Circus of Life: Pakistan’s Entry for the Best International Feature Oscar, Targeted by Extremist Groups

Sarmad Sultan Khoosat’s Circus of Life is Pakistan’s entry for Best International Film Oscar.


'Circus of Life'
Sarmad Sultan Khoosat

‘Circus of Life’


The drama concerns a devout Muslim man whose life is upended when a video of him dancing goes viral on social media.

But Khoosat became the target of religious fanatics for his film. Then, the coronavirus pandemic and hate campaign by far-right extremists have prevented local people from seeing Circus of Life.

“It is wonderful that it has a universal appeal, but this is a local story and I chose to make it in Punjabi to connect to the local audience,” says Khoosat. “That no one in Pakistan can see this movie is a big loss, a tragedy.”

Circus of Life premiered in South Korea, at the Busan Film Fest, where it won the Window on Asian Cinema honor.

The movie had cleared Pakistan’s various censor boards, and its local theatrical release was set, after making a trailer of the film online.

Sadly, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a far-right Islamic party, seized on the video, claiming that the trailer, and by extension, the film, was blasphemous and anti-Muslim.

The movie shows a devout Pakistani man (Arif Hassan) dancing to a song from a 1974 Lollywood movie (Pakistan’s equivalent to Bollywood).

“Pakistan is not like Iran, this is a society where people are cool with dancing and singing,” says Khoosat. “But it is still very patriarchal, with very strict, binary gender roles. People aren’t used to seeing a bearded Muslim man dancing and singing.”

In response to the protest, the Pakistan government ordered a review of its approval for Circus of Life. They looked at the film again and cleared it again, but by then it was too late.

Supporters of the TLP has published his personal information online. Khoosat’s face—overlayed with a sniper’s target—  was plastered on social media posts and on posters across the country. Far-right Imams started calling him out at Friday prayers.

“It was really, really crazy. These people have a lot of power on the streets here, and a lot of power on social media,” he says.

On January 21, the federal government, just three days before the release, pulled the film. The administration sent the movie for review to the Council of Islamic Ideology, a body that gives legal advice on Islamic issues.

Circus of Life was selected as Pakistan’s official Oscar entry and got a qualifying run via online Vimeo release. Khoosat is currently trying to secure a digital bow in Pakistan.

“I didn’t want to make a controversial film. I was super careful, in what I showed but also in the overall tone of the movie, not to be judgmental, to be very decorous and respectful of who we are as a society here,” says Khoosat.

While he still avoids social media–mostly hate mail–he hopes his Oscar prospects will raise the profile of Circus of Life.

“What happened with the film was a big disappointment for younger Pakistani filmmakers. This was as independent a film as you can get. And Circus of Life shows how very compromised the independence of the artist is in Pakistan.”