“Bol Nay Ke Liye Ijazat Nahi Himmat Chahiye”
It takes not consent, but courage to speak up.
Despite its probing of human rights conditions in Pakistan, Shoaib Mansoor’s “Bol” was selected as a contender at the Pyongyang International Film Festival (PIFF) 2012. Source: “Bol” Official Website
I categorically avoid South Asian movies, quality withstanding. Bollywood, Tollywood, Lollywood, you name it. Averaging about three hours in length, these films leave me more exhausted than ever, hence my disinclination to watch “Bol,” the Urdu feature film that made rounds in multiple film circuits. “Bol” made one of its recent stops at Pyongyang International Film Festival (PIFF), where it won the Award for Best Photography, from the slim pick of sixteen contending features .
“Bol,” director Shoaib Mansoor’s sophomore venture is nothing if not bold, and is one of the newer crops of Pakistani releases that serve as a nod to the various socio-economic problems, mostly rooted in the Shariah, that has plagued Pakistan since its inception. “Bol” alludes to the many facets of the misogynistic mindset harbored by South Asian men in general —the pervasiveness of spousal abuse, female infanticide, discrimination against the “third sex,” ethnic and religious minorities— in effect, becoming a microcosm of the societal evils in Pakistan. Including all of these themes seemed absolutely ludicrous and a tad bit ambitious as well. I failed to imagine why the Pakistani government selected “Bol” to be screened at any international film festival. Cinematography aside, it manifested everything that is dark about the Pakistani society. More than anything, I found the choice of “Bol” amongst the other films screened at PIFF absolutely astounding. It would seem ironic that a nation slammed with allegations of human rights violations would be reluctant to disclose the violations of another on the silver screen.
For me, “Bol” is the poignant tale of a woman’s bitter fight against the privileged male-dominated society. It wasn’t your everyday South Asian musical, despite starring Atif Aslam, arguably one of the most famous pop acts in South Asia.
Set in Lahore, “Bol” is the story of Zainab, a woman on the verge of execution. As the oldest sister of the six, she confronts the brunt of her father’s frustrations regarding his wife’s multiples miscarriages, delivery of stillborn children, and “inability” to conceive a male heir to bear the family line, as well as the finances. The male child eludes him as Zainab’s mother births a hijra[i], much to his displeasure. The film follows Hakim, Zainab’s religious father, who struggles to maintain his integrity amidst financial instability, his qualms about the existence of his effeminate sire Saifee, and his desire to have a son. He eventually murders Saifee, gives birth to a daughter with a courtesan, and a series of events unravel that culminates with his death at the hands of Zainab. The film ends with Zainab asking the audience, “Why is only killing a sin? Why isn’t giving birth one?”
The film has its flaws. The arguments between Zainab and Hakim concerning the Holy Quran become repetitive, and some issues are never discussed. Technical glitches aside, the film never provides the back-story of Zainab’s divorce, furthers the life vs. choice debate, or explores the responsibility of parents to assume their children’s existence. Then again, the reality of some prevalent human rights issues makes up for the mangled storyline consisting of women’s emancipation, trans-sexualism, right to education and religiosity—none of which are ever fully addressed. The film never begs for sympathy, but does not lose its heart in the process. It remains sincere in its demands for equal treatment of all human beings. It makes us question a society where killing is a crime, but giving birth, without the intent to provide the child a dignified life, is not.
Humaima Malick, the actress playing Zainab, becomes the instrument for female emancipation with poise and élan. She is the only one who refuses to acquiesce to her father’s demands, and the male-dominated society by extension. She dares to speak, and make us think. She makes us attach ourselves to the lives of her sisters who were denied proper education by their “religious” father, and those sisters who fell victims to infanticide. In making us consider these issues, she establishes that with sufficient resolve, one can bring the heaviest of issues to the fore, as expressed by the film’s tagline.
What makes this film powerful and relatable is the universality of the problems it sheds light on, as well as the need to address them. Replace the Pakistani father with an Indian one, and infanticide would still persist. Such issues are seemingly prevalent in North Korea, which had previously been accused of denying reproductive rights to the disabled and those with genetic mutation, alongside killing disabled newborns as well .
While screening a film like “Bol” may not be indicative of a better human rights regime as one may argue, it could still be considered as coming to terms with rampant human rights issues. Granted, that might be an over-projection of thoughts, but the endeavor to screen a film as unique as “Bol” demonstrates a willingness of the DPRK to open up and “cross cultural boundaries,” as my fellow correspondent Jay McNair aptly stated . The recognition of human rights concerns in “Bol” brought people together in the divisive world of politics in South Asia, akin to what the screening of “Comrade Kim Goes Flying” at the Pusan International Film Festival may have achieved for the two Koreas.
It may be too soon to say whether such measures will be pivotal to unification. On the surface, “Bol” has introduced its North Korean audience to a new language, a new culture, and a new perspective on life. Therein lies the beauty of the common language of films, one that is blind to cultural and political differences. And, we are drawn closer to each other because of it.
“Bol” premiered on June 24, 2011 in theatres across Pakistan and stars Humaima Malik, Atif Aslam, Mahira Khan, Iman Ali, Shafqat Cheema, Manzar Sehbai, Zaib Rehman and Am
[i] A South Asian terminology for those with irregular male genitalia, traditionally translated into English as “eunuch” or “hermaphrodite.”Hijras are typically born with male physiology, with only a few having been born with male intersex variations. In the context of this movie, “Hijra” may be interpreted as a homosexual in the process of becoming transsexual. For further information, please use the following link: http://androgyne.0catch.com/hijrax.htm