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UKAFF 2021 Review: Zindagi Tamasha

Zindagi Tamasha (Circus Of Life), directed by Sarmad Khoosat, is inspired by a song in Naukar Wohti Da (1974) – the lyrics of which loosely translate to “my life has become a sad spectacle/no more than mere amusement for the world”.

Pakistan suspended the film’s release following an objection to its portrayal of a struggling cleric. Following the uproar, the movie (which is in Urdu/Punjabi) was submitted to the Oscars and now premieres in Britain for the 23rd UK Asian Film Festival.

The movie centres on Rahat Khawaja (Arif Hassan) who is, by all accounts, a ‘good Muslim man’. He is doted to religion, takes care of his bedridden wife and is considered a pillar of support for his community.

But he has a guilty pleasure – enjoying old Punjabi movies. At a wedding, egged on by friends, he breaks into a dance paying homage to his film idols. The video of a bearded man dancing freely goes viral and Rahat’s life begins to crumble as he is shunned by his family and the wider community.

To begin with, it’s quite courageous and progressive for Pakistani cinema to address several deep-rooted subjects through the visual platform, especially prominently through Sabiha Sumar and Shoaib Mansoor’s works. Last year, though, Churails broke the glass ceiling as it spoke so much about feminism, LGBTQIA relationships and fighting patriarchy, among other thorny topics.

Zindagi Tamasha, too, steadily uncovers layers of various issues which are rampant within the Pakistani and South-Asian community. As the film progresses, we see topics on transphobia/homophobia, toxic masculinity, religious conservatism and the devastating impact of ‘trial by media’ presented at the forefront.

To a major extent, it also conveys the possible reality of several internet sensations and how not all popularity brings joy to a person’s life. Furthermore, it is perhaps the first time where we’ve seen the plight of homosexuals and transgenders in Pakistani society. Thus, with this one piece of cinema, the director addresses an array of systematic issues.

It is also perhaps the first time in a Lollywood film where we see how homosexual men are neglected by society and yet objectified by straight men. Hence, all these strands are dealt with unapologetically and sincerely.

Through the lens of Rahat, Sarmad brilliantly showcased the dichotomy of technological advancements of the country with archaic societal mindsets. The irony of men dancing happily with the eunuchs at a wedding, yet if another heterosexual man dances in the same way (in an ‘effeminate’ way) he is instantly shunned by the status quo of society.

Technical aspects here are absolutely top-notch. Through various camera shots and cinematic aesthetics, circumstances and sentiments are beautifully conveyed. For instance, a scene where Rahat looks at his daughter Sadaf (Eman Suleman). In this shot, there is dead silence and a wide shot showing how both are in the same, but a pillar separates them both – highlighting how dysfunctional the relationship has become.

Another visually appealing scene is a bird’s eye view of the Lahore city light up during the night for Eid festivities and yet we see closeups of Rahat walking all alone, in despair. Collectively, the cinematography and editing are remarkable, making it a visually enriching watch.

In fact, the traditional architectures of Lahore are used as characters in the film. Shots where the protagonist roams around the gallies to ridicule as people are on their mobiles. Such sequences highlight the juxtaposition as to how time has progressed, yet attitudes are archaic. Even the music and lyrics of the song “Zindagi Tamasha Bani” is haunting and foretells the dismay and ostracism which is yet to follow.

In a way, the song is like a chant that continues to haunt viewers till the credits roll. A special mention also goes to Nimra Gilani’s cover version of the song… It gives goosebumps and sticks with the audience. As such, the song in many ways provides a voice for those who have been marginalised by society.

Whilst the pace and tempo are unhurried, Arif Hassan’s solid performance is enough to keep your eyes and hearts invested in his character. His deep, intense eyes convey grief as well as power. You can feel his confidence is shaken but yet empathise with his courage to live… Even though the world is against him.

There have been times when I wept and felt enraged by the abysmal attitudes displayed towards him. Even though it’s a fictional character, Rahat is omnipresent within the fabrics of our society perhaps going through what he does. Just thinking about that is harrowing.

Overall, Zindagi Tamasha provides a profound insight into how society condemns those who refuse to fall in line and dare to express themselves freely. Honestly, this one really should’ve been in the Oscars.

If a piece of cinema can deeply disturb and grab the viewer by the neck – but yet awes you through ace cinematic tropes, then for me, that is an absolute winner. Mr Khoosat, you are a brave and marvellous storyteller!

⭐⭐⭐⭐.5 (4.5/5 stars)

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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