In Pakistan, a New Film Touches a Nerve

By Sonya Rehman

Pakistan’s movie industry, often called “Lollywood” for its home base in Lahore, is best known for straightforward damsel-in-distress and good-versus-evil plots. But a new film, addressing such potentially incendiary topics as Islamic fundamentalism and hermaphroditism, has become an unexpected hit in the country.

‘Bol,’ directed by Shoaib Mansoor, opened in Pakistan in June and is slated for release in India in August. Photo: Reuters           

“Bol,” which is Urdu for “Speak,” was directed, written and produced by Shoaib Mansoor, a well-known Pakistani filmmaker, on a budget of 10 million Pakistani rupees (roughly $115,000). It opened in late June, and while official national figures are difficult to obtain, the film’s producers estimate that it made 22 million Pakistani rupees in its first week. The Hindustan Times and Pakistan News Service, among other outlets, said that it appeared to break box-office records recently set by “My Name Is Khan,” a popular Indian film, in its first weeks.

Its storyline revolves around Hakim Sahib (played by Manzar Sehbai), a religious man in inner-city Lahore who is married with five daughters but longs for a son.

His wife eventually bears him a boy, Saifu, who they discover has been born with both male and female genitals. Often called eunuchs, such children are highly stigmatized in Pakistan and often abandoned at birth. Saifu remains with his family but is rejected and after being raped by truck drivers as a teenager, is murdered by his father. In addition, Hakim struggles to reconcile his traditional values with his more independent daughters.

Manzar Sehbai, who plays Hakim Sahib in ‘Bol.’ Photo: Fuzzal Ahmad

Mr. Sehbai, in an interview, called “Bol” “a great and unforgettable experience,” and said its themes are relevant but not easily discussed in Pakistani culture. “It’s quite hard for the audiences to lean back, digest, consume and walk out of the cinema,” he said.

Viewers have told him that they have seen it as many as five times “and still can’t digest it,” he said. “This shows, I would dare to assert, that the audiences have immense potential to absorb change in their own perceptions.”

Mr. Mansoor has been criticized for the movie’s depiction of religious intolerance. Pamphlets likening him to Salman Rushdie — whose book “The Satanic Verses” caused an uproar in the Muslim world and led to a fatwa against Mr. Rushdie when it was published more than 20 years ago — have been found in Lahore since “Bol” opened.

Mr. Mansoor has kept a low public profile since “Bol” opened and didn’t respond to requests for comment. But he is no stranger to controversy. In 2007, his first box-office hit, “Khuda Kay Liye” (“In the Name of God”), focused on Islam and terrorism post-Sept. 11.

“It’s very unfortunate that a thought-provoking film like this should prompt an intolerant response of whatever kind,” said Usman Ghafoor, a production and casting assistant for “Bol” who has written about it in local media. “The film…presents a conflict. But it never tries to impose a particular school of thought.”

“Bol” tells the story of many Pakistani families, said Humaima Malick, an actress who plays Zainub, one of Saifu’s sisters. She has several critical scenes in the movie, with her character repeatedly defending Saifu against their father.

“Every woman in Pakistan can identify with my role,” she said. “The movie was for the nation, and I as Zainub gave a face to the Pakistani woman.”

“The film has picked up on [problems] in our society — oppressed women, how women should behave, the rejection of eunuchs and so on,” said Mahira Khan, who played another sister of Saifu. “Zainub’s character stands as a complete negation of what we’re told regarding religion and taboos.”

Mahira Khan. Photo: Fuzzal Ahmad

“Bol,” which is still playing in Pakistan, is slated for release in India at the end of August, and there are plans for it to open in the U.S., United Kingdom, Australia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Wall Street Journal, Scene Asia


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