Viewpoint: Has Zero Dark Thirty insulted Pakistan?
- 2 February 2013
- From the section Asia
Zero Dark Thirty, the film depicting the hunt for al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan has been boycotted by cinemas there, but bootlegs are avidly watched nonetheless. Author Mohammed Hanif assesses whether Pakistanis see the film as an insult, an embarrassment or an accurate portrayal.
Pakistani censors and cinema owners do not like films that depict characters who work for the country's Inter Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), whatever their work might be.
Only last year the censors banned two Indian blockbusters for this reason.
Ek Tha Tiger was banned because an Indian intelligence operative falls in love with a cute ISI mole.
Another thriller, Agent Vinod, was banned because an Indian super-spy takes on and triumphs over some powerful ISI agents.
The ban resulted in large numbers rushing to their neighbourhood DVD shop, buying a pirated copy and watching it.
They then shook their heads and said: "Look at these Indians, always running down our intelligence agencies."
But at weddings across the land, people continued to dance to music from the same banned movies.
Although Zero Dark Thirty shows no ISI agents, good or bad, on screen, film distributors in Pakistan did not try to test the censors. They voluntarily decided not to distribute the movie.
The reason: it depicted someone who caused enormous embarrassment to Pakistan's intelligence agencies.
Osama Bin Laden lived near Pakistan's military academy, apparently without any of our intelligence agencies knowing about it.
And when American Seals flew in to capture and kill him in the middle of the night Pakistan's powerful army was caught napping.
An American raid was carried out in the heart of Pakistan and we had no clue.
Hence the film is considered an insult to our innocence.
The net result of this voluntary ban is that everyone has gone ahead and bought a 50 rupees (50 cents; 30p) DVD, and is now busy deconstructing it.
Let's get the torture debate out of the way first, because in Pakistan there is not much debate around the controversial torture scenes.
After 12 years of mayhem in and around the country, there seems to be a tacit understanding that torture does work but only for a while.
After that you have to resort to mass murder.
Those who have watched Zero Dark Thirty now at least know that water boarding is not some sort of water sport.
We also discover that one day you can be a skilled torturer and the next a high powered bureaucrat in Washington DC.
Another lesson learnt from this film is that all you need to save the world is a bucket of water, a few masked men and an American lady with a work-station in Islamabad.
The objections begin when we step out of the torture chambers.
And, no, people are not objecting to a professional torturer sharing ice cream with their pet monkey during their time off.
To accuse a movie of getting Pakistan's street life wrong when it treats extreme torture as mundane office work seems slightly off the mark but that is the real debate.
It is mostly "movie-mistakes fans" having a field day.
We do not speak Arabic, and we do not eat hummus - these seem to be the top objections from Pakistani viewers.
Another popular view is that, contrary to the American lady's claim in the film, we do have lots and lots of SUVs.
The Pakistan of Zero Dark Thirty is depicted as a series of torture chambers, CIA work-stations, Pushtun elders talking in Arabic and Arab elders talking in English.
But even professional torturers have to step out of their workplace once in a while, so you do see glimpses of real life in Pakistan.
This is apparently a country where young assassins doorstep American diplomats, you open a bottle of red wine and a bomb goes off, even the law enforcers operate disguised as old Afghan women and the only line a native is allowed to utter is: "We don't like white faces."
Or people just stand at a distance and murmur something in Arabic while the American jocks try to calm Osama's bewildered family members.
Senior columnist Nadeem F Piracha, in a piece entitled Zero IQ Thirty, draws up an illustrated list of prejudices Americans and Pakistanis have about each other.
In the American mind, an older Pakistani woman bringing home groceries might as well be carrying a suicide vest. Pakistanis seem to think that American kids are taught to make predator drones in their playtime.
But at least one reviewer has presented a spirited defence of the film.
Noman Ansari wrote that if Zero Dark Thirty makes us look completely incompetent and stupid when it comes to the events of 2 May 2011, perhaps it is because we were.
The ISI does make a cameo appearance when the film's leading lady tells her boss - whose cover has been blown - that it was the ISI who did for him.
A young journalist and blogger, Saba Imtiaz, thinks that sentiment - expressed in one simple sentence - should have been the film's tag line.