Banning Culture And The Effects Of Its Exploitation

In the 90s, a Pakistani action film called International Gorillay released in the context of The Satanic Verses controversy. The movie portrayed Salman Rushdie as its main villain and it was denied a certificate by the British Board of Film Classification, effectively banning its cinema release in the UK. The board cited the safety of Rushdie as an argument for refusing the certificate, that the film could inflame some to violence. Rushdie, however, opposed the ban. And when the ban was overturned he said, “If that film had been banned, it would have become the hottest video in town: everyone would have seen it”.

Rushdie’s statement echoes true even today. As 2020 approaches its end, the Pakistani entertainment industry seems to have realized that the only way of making sure their product is seen by everyone is to ban it. And, with the way things are going on, the strategy appears to be working pretty well.

Corporates taking advantage

A few days ago Mehwish Hayat posted teasers of a project that was “very close to her heart”. The project turned out to be a TVC for the biscuit Gala. It was a standard ad marketed and promoted as per the brand’s usual style.

The rather loud and kitschy ad film, which would’ve been ignored and forgotten by the audience if it was left alone, catapulted to popularity (or notoriety) when PEMRA suddenly decided to ban it; citing reasons that were as ridiculous as the presentation of the advertisement itself.

The Gala biscuit ad is directed by the Dekh Magar Pyar Se director Asad Ul Haq, who has a history of directing visually stunning ad films. Looking at the branding strategy of Gala biscuit – the presence of a leading filmstar and a director who has a knack for colorful visuals in his works, the ad shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. However, a ban by PEMRA made sure that the ad trended all over social media. It became a conversation topic both online and in the drawing rooms. An ad, that otherwise, at most, would’ve been criticized for its poor production values, was now being talked about in the context of the artistic freedom in the country. People started making memes for it. The corporate scored a complete win.

Interestingly, the “ban” that made the ad a hot-topic in the first place was never really put into practice. The ad continued to run on television screens ever since it was released, its absence not noticed by anyone. And when it was pointed out, the clarification that PEMRA had only issued a strict warning against the content of the ad was given. But that was never highlighted. The entire focus was kept on the word “ban”.

As a marketing tool

Just as the Gala ad ban controversy came to a closure, Pakistani people other saw back to back bans. Cake director Asim Abbasi’s maiden web-series Churails available for streaming on an Indian’s OTT platform Zee5 was banned for viewing in Pakistan by “concerned authorities”. And then, the controversial Chinese app TikTok was also banned.

Understandably, both the bans have been met with equally conflicting reactions by the public. The ban that was put on Churails was particularly spurious as it was as short-lived as Gala’s. The timing of the ban, as it happened just a few days before the platform was ready to release the trailer for its next original web-series, and the lifting of the ban just a day after the said trailer was released, raised suspicions. It further raised questions that whether such moves were deliberately being designed by the marketing staff/creators themselves to bring their product back in the news, wrapping them in the foil of controversy and hence, helping them sell more. Such conspiracy theories hold strong footings especially when the “banning culture” is becoming a trend in Pakistan.

Deliberate sabotaging

There is no denying that the media practitioners and artist community are not happy with the way PEMRA has been dealing with the expression of art across our media platforms. Banning an ad, just on the premise that it depicts dancing and music to sell the product, seems like an illogical approach; especially considering how this has been happening for years now. People who confuse and mix religion and culture are offended by anything that doesn’t conform to their kaleidoscopic versions of the two separate entities. However, an official regulatory authority encouraging people with such a mentality that calls for banning anything that does not conform to their ideas of culture, religion, aesthetics, or art, just sets up dangerous precedents.

At the same time, the blame should also be placed on the minds in marketing, who have been using the “ban tag” irresponsibly to bring their products in the limelight. Inside sources claim that films like Maalik have used this tactic to catch the attention of the masses and sell the film to them. The film, which had opened to a lukewarm response, had managed to recover its costs when it was released after it was banned. There have been rumors of the ban being self-imposed, though there isn’t concrete evidence of these views.

Dubious intents

The Wikipedia page of PEMRA states that it has a constitutional mandate “to enlarge the choice available to the people of Pakistan including news, current affairs, religious knowledge, art, and culture as well as science and technology.” The authority, however, seems to play an opposite role limiting art in one or other forms.

There have been various press releases by PEMRA where it is stated that the regulatory body receives numerous complaints from viewers on Pakistan Citizen Portal and PEMRA’s social media accounts about the content of different programs. PEMRA states that these programs are “highly inappropriate, vulgar, obscene, and dangerous to our social fabric.” It is thus obvious that PEMRA’s approach is constrained by populist factors acting in response to a section of consumers’ demands. But the real question is, should a regulatory body sit in judgment of what it thinks the consumers want?

The rampant banning a country’s official regulatory body sets dangerous precedents for the future where any form of cultural or artistic expression could be banned from reaching the people. It is a particularly dangerous and sad trend in a country like Pakistan that is said to be at the crossroads of transforming into a more accepting and moderate society after a long and troubled period of unrest and extremism.

PEMRA has been throwing bans here and there off-late and most of its decisions seem to be based on populist rhetorics rather than logistics. Like when it recently announced a ban on the repeat telecast of two popular Pakistani drama serials – ARY Digital’s Ishqiya and Hum TV’s Pyar Ke Sadqay. It made us think where the authority was at a time when these two dramas were originally being telecasted and how banning these dramas now when they have already been watched by the audience on television and are available for free streaming on Youtube, can help to preserve the cultural values of the country that these dramas allegedly threatened?

Diverting attention from important issues

Another important factor that cannot be denied is how the news of any content be it an ad, a drama, or a web-series, manages to take over all the social media trends. At a time when the country is facing the worst kind of catastrophe with news of rapes and sexual harassment coming out every day, with little to no development happening to eradicate the society from this evil, these bans appear like diversion tactics.

Instead of making way for conversations and reforms to tackle this deep-rooted issue of the society, our official regulatory bodies have turned their attention to the country’s entertainment industry. Instead of addressing the systematic misogyny and sexism, the toxic patriarchal mindset, and the corrupt power structures that tend to favor the culprits than providing safety and assurance to the victims, PEMRA seems to be taking the easy way out by blaming the country’s entertainment industry to avoid addressing the actual elephant in the room.

Final word

Several media activists have been maintaining that TV and radio regulation should be through the participation and representation of the stakeholders. Also the production of programs that highlight some of our country’s most divisive social issues such as child abuse, family planning, and minority rights, or even simple expression of art forms such a music and dance should not be curtailed until an element of hate in it.

Should ideas and expression of art not be given a chance to be presented to the audience, compete, and then either gain or lose traction based on their own merit? An outright ban on a program or content will not provide the result that the regulatory body assumes it would. Such actions only send a signal to the content creators and producers that resources should not be spent on programs that encourage critical and rational thought in art, social sciences, religion, or any field for that matter. More producers will go on producing substandard content where controversial but important socio-legal issues are shunned.

The abuse of “banning power” both by authorities, the creators, and marketeers is a dangerous trend that would ultimately affect the artistic expression of a society that’s already a quagmire of innumerable issues. It is our collective loss at the end of the day. Because what needs to be “banned” is the dangerous mindset that has given birth to the elements of disruption in society. Banning the content created in our country, which merely reflects the realities of our society, only further makes sure that the dangerous and toxic elements of the society carry on festering unchecked.


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