Islamabad, Pakistan – The government of Pakistan has advised that the release of an award-winning Pakistani film be delayed over objections raised by far-right parties who allege it contains “blasphemy”.
“Zindagi Tamasha” (Circus of Life) was scheduled to be released on Friday but the government said it requested the producers to delay it pending a review by a council of religious scholars.
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The government’s decision on Tuesday comes as the maker of the film reported receiving death threats.
The film has been previously passed by the country’s Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC), as well as two provincial boards, officials told Al Jazeera.
“Taking into account the criticism of the film Zindagi Tamasha, the [CBFC] has decided to immediately consult with the Council of Islamic Ideology,” said Information Minister Firdaus Ashiq Awan. “The producers have been advised to delay the release of the film.”
The film, made by Sarmad Khoosat, deals with themes centred on class, gender and moral policing in the modern Pakistani society.
It won the prestigious Kim Ji-Seok Award after the film premiered at the Busan International Film Festival last year.
Khoosat told Al Jazeera he had received numerous death threats this week over the telephone, via text messages and on social media over the film’s Pakistan’s release.
“[There is] heat and aggression and almost terrorism directed at me on social media, using words that I would never have imagined in my nightmares,” Khoosat said, detailing how he was being harassed and threatened with violence.
Following the government announcement, the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) cancelled its nationwide protests planned for Wednesday, party officials said.
Led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the TLP has often held widespread demonstrations over the issue of “blasphemy”, with supporters calling for those who commit the perceived crime to be killed.
Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where the crime carries punishments that include a mandatory death penalty for those found guilty of insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Groups such as the TLP have also encouraged violence in the name of the blasphemy laws. While a TLP official Hafeezullah Alvi told Al Jazeera that the party did not support violence, the group has often publicly celebrated those who have murdered in the name of the blasphemy laws.
Since 1990, at least 75 people have been killed in targeted attacks and mob violence related to the blasphemy laws, according to an Al Jazeera tally. Those killed include people accused of blasphemy, their families, lawyers and, in at least one case, a judge.
Senior TLP leader Ijaz Ashrafi told Al Jazeera his party was “satisfied” with the step to refer the film to religious scholars, but reserved the right to protest if the release was to go ahead.
“We will see what happens next after the committee has a look at it. Any anti-Islam narrative or criticism of Islam, if we can raise our voices for that today, we can do so tomorrow,” said Ashrafi.
Khoosat, meanwhile, said the film did not carry content that could be construed as blasphemous. The film’s protagonist is a middle-aged man, “a good enough Muslim [who] has a day job as a property agent, he has three daughters and a wife,” he said.
“At a friend’s wedding, egged on by friends, he dances to a Pakistani song, and that video spreads and goes viral, and that leads to a whole social boycott [by his community],” said Khoosat.
Earlier on Tuesday, before the government’s ruling, Khoosat said a decision on the release of the film had “taken a back seat” to concerns for his own safety.
“I would only want to release the film so that these weird, horrific speculations about the film, accusing the content [can be] proved wrong,” he said.
The TLP’s opposition to the film appears to be focused on the protagonist also singing hymns in praise of the Prophet Muhammad, according to statements calling for the protest.
“The central theme is that there is a man who is a reader of naat’s [hymns in praise of Prophet Muhammad] who is shown in a bad light … there are good and bad people in every profession, but this negative image has been particularly connected to Islam,” said TLP official Alvi.
On Thursday, 86 TLP activists – including Rizvi’s brother and nephew – were given 55-year prison sentences for their involvement in widespread violent protests following the acquittal of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, on blasphemy charges in October 2018.
Bibi spent eight years on death row before Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that the charges against her were concocted by her accusers.
In January 2011, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province Salman Taseer was shot dead by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri for supporting Bibi during her trial.
“I’ve been sent messages saying that ‘it is for people like you that Qadris are born and your Qadri is ready’,” said Khoosat.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.