha takes us to a world where patriarchy rules and self-appointed men of faith are the custodians of morality despite being as morally corrupt as the worst of us. Just as with the Catholic Church, there is a depressingly prolific history of systemic sexual abuse in Pakistan, where we like to believe our maulvis are next to God. In reality, so many of them are responsible for a torrent of sexual abuse of children on a shocking scale despite enormous efforts to cover up. Only the wholly brainwashed among us would allow our children to be in the care of those posturing as God’s representatives on earth.
Zindagi Tamasha starts with a respected God-fearing, Naat reciting man, Rahat Khawaja (Arif Hassan), who is coaxed by his close friends into dancing at a wedding. Reluctantly he agrees and obliges with a bumbling version of a dance on a saucy number, Noor Jehan’s Zindagi Tamasha Bani, from an old Pakistani film, Noukar Wohti Da (1974). Very soon, the mood changes as it seems his ludicrous and distinctly unsexy dance has ruffled a few feathers. A day or so later, the video of his clumsy buffoonery appears on social media and the righteous squirm in horror at the disgusting, ungodly act he has participated in. Within days, his respect in the community evaporates and friends turn foes. His newly-wed daughter, a producer at the most cringe-worthy Morning Show, recoils in horror as the video circulates. Unable to accept the dishonor her father has brought upon her family, she distances herself from him.
Exclusion awaits Khawaja at every avenue with the righteous insistent upon damning the man’s existence. When he dares to raise his voice in his defense, he is cut down to size by the Righteous and humiliated even further. As his social ostracization gathers pace, Khawaja is advised to issue a video apology to stem the tide of hatred engulfing him. Recording his apology on video in front of a big-wig maulvi, he is humiliated as he is made to grovel for forgiveness lest he be labelled a traitor. Let’s just say it doesn’t end well.
This poignant tale brings into sharp focus how we have, over the years, lost the ability to live and let live in the ‘Land of the Pure’. Anything that delivers even the slightest bit of joy is considered a sin. There is nothing for sinners but exclusion and humiliation in today’s Pakistan. Little wonder then that the powers-that-be believe it to be best to avoid the film altogether. The best policy – get the film out of sight and out of mind and stick to peddling the ‘soft image’ where propaganda films are mistaken for patriotism while sensitive films that draw attention to real issues facing the country are swiftly banished.
Though the film’s subject matter is profoundly depressing, it is at the same time, a significant accomplishment and another considerable step for Pakistani cinema qualitatively. The film is beautifully observed and crafted and dares to say what everyone already knows – our lip service to Palestine (despite the State’s shameful role in the killing of several thousands of Palestinians during Black September under then Brigadier Zia-ul-Haq) and the blind hatred of anything American despite our beloved National Cricket Team being forever sponsored by the red, white & blue colors of Pepsi-Cola, almost like wearing the Stars & Stripes on the 4th of July. Zindagi Tamasha perfectly encapsulates a prevalent mindset that is unforgiving, bereft of joy, relentlessly judgmental and bristling with hate for anyone who does not conform to the accepted brand of twisted righteousness. Twisted and bent to represent a brand of faith that forgives its followers of all evil and fortifies their role as bastions of morality and virtue.
The acting of the entire cast is of the highest caliber and the camerawork has a keen sense of striking imagery. The editing, too, ensures the rhythm and pace is seamless and snappy enough to keep the film from stumbling into TV drama territory.
With Manto (2015), Zindagi Tamasha and Kamli (2022), Sarmad Khoosat has firmly positioned himself at the forefront as a filmmaker of extraordinary talent, setting the standard for cinematic integrity and excellence in this country. What’s more, he is brave enough to depict a society with unflinching honesty, warmth and passion. And for that, Pakistan ought to be immensely proud and grateful to him. Here’s to many more such films by this talented filmmaker!
Zindagi Tamasha can be viewed here.
Urdu, Punjabi, Drama, Color