Khuda kay liye Bol, Verna

Why aren't Verna's critics talking about rape?

Khuda kay liye Bol, Verna
Six years after the release of Bol, Shoaib Mansoor has brought us Verna, his third film. We can put the three titles of his films together to form a sentence: ‘Khuda kay Liye Bol, Verna’… (For God’s sake, speak, or else). Mansoor is an acclaimed filmmaker who has always been at the cutting edge of his craft. And this time he has produced a work about the crime of rape, to challenge our thoughts and, hopefully, our actions.

Verna provides us with an opportunity to address this crime without all the usual masala. Perhaps this is what the movie censors and critical reviewers fear most.

Pakistani movie viewers have been brought up on lively films sprinkled with musical numbers, brassy humour and large, colourful synchronised dance sequences. We have also become accustomed to violent rape scenes and melodramatic expression of emotion. Verna is, however, a departure from these traditions.

Its focus is the abuse of power in our society which turns women’s bodies into the battleground. It addresses these issues using understated emotional expression and unexpected plot twists. The film has already elicited strong reactions, both positive and negative. The film has layers of meaning that discerning viewers can decipher at will. The central theme is rape and the social, legal and political challenges that surround the search for justice within the dynamics of power relations.
We have become accustomed to violent rape scenes and melodramatic expression of emotion. Verna is, however, a departure from these traditions. Its focus is the abuse of power in our society which turns women's bodies into the battleground

Even before it reached the screen, the film caused serious consternation among our ‘protective’ elite with the censors initially refusing to approve its release given the subject matter  it wrestled with. Getting past the censors was a challenge, but mass support for Shoaib Mansoor and uproar from civil society paved the path for its release.

During the censor board deliberations in Islamabad, the film was shown several times to different review committees. In this way, many people in the media had full access to the film before it was released. This delay enabled opponents of social change to trash the film before the public had seen it. Some media anchors tried to sabotage it by making derogatory comments on air that gave away important details of the plot. Some made allegations that the delay in approval was a promotional gimmick. Others, such as a host on Waqt TV, implied that the film was funded by ‘the establishment’. Still others tried to attack it as an NGO-funded film that was made to portray Pakistan in a negative light. Although none of these criticisms is true, the film will have to carry this negative baggage.

The immediate reactions following its release were also negative. The first one, in The Express Tribune, reminded me of a similar trashing given to Bol when it was released. Fortunately, Bol was able to overcome these reactions and went on to be a box office hit that continues to impact people’s lives.

A common pattern among these reviews, both of Bol and Verna, is they sidestep the core issues brought out in the films. Verna is about rape and how our society responds to this crime. One of the Verna reviews stated that Mansoor got the power struggle right, but got the rape wrong. Surprised at this comment, I wondered how our society perceives rape.

I have worked on the issue of rape for over 30 years. I view the challenges Verna faced getting past the censor and the reactions of the early reviewers with concern.

Today, films are an important means of generating social knowledge. Most people have only seen the menacing face of a rapist in our films and TV plays, as they are titillated while vicariously experiencing the crime. This is also where they learn to distinguish between the dress and manners of the potential rape victim and that of the heroine, and understand the ways one should mourn the violation while defending family honour.

I have worked with many rape survivors over my career. The HRCP calculates that a man (or men) rapes a woman every two hours somewhere in the country. Many rape survivors in Pakistan are forced to relive the crime in their minds throughout their lives, and many never disclose it to even their closest family members.

People are probably confused about Verna’s funding because Mansoor had earlier made a documentary on rape for Pakistan Nari Tehreek, an alliance of grassroots movements. He spent a year doing research, focusing on specific rape cases to understand the social and legal ramifications. This lengthy process, interviewing many rape survivors, built his resolve to create a mainstream film that could move his audience to appreciate the subtle expressions of power, despair, anger and resolve without the melodramatic leers, gratuitous violence and wailing. He credits that field work as his inspiration to coin the term “zabarjinsi” (sex by force), as the most appropriate Urdu word for rape.

Some reactions to the film are just expressions of simple rivalry that every filmmaker faces from his or her peers. Like all competitors, they focus on identifying technical flaws. But all too few reactions have dealt with our societal discomfort with the issue of rape itself.

We are not comfortable acknowledging crimes such as rape and incest. We react emotionally, but are unable to address them rationally. Instead, we seek to distance ourselves from the pain and embarrassment by attacking the victim, especially if (s)he has publicly acknowledged the crime. The focus of the formal reviews on technicalities should be seen as evidence of our inability to look this heinous crime in the eye. On the other hand, groups of women are coming together and going to see the film as if they were celebrating that finally this crime is being acknowledged. One has seen a response from men as well. A forum called ‘Pakistani Men Against Rape’ has been put together. It was first announced in Islamabad and it gave a call to men from all regions in the country. One of the first chapters is being formed in Dera Ismail Khan, where recently a woman was paraded naked on the orders of a jirga. Lahore came next. Within this week the call has been answered by many people inspired by this film.

Perhaps Shoaib Mansoor had not intended Verna to speak only to elite critics. Perhaps he aimed it at those who understand the problem more intimately. Although the film is on rape and power, the final message is more about active citizenship and the use of the vote to determine our own destiny.

The writer is a social scientist, activist and the author of ‘Taboo’ and ‘Working With Sharks’ @FouziaSaeed