Verna, the Film on Power, Politics and Rape That Has Taken Pakistan By Storm

Cleared by the censors on appeal, the film urges women to live and fight back after sexual assault.

Mahira Khan, in a still from Verna.

 “Power di game saari, power di game ah, Ullu di pathi tenu samajh kyun ni aandi ae?”
(It’s a power game, all a power game, Don’t you get it you foolish girl?)

The beat of Xpolymer Dar’s rap theme rips through the cinema hall as the film opens. The lyrics, by the film’s director are like a whip on a horse’s back. Rape/politics/power-games and more. This is explosive stuff.

I am watching Verna, perhaps the most eagerly awaited film in Pakistan this year and as is usual with its celebrated director Shoaib Mansoor (Khuda Ke Liye, 2007, Bol, 2011) shot under tight-lipped secrecy. As the film progresses, there are many predictable gasps, and strangely a few unexpected giggles. Perhaps the gravity of the topic makes people awkward or has Mansoor, inexplicably and accidentally got it horribly wrong?

A few days before the release of this controversial film, based on the rape of a young teacher played by Pakistan’s best-known star Mahira Khan, no one was quite sure it would be viewed by a Pakistani audience. The Lahore première was cancelled at the last minute by Shoman Films (Mansoor’s production house) and HUM TV, the film’s distributors on account of non-certification. The Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC), one of three in the country, was not inclined to let it go as is. Five members of the 21-member board, which controls what passes before people’s eyes in Islamabad as well as cantonment areas throughout the country, saw the film. Four of those objected. Of the 12 cuts reportedly requested, all referred to the political content in the film and not the physicality or social context of the rape. Not even the hard revenge story that escalates as the film progresses. Mansoor refused to comply with the board’s demands and asked for an appellate review. The social media uproar over the ban helped the makers; Pakistani Twitter rallied against the idea of muting or cutting the film. Verna was reviewed and certified for general release.

Simultaneously, in India Rajputs raged over Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati with lead star Deepika Padukone’s life being threatened by hardliners. Padukone chose this time to support her counterpart in Pakistan. When asked in an interview about the ban on Verna she said: “Sad that a small section of people do not understand the power of cinema and what it can do to the world.” Of course, it could be said that the powers-that-be in Pakistan fully understand the power of cinema which is why they were anxious about the impact of a film that accuses a governor’s son of rape.

The fall and rise of Pakistani cinema

Cinema in Pakistan had dwindled during the ‘80s and ‘90s due to a combination of unrelated circumstances; the Zia state’s clamp down on filmmaking meant that producers had to deposit about 20% of the budget into government coffers as safeguard before initiating filming. Already burdened by the onslaught of Indian films becoming widely – and illicitly – available on VHS tapes in video markets for a meagre Rs.10 a night, Pakistani producers increasingly found making films unaffordable and untenable.

In 2007 Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Ke Liye, a gripping account of a young musician’s radicalisation, heralded the return of Pakistani cinema and the arrival of Fawad Khan in films. Many see Mansoor’s debut movie (ostensibly funded by the PR wing of the Pakistan army) as a game-changer and a watershed in Pakistani cinema. It’s rather affectionately called a “revival” by journalists and the film fraternity alike; though the filmmakers who make up the fraternity have changed. Crucially this is not a revival of Lollywood, the movie industry based in the heart of the Punjab, where films are now rarely made. Shaan Shahid’s remake of Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth being one of the exceptions. The spotlight has moved to Karachi, where almost all the new directors are either film school graduates or from the advertising world. Others like Nadeem Baig – whose films Jawani Phir Nahin Aani (2016) and Punjab Nahin Jaoungi (2017) have been the two biggest blockbusters in Pakistani film history – have travelled to film via successful TV serials like ‘Dillagi’ (2016). To all of these young Turks, Shoaib Mansoor is sort of the paterfamilias of modern Pakistani cinema.

Mansoor, however, has become increasingly reclusive after his success, choosing to live away from the rest in the more sanitised environs of the capital, Islamabad. He doesn’t give interviews, and he doesn’t really discuss his work with the film fraternity or the media. While Mansoor is reported to have consulted with the War against Rape (WAR) organisation, which focuses on activism around sexual violence against women in Pakistan, he did not show the film to them or seek an opinion on the story he chose to tell. Hence the success or not of Verna is entirely his own.

The official film poster for Verna. Credit: Wikimedia

So, why is Verna, flawed and scarred in part and hammered by many critics in Pakistan in full, an important film? For one, it addresses the issue of sexual violence against women head on, unflinchingly and without concession to young patriots on social media who point out that Pakistan’s statistics are much leaner than India’s and hence we obviously don’t have a rape problem.

Confronting the honour myth

In actuality, for several social reasons the reporting and prosecution of rape cases in Pakistan is thought to be low and hence the data incomplete. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan states that sexual violence against women in Pakistan is “rampant” and WAR contends that at least four women are raped daily. Cases which do make it to the media are horrendous; earlier this year a young girl of 16 was ordered to be raped by a man in full view of villagers as punishment for her brother’s rape of his sister. “Another tribe court (panchayat) in South Punjab Multan and another girl was raped. We are still in 2002,” tweeted the activist Mukhtar Mai, who took her rapists from the same district to trial 15 years ago but later saw five of them acquitted by a superior court.

But for every case that comes to light, there are possibly hundreds which are hushed up. In 2014,  WAR estimated that of the 383 sexual assault cases reported in hospitals across Karachi, FIRs were registered only in 27.67% of the cases. The stigma of rape plays out in any country in the world, but in a country like Pakistan, where reputation and honour are such loaded words and where so many girls think first of killing themselves rather than reporting a rape – the HRCP reports that almost 800 rape survivors had either attempted to take their lives or had committed suicide – the stakes are incredibly high. So on a simple level, a film focussing on rape so intensely, directed by the country’s most famous director and featuring its most prominent actor importantly draws attention to a hidden world shrouded by the obsession with honour and suffocated by the feeling that women are physical repositories of this honour.

When a woman is raped in Pakistan, it is her whole family that feels a resultant loss of honour and often imposes a silence on her experience to protect their reputation. Verna spotlights this muteness at length, fervently espousing a woman’s right to speak up and also stating that what is wrought on her body does not take her dignity away. “Telling a girl that ‘us ki izzat looti gayi’ is wrong,” Mahira Khan says to me in an interview for the BBC. “Your honour cannot be taken from you; it is the rapist who has committed a wrongful act. He is the one who should be shamed. That is what Verna tries to say.”

Let down by nuance

Some Pakistani reviewers have argued that it doesn’t do this very well. Writing in Dawn, the newspaper’s culture editor Hamna Zubair worries that by presenting Sara (Mahira Khan) as “a male director’s fantasy female avenger”, the film glosses over the trauma and mental anguish faced by rape survivors. “People need to see the trauma caused by sexual violence,” she tells me. “They need to know this is a life changing event. Verna failed to communicate that.” It is also true that the aftermath of rape is not experienced the same way by every woman. Rape trauma syndrome lists various behaviours that survivors exhibit: some women become emotionally numb or use disassociation as a front-line defence against the shock of the assault. Anger or hostility is also perceived by rape counsellors as a perfectly normal coping mechanism though less common because society doesn’t encourage women to express outrage. The rape survivor is often also angry at those around her, who may not be supporting her to the extent she needs. So Shoaib Mansoor’s Sara is not totally beyond the realm of possibility.

Where Verna does, however, begin to stumble is when Sara decides to submit to a second night with her rapist in order to gather evidence against him. At this point it would be important to show she is conflicted or even repulsed if only to make the episode more believable for Pakistani viewers. I think that Mansoor overplayed his cards here because you have to take your audience along with you in a film such as this. The scene could have been just as shocking but played less mockingly and with more variance and hesitation than a brief change of expression on the heroine’s face. The acclaimed Pakistani director Jami (Moor, 2015) vented on Facebook: “Showing a victim going back to be raped again was a new low.” Last year Paul Verhoeven’s Elle received accolades across the board for its nuanced and unconventional storytelling of a woman getting on with her life immediately after her rape and more controversially getting involved with her rapist before avenging the crime. But Elle is a complex, probing film that doesn’t take easy avenues. The issue with Verna is that while it is heavy-handed and didactic in the main, it tries to be nuanced in the most difficult scene in the film. You can’t have it both ways.

Mahira Khan from a scene in Verna.

From thereon, Verna spirals desperately, piling on shock after shock and leaving the viewer exhausted. “There is too much moralising. The Pakistani audience have become more aware they have become more sensitised since Khuda Ke Liye and Bol and want to receive a message subtly. I dont think Shoaib Mansoor has grasped this,” says Hamna Zubair. This is largely correct, though he seems to borrow from Iranian cinema by emphasising that what is left out is often as important to what’s in the film. Like Asghar Farhadi in The Salesman, Mansoor chooses not to show the assault scene, leaving both the husband and the audience in the dark as to what actually happens. This works on some level but fails when Mansoor chooses to show the husband as a vain, self-obsessed character in some joking moments. Hence the giggles from the audience.

Verna veers between modernity and conventional filmmaking in an inconsistent manner and tries too hard to take on all the burdens of the world. Some depictions, like the uncouth manner in which Sara’s husband (Haroon Shahid) doubts that she fought her rapist hard enough are probably truer to life than one would wish, but his later transformation is unconvincing. Where it does succeed is its understanding of the power structures in Pakistan and how political power-play and corruption combine to subvert basic rights. And these were precisely the areas the censors were worried about.

Breaking with the stereotype

In some ways, the film invites overlapping media commentaries. Mahira Khan is one of Pakistan’s foremost actors, yet nearly all her drama serials present her as lily-faced and conventional. As their influence has widened over the last decade, Pakistani dramas have increasingly developed tropes and advocated social norms that form a guidebook to “correct” female behaviour. While there may be exceptions, “positive” behavioural patterns for female characters include submission to the greater good, silence above speaking out (except in sudden tirades) and a focus on marital and family life that tends to make women’s career choices appear insignificant or non-existent. As actor Samia Mumtaz says, “they get women [who are] known to be strong in real life to play these downcast, crying roles.” It is almost as if they are being tempered and chastised in public view to handicap the impact of their off-screen personas. For Mahira Khan, who was mercilessly bullied in Pakistan for her smoking photos with Ranbir Kapoor, the film strangely allows her to take both her character’s and her own public life into her own hands.

It is heartening to see Mahira Khan playing a strong, assertive woman who makes her own decisions – be it to take her assailant to court, or taking the lead on hunting him down. That she is a larger than life, sometimes cartoon super-hero may well be the most powerful way to critique the bourgeois, broken woman that has become a hallmark of Pakistani drama. With so many examples of the “mazloom aurat” trope to conquer, this punch was perhaps needed. There are of course many ways that Verna could have been a better film but as a manifesto for women’s rights it may well have hit its mark. That a controversial woman-centric film with unknown male leads has taken home over Rs. 20 million – a fairly solid amount for Pakistani films which really only cater to cinemas in urban areas – means that critics be damned, people are going to see it. It may not be Mansoor’s best film, it may be overly long and marred by over the top sermonising, but it is provocative enough to make Pakistani audiences think, question and discuss power, politics and rape. Those are the awards the filmmaker will have to be satisfied with because he may not get many for his film.

Ironically, both Padmavati and Verna – films on different sides of the border – focus on rape in different ways. While the Pakistani film, despite being clunky, urges women to live and fight back after sexual assault, the Indian one potentially valourises a character who opts to die for “honour” in anticipation of rape. The latter in my estimation is a far more dangerous message to send out to women in South Asia, especially in a country where, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, 93 women are raped every day.

Fifi Haroon is a senior producer for the BBC.