Taboo Pakistani drama Verna challenges censors by putting rape under the spotlight
Battle to get female voices and experiences on screen scored a victory this week when censorship board backed down over a decision to ban a new film about the injustices faced by victims
In recent years, Pakistan has seen a huge resurgence of its film industry, which has emerged from the shadow of Bollywood to find its own identity, one at the forefront of the battle between a growing conservatism in the country and an emboldened youth hungry for change. There’s a notable trend towards female-led narratives, which are not only setting new standards in storytelling, but also challenging taboos around the treatment of women in society.
The battle to get the voices and experiences of women on screen achieved a much needed victory this week when the Pakistani censor board backed down over a decision to ban a new film about the injustices faced by rape victims in the country – a development that shows that Pakistan might be ready for change both on screen and off.
Verna, which stars popular actor Mahira Khan, was originally denied a certificate by the Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC) because of its “mature themes” and “edgy content”. This caused an outcry among women’s rights campaigners, who accused board members of censoring women’s voices and putting their heads in the sand at a time when, says Gulalai Ismail from the campaigning NGO Aware Girls, “rape is a rampant issue in Pakistan” and “movies like Verna are crucial in moving society forward”.
Soon the ban had inspired a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #UnbanVerna, which emerged as Pakistan’s own #MeToo movement. High-profile supporters of the film included xXx: Return of Xander Cage star Deepika Padukone, who is facing a similar backlash over her latest Bollywood film, Padmavati, based on a 16th-century poem about a mythical Indian queen.
Just hours before Verna was due for release, the censor board cleared it for viewing. The publicity around the ban meant that most cinemas were sold out before the decision had been made – something unheard of for a home production, many of which are usually dwarfed by the latest Marvel adaptation or Bollywood blockbuster.
The film is a stylised thriller drawing on elements of film noir and Japanese cinema, with a plot that falls somewhere between the 1998 Jodie Foster drama The Accused and the revenge horror Audition. Khan plays Sara, a teacher who is abducted while out on an anniversary trip with her husband, then held captive and raped for three days. After failing to get any redress from the justice system, Sara takes matters into her own hands.
It’s not just about sex or rape, it is about one person having power over another and how people misuse that power Mahira Khan
However, despite its genre flourishes, the film also holds a mirror up to society’s shortcomings in its attitude to rape, and the failure of the justice system to protect victims: in one telling scene, a female doctor makes Sara wait for her forensic examination until after lunch, then tells her between mouthfuls that the chances of her getting justice are negligible.
“It is ultimately a revenge film about a girl seeking justice,” says Khan. “The character is not how society would envisage a rape victim to be. She is strong, very urban, educated and feisty. This is a woman who doesn’t feel sorry for herself. It was a very challenging role to play as we didn’t want the audience to feel sorry for her, but to root for her, while at the same time acknowledging that what she went through was horrific.
“We wanted to show how the honour of a woman is connected to everyone except herself. Her honour belongs to the man of the house, her parents, her country, everyone apart from her, yet she is responsible for it. In our culture, when a woman is raped, we say she was robbed of her honour. If a woman is raped, she has not been robbed of her honour, it is the rapist who has for doing such a crime. The film reflects the gender and power dynamics this hypocrisy creates.”
The lifting of the ban has been a breakthrough for an industry that has suffered decades of decline, caught in a vicious circle of underinvestment and censorship perpetuated by the sudden swerve towards religious conservatism under General Zia in the 1970s. In the last 15 years, however, the film scene has undergone something of a resurgence, with a new generation of directors keen to establish a cinematic identity distinct from that of Bollywood.
Heading this cultural revival has been Verna director Shoaib Mansoor, whose first two films, Bol, about a religious family with a transgender daughter, and Khuda Ke Liye, which deals with the repercussions of September 11 on the Pakistani diaspora, were well received on the international festival circuit. While Khan welcomes the decision to allow her latest film to be shown, she says she hopes the CBFC will start to take a more liberal stance on future films to encourage the industry to thrive.
Watch: Verna official trailer
“The medium of art is to express different aspects of the human experience, so why try to stifle [it]?” she says. “The industry is finally coming into its own, so it’s important for this film to be seen, because if it can change even the mindset of one person, this can be enough to start a change in society.”
The surge of support for Verna is particularly pertinent in the light of the #MeToo campaign, which has seen a growing confidence among women to speak out on these issues.
“#MeToo was very important,” Khan says. “It shows that it takes just one brave person to speak out and that gives strength to another person and another person, and creates a domino effect and creates a movement.
“It is a similar message in the film. It’s not just about sex or rape, it is about one person having power over another and how people misuse that power – and the only way to break the dynamics of power is when you are brave enough to speak up about it.”