February Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 21 years ago

Gaudy colours, blood-stained daggers, hip-swirling heroines, Kalashnikov-wielding heroes with rage and anguish writ large on their faces on giant billboards outside cinemas in the NWFP have all of a sudden been replaced by just the name of the movie and its stars. The transformation of the “tasteless” hoardings is part of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) government’s drive against obscenity in the Frontier.

The ban on the display of pictures of the heroines has adversely affected the cinema business, says Mohammad Shafi, manager of Capital Cinema, Peshawar. The number of cinegoers has decreased by more than 70 per cent, he complains. “Buying a new movie is no longer viable. We have been showing old films for a month,” he adds.

The ban was ordered by the MMA government in mid-December. Initially, the NWFP inspector general of police (IGP), Muhammad Saeed Khan, personally conducted raids on cinema houses to remove posters and billboards of female actors. Subsequently, police station headquarter officers were asked to take steps against obscenity and vulgarity in society and make sure that cinemas did not display any obscene pictures.

“The majority of cinegoers are illiterate. They cannot read the name of the movie. They are attracted by posters and pictures, which are not allowed anymore. In the absence of posters and signboards, they have assumed that films are not shown any more and have stopped coming to the cinema,” says Abdul Qayyum, manager of the Falaksair cinema in Peshawar.

Cinema is not the only thing affected by the MMA administration’s drive against obscenity. Singers and recording companies have also been at the receiving end. In his maiden policy speech in the assembly, NWFP Chief Minister Akram Durrani issued directives for banning the playing of music on public transport. He claimed that playing music in passenger vehicles not only causes accidents but also becomes a bone of contention between those who like it and those who don’t, leading to clashes at times.

As if to prove that the MMA meant business, the religious coalition government went a step further by ordering a ban on the public display of musical instruments. The police raided Peshawar’s Dabgari Bazaar, which is known for its musicians and musical instruments, in mid-January and arrested 10 artists for displaying drums in front of their shops and balakhanas (second-story rooms). The raid was preceded by a warning against the display of musical instruments in public. Many artists also claim they face police harassment when they return home late at night after performing at weddings or other functions.

The campaign is definitely taking a nasty turn for musicians. On January 25, the cantonment police raided a wedding party at the Greens Marriage Hall and arrested renowned Pushto singer, Gulzar Alam, for performing at the function. According to Alam and other eyewitnesses, the police SHO pushed down the harmonium, slapped his face and dragged Alam along to a mobile van, without explaining why he was doing so. The mike and harmonium were also damaged in the process. After a couple of hours, Alam was released when Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Chairperson, Afrasiyab Khattak and some journalists contacted the NWFP IGP, Saeed Khan, and other senior officials. The news did not make headlines in the press because newsmen had been asked to refrain from splashing the story. “The police should not humiliate artists. If there is a ban on music they should inform the people. I would prefer not to perform at functions and avoid humiliation,” says Gulzar Alam. The incident with Alam has sent a shock wave through the artists and they seem increasingly insecure.

Next in line were the video shop owners. Around the same time, video shop owners of Cinema Road and Kabuli Bazaar voluntarily destroyed thousands of porno videocassettes, CDs and posters following directives of the provincial administration. Dozens of shop owners collected almost 6,000 porno videocassettes, CDs and other items and voluntarily gave them to the administration for destruction. The cassettes were gutted in the presence of police officials and religious leaders.

According to Peshawar city police chief, Tanvir Sipra, the drive was launched at the directive of the provincial government. “There are certain moral limits. The police will take action if these limits are crossed, even if there is no MMA government,” he says.

The owners of video shops have reportedly signed a written agreement with the SHO of the police station that they would not permit students and minors to enter their shops in school hours. They also promised that their shops would remain closed during these hours.

“If the government wants to ban music it should give alternate jobs to the people. Musicians have their dependents; they too need food and shelter,” says Shahjehan, father of a musician at Dabgari.

The MMA government has its own justification for its move against cinema billboards. “Cinemas don’t display pictures outside even in the United Kingdom. They exhibit the name of the movie only,” says NWFP Senior Minister Sirajul Haq. There are other restrictions abroad as well, he adds. No cinema can be opened within a one kilometre radius of children’s school. “Here cinemas exhibit movies near schools, which is not good for education.”

The senior minister’s views on music, are, however, entirely negative. “Music is neither productive, nor is it a beneficial business. There are other jobs available that can be done by the musicians,” Sirajul Haq says.

The implementation of the recommendations of the Islamic Ideology Council has been an electoral manifesto of the five-party MMA. The NWFP government has also formed a committee to finalise its report for implementation of the recommendations that come under the sphere of the provincial government, in accordance with the 1973 Constitution. This could bring more jarring changes, but this is how the MMA has been expected to behave since its unexpected victory in the 2002 general election.