Writer: Nirmal Bano
Director: Sarmad Khoosat
We rarely get to see Pakistani films here in the UK, but if they all match the quality of Zindagi Tamasha, playing as part of the UK Asian Film Festival, we are missing out on some exquisitely structured films. Translated as Circus of Life, Sarmad Khoosat’s film is a gripping and heart-breaking study of shame.
Quickly looking the synopsis of this film you’d be forgiven if you were expecting a feel-good comedy about a man who makes it big when a video of him dancing to an old pop song goes viral. But this is not a rags-to-riches story; in fact it is the reverse. Rahat is a reciter of praise poems, invited to weddings and other social engagements in Lahore to sing songs to The Prophet. Within his neighbourhood he is famous and respected.
But it’s after one of these events, as he’s relaxing with his friends, when remembers how he used to dance to My Life Became But a Spectacle when he was a boy. It doesn’t take much coaxing from his friends for him to get up and dance, copying the moves from the original female singer. Perhaps he gets caught up in the music, or lost within his memories, but he doesn’t seem to realise that one young man has his phone out, videoing his performance or that his neighbours look puzzled rather than entertained. But it shouldn’t matter; Rahat’s dance is just a little bit of fun.
But this impromptu performance, effeminate and secular, is not expected from a devout Muslim in a country that is seeing a revival in religious belief. Rahat is quickly reprimanded by his friends and family; no-one, save his bedridden wife, sees the funny side of it, and perhaps the two prospective clients he meets in his job as letting-agent who ask him for a selfie. As the video gets more hits, Rahat’s life unravels.
His shame, or more precisely, his lack of shame takes him to some strange places like the queer brothel he’s invited to attend or his rooftop meeting with a radical cleric that says he should pray for America’s destruction. While Rahat’s sexuality is questioned we see other forms of masculinity that in other circumstances would be questioned too. A male dancer spins for a TV audience on the show that Rahat’s daughter produces while the local chief of police preens away in the barber’s chair. Even the ‘eunuchs’ – South Asia’s third sex, more commonly called hijras – gain more respect in Rahat’s community.
Arif Hassan gives Rahat a gentle and kind character, but he speaks little and so Hassan conveys his troubles through his slouched body or his pale eyes. As he walks through Lahore’s narrow streets, Hassan lets us sees the burden his character is carrying, but he is careful never to overdo it, never revealing to the audience what Rahat is thinking. In Hassan’s hands, Rahat is both incredibly simple and brilliantly wise.
As his wife, Samiya Mumtaz also furnishes her character with some delicate balance. At first she’s bitter, seemingly eager to die from whatever illness keeps her confined to the bed, but in the second half of the film she too communicates her perceptive side just by the hope in her eyes. Their song together, as she shells peas and as he stirs pots, is a quiet highlight of the film.
With the use of drones we get to see a good deal of Lahore, and when the city is decked out to celebrate The Prophet’s birthday it is vibrant and colourful. A mix of old pop songs and modern adaptations of praise poems sits perfectly with a wistful piano score, and both genres of music serve to underline Rahat’s tragic exile.
So dangerous is Rahat’s dance is that its controversy has extended to real life too, and in 2020 Pakistan pulled the film saying that parts of it constituted blasphemy and that it wrongly accused clerics of misdoings. Zindagi Tamasha certainly challenges ideas around organised religion, masculinity and sexuality, but this is what makes the film essential viewing.
The UK Asian Film Festival runs nationwide and online from 26 May until 6 June 2021