‘Zindagi Tamasha’: A marvellously crafted critique of life in a theocratic society

The indie film from Pakistan drew the ire of hardliners in the Pakistani political establishment.

Published : Nov 02, 2023 11:00 IST - 10 MINS READ

A still from Zindagi Tamasha.

A still from Zindagi Tamasha. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Zindagi Tamasha (The Circus of Life) is an archetypical indie film with a slow-burning, mutable intensity. Its emotional and social cross-currents, set in the narrow, grey lanes of old Lahore where the weak winter sun reveals its fading, crumbling architecture, are as local as they can get. But such films have a circuitous way of finding audiences worldwide.

A week or so before Pakistan celebrated its Independence Day, the actor, producer, writer, and director Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, who describes Lahore as his home town, chose to release this deeply affecting film on YouTube for free. Incidentally, Khoosat is one of the co-producers of another Pakistani film, Joyland, set in the inner city of Lahore, which was the first Pakistani film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2022 and win a Jury award.

Four years ago, Zindagi Tamasha premiered at the 24th Busan International Film Festival. It was the official Pakistani entry for the 93rd Academy Awards, winning awards at Busan and at the 2021 Asian World Film Festival in Los Angeles. Set to release in Pakistan in March 2022, it was indefinitely delayed when hardliners in the Pakistani political establishment, supported by its notorious clerics, mounted protests and even allegedly issued death threats to the director.

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Finally, after months of agonising delays, in a public act of extraordinary grace and courage, Khoosat chose to release his film for free on YouTube. In a short but moving video preceding the film, during which the three censor certificates for a theatrical release were displayed on screen, the director declared that in the month of Azaadi (Independence, in August), he was setting his film free and that it now belonged to its audiences.

Looking tense, Khoosat shared his pain and sense of failure but also clarified that his pain was not his alone, thus deftly redrawing the public vs private, individual vs society dynamic that the film and its social milieu are essentially about.

An outpouring of support

Almost immediately, views and comments began to come in, with many from India and the South Asian diasporic community. As on October 25, the film had clocked almost a million views (9.76 lakh) on YouTube. The outpouring of support and empathy, with more than 3,500 comments, are not something that the cast and crew of this beautifully written, artistically made film, reminiscent of the life-affirming spirit and lyrical feel of Iranian cinema in some ways, could have imagined. Many expressed their dismay that such a fine film should be compelled to be shared for free and have made voluntary donations. Significantly, the trolls have not surfaced yet.

A month later, in September, a delighted Khoosat recorded another video for YouTube in which he thanked audiences for embracing his film. The filmmaker was inspired enough to craft a detailed public dialogue with his audience. Zindagi Tamasha Deconstructed is a podcast series that has stories from the making of the film and the thoughts of the cast and crew available on Patreon for as low as $7 a month. Filmed as freewheeling intimate conversations punctuated with humour and hopes for a better, more tolerant and nuanced society, these are a very different manifestation of “behind-the-scenes” fare compared with the overly public relations-hyped versions one usually sees in the wake of a film release. There are also illuminating insights into the challenges of filmmaking for a small indie production house and how these can be surmounted.

Poster of Zindagi Tamasha

Poster of Zindagi Tamasha | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

We learn from the colourist Fatimah Sattar that she learnt the techniques of colour grading a film from tutorials. The executive producer and veteran actor Irfan Khoosat says it best when he gently suggests that “it is not necessary that what you find objectionable will be perceived the same way by others”. Hammad Haider, the genial engineer and theatre actor from Gujranwala who plays the fearsome cleric in the film, lands up for his interview with his director with a bag full of sweets from his home town. He laments the fact that it is not possible to fight the collective wrath of society.

The first assistant director Sundus Hashmi had to wear many hats during the making of the film. “People don’t even listen to our point of view before dismissing the film,” she says. The screenwriter and co-editor Nirmal Bano, a film school graduate, explains how she tried to keep space for silences in the film, allowing the audience the space to think while responding to the storyline. The wonderfully minimal and crisp soundtrack by Saakin, Shamsher, and Nimra Gilani reflects the soft, understated emotional registers of the film.

All cast and crew express their sadness that their exquisitely layered film, made against such odds, was not understood. They also speak of the enormous relief they felt after years of crippling uncertainties when the film was finally out.

Especially for viewers in India, the podcast series is a chance to get a rare glimpse into the civil society aspirations and regular challenges in the everyday lives of people involved in the creative sector in Pakistan.

Sarmad Sultan Khoosat’s podcast series takes the good fight further by making an unspoken plea for moving away from extremist positions and for finding that balance that most right thinking, regular people seek. Pained and tired by the repression, it is the cast and crew’s grace and sense of hope that shines through.

The still centre in a turbulent film

At the heart of it all is the exquisite elegance of this emotive film, its masterful composure as it depicts every aspect of the story and its turbulent social and cultural nerve centres with rare subtlety. Written by Bano, with screenplay and dialogues by her and Khoosat, the film’s emotional arc is beautifully crafted and speaks to and for everyone.

The protagonist, Rahat, performed with understated finesse by part-time actor Arif Hassan, is a portly, much-respected middle-aged Naat Khwaan, or reciter of pious praise of the Prophet. He lives a comfortable life as a real-estate agent in the inner lanes of Old Lahore with his ailing wife, played with luminous grace by Samiya Mumtaz, whom he nurses tenderly.

The key sequence where Rahat Arif comes to blows with the cleric even as his pacifist son-in-law tries to defuse the fight. 

The key sequence where Rahat Arif comes to blows with the cleric even as his pacifist son-in-law tries to defuse the fight.  | Photo Credit: YouTube screen grab

One fateful evening at a wedding, an old and private passion for dancing to his favourite film songs surfaces. He is persuaded to dance to a favourite song featuring Aasiya, a singing star from the black-and-white era of films in Pakistan. The lyrics “Zindagi tamasha bani, duniya da haasan bani (Life became a sad spectacle, a mere joke for the world)” work as a refrain through the film. Without his knowledge, however, the dance is filmed by a nephew who uploads it, and it is soon viral.

  • Set in Lahore, Sarmad Sultan Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha (The Circus of Life) is an indie film with a slow-burning intensity. 
  • It is the story of how a common man suddenly finds himself faced with the brutalising hatred that runs through the power centres of a theocratic state.
  • The film’s release was indefinitely delayed when hardliners in the Pakistani political establishment mounted protests. This August, Khoosat released the film for free on YouTube, where it has clocked almost a million views to date.

A fall from grace

From then on, his life and accumulated social capital of decades begin to erode with astonishing speed. Neighbours do not invite him for weddings, and children playing on the streets call him names and refuse to accept the sweets he has lovingly prepared as he does every year on the Prophet’s birthday. His own daughter, played by Eman Suleiman, turns against him.

In an interesting reversal, the film upturns the honour and blasphemy trope by making the young and demure daughter its custodian while her husband, Danish, is a gentle peacekeeper and the very antithesis of the aggressive patriarch. But it is clear that a vigilante public campaign driven by malevolent rage is going to ruin Rahat’s life.

We, in the audience, sense his impending troubles early on as the middle- aged protagonist with an unwavering steady gaze but also an air of vulnerability, is unable to fight the brutalising hatred that runs through the power centres of a theocratic state. Even the most innocent of private pleasures in an otherwise good man are not beyond public scrutiny.

The film critiques, but with no malice and only with infinite humanity, the toll of living in a theocratic society with a blasphemy law that adds a dangerous dimension to everyday life.

In a key sequence, it is decided that the local cleric can perhaps help restore Rahat’s lost prestige. But the cleric is an uncouth man drunk on power and filled with a toxic competitive public display of religiosity. A contrite Rahat faces the cleric on the terrace of the mosque ready to record his apology. Behind him we see the grey outlines of the Old City and its magnificent domes as the morning mist lifts.

The frowning cleric interrupts the recording, dissatisfied with the flat tones that Rahat deploys. “Akhaan neeviyan kar [Look down],” he orders. He wants Rahat to grovel and throw in a reference or two to Palestine and America, too, since his sin is no ordinary thing.

Rahat’s ailing wife, played with luminous grace by Samiya Mumtaz. 

Rahat’s ailing wife, played with luminous grace by Samiya Mumtaz.  | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Chafing at these needless interjections, Rahat finally explodes, flinging charges of embezzlement of funds and paedophilia against the cleric in his rage even as his pacifist son-in-law tries to defuse the fight. It ends badly, and the knot in our tummies tightens as we begin to anticipate his downfall.

Multiple strands

The film has a series of interesting subplots and reversals that reveal the concealed pluralities that prevail even in the most orthodox and disapproving of societies. In a sea of belligerent masculinity, there are groups of transgender musicians and gay men who have clandestine meetings. Such is the power of the lyricism with which Khoosat tells his story that one is not at all surprised that these groups display more humanity towards Rahat than so-called regular people.

“The film has a series of interesting subplots and reversals that reveal the concealed pluralities that prevail even in the most orthodox and disapproving of societies. ”

It is Usman, the video library owner, who shares old recordings of Aasiya with Rahat. It is Usman who says to Rahat that the inhabitants of the old city have become as narrow-minded as the lanes they live in. He offers to take him to meet like-minded friends, and when Rahat discovers that it is an underground gay club, he is furious and calls Usman terrible names before leaving in a huff. He responds to his kindness by complaining to a police official about their activities, and Usman loses his shop.

It is clear through the characters of Usman and the eunuch who offers to share the sweets Rahat has prepared among the children that those who are crushed by orthodoxy have more kindness to offer their fellow human beings than those who follow religion and its diktats most assiduously.

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This is a marvellously crafted film. Khizir Idrees’ cinematography is unobtrusive and undecorative but deeply emotive in the way it delivers the sense of visual silence and absences present in the story and its minimal dialogues. The spare music score lifts the storytelling in very compelling ways. High emotional scenes are followed by stillness or cameos of the city. There are festooned streets during a festival, a brief glimpse of the majestic Badshahi mosque, and in the midst of the grim crumbling city, there are fleeting glimpses of a beautiful filigree or design detail of a decaying building.

And yet the setting is never intrusive; ever present but also self-effacing, it is magically there and also not there as we submit to the story and the tragic culmination that we can foretell.

Devina Dutt is an arts writer, curator, and co-founder of First Edition Arts and Kishima Arts in Mumbai and Bengaluru.

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