The Pakistani film "Verna" begins by portraying a beautiful young woman who is married, well-educated and is building a successful teaching career. She leads a life that many people would desire. But one day, her good life is suddenly turned upside down.
During a romantic getaway with her husband, the main character named Sara, is abducted for many days and raped by the influential son of a local governor. After her ordeal is over, Sara is ready to sacrifice everything to bring him to justice. However, she soon realizes that the law is not on her side and she gets nowhere after turning to the police and justice system. So she decides to take the law in her hands and play by her own rules.
Verna, from Pakistani director Shoaib Mansoor, was released mid-November in Pakistan. It breaks many taboos and deals with sensitive social issues that are usually not publically portrayed in the conservative Muslim country. And the film's storyline is told in new and uncommon fashion, in which the female lead refuses to silently accept the role of victim and instead seeks justice and revenge. This is unacceptable for many in Pakistan.
Censorship in South Asia
Pakistan's Central Board of Film Censors (CBCF) had originally not permitted the release of Verna over content that was allegedly racy and not suitable for children. The proposed ban was sharply criticized by women's rights activists and on social media under the Twitter hashtag #UnbanVerna.
The campaign to release the film included supporters like Bollywood star Deepika Padukone, an Indian actress who is also at the center of a controversy over her new film "Padmavati." A love scene in the film between a Hindu queen and a Muslim sultan has reportedly angered hardline Hindu nationalists. A ranking politician with the ruling BJP party even put a bounty of $ 1.6 million (1.35 million euros) on Padukone's head. The film was due to be released in December, but that has been delayed indefinitely because of the protests.
Can films change society?
In the case of Verna, Pakistani censors dropped their opposition a few hours before the premier was scheduled on November 17. Gulalai Ismail, an activist with the NGO Aware Girls, told DW that she welcomed the decision.
"This movie is important because we live in a country where three women are raped everyday, and if we want healthy societies, then we have to speak about the issue of rape," said Ismail. "Movies have the potential to change society."
Ismail also said that how Pakistani society deals with rape is a big problem. "The media and society mostly put the blame on victim, no one talks about perpetrator," she said.
Director Shoaib Mansoor also wanted to show with Verna how Pakistani elites apparently consider themselves to be above the law.
"I wanted to make a film about how the ruling class abuses power against common people," Mansoor told DW.
"I chose to focus on the issue of rape because that is the most common way power is used against women. Like many people, I too believe that rape is more for a show of power over people than a result of sexual frustration," said the director.
Praise and demonization
The role of Sara is played by Mahira Khan, a popular actress in Pakistan. The role was a big challenge for Khan. "She is not what society imagines a rape victim to be, " said Khan in a newspaper interview. "Sara is a woman that doesn't sink into self-pity. And we don't want the audience to pity her but rather to encourage her and at the same time recognize how terrible what she goes through is."
Opinions on the film are divided. Women's rights activists praise the film as a milestone. For Pakistani conservatives it is a bête noire.
"What is interesting is the lack of middle ground, as the views are diametrically opposed, rating it from excellent to horrific," Afia Salam, a Karachi-based journalist, told DW. "These have touched upon everything from the cinematic aspects, the storyline, the treatment and acting to the very theme," she said.
Salam added that portraying rape on the big screen is not the only reason why some people condemn the movie.
"While no one has disagreed with the use of theme of rape and its effects, it is the handling of such a serious and sensitive topic that had generated a lot of debate," said Salam. "Some felt it was bold and brave, while others say it was tackled in a trivial manner."
Rahul Aijaz, a Pakistani author, criticized Verna in the Express Tribune, a Pakistani English-language daily. He said the film had the potential to shake audiences to their core and become a flagship for social change. This expectation, he said, was not met.
Aijaz said the storytelling was weak and the film had "absurd pacing," which didn't allow the audience to get inside the main characters head, therefore decreasing the intensity of the story. The critic also said that the main character's inner torment wasn't depicted strongly enough.
"For a rape victim, she [Sara] shakes off the incident and moves on to avenge her pain too quickly," wrote Aijaz.
Pakistani film 'has to change'
For director Mansoor, his main character's emotional control was completely intentional, and something that Pakistani audiences aren't used to.
"I decided on purpose to go with the western style of controlled display of emotions in dramatic situations," said Mansoor.
This plays out, for example, in a scene where Sara is confronted with the death of her father.
"This was evident with the use of silent expressions of the lead actress when her father dies," said Mansoor.
"I have all the intentions of sticking to this in future too as I feel Pakistan should now move ahead from very loud treatments of dramatic situations in our films and TV, to a more mature and sophisticated depiction and handling," he added.
The director also admitted that he had expected more resistance to the film. Mansoor has directed films with taboo subjects in the past. One of his films depicts a family with a transgender daughter who is raised as a boy. Another portrays the situation of Muslims after the September 11 attacks. He says he doesn't like "popcorn" movies.
"It's not enough for me to make entertainment movies," he said. "For me it's more about creating something meaningful."
Mansoor said Pakistan's film industry needs to change. Much like Bollywood, Pakistani films are a colorful mix of different styles.
"I want Pakistanis and Indians to come out of the formula package of mixed genres. In the West a film is restricted to its genre: There are comedy films, action films, romance and drama, but on the subcontinent, people are used to seeing all forms stuffed in one film package. This has to change," said Mansoor.
At the box office, however, the controversial whirlwind over the release of Verna has seemingly paid off. Most premieres on opening night were sold out far in advance.