Pakistan has suspended the release of an award-winning film, after an Islamist political party objected to its portrayal of a struggling cleric.
The party said the film “might lead [people] to deviate from Islam and the prophet”, with officials warning screening it could lead to unrest.
Zindagi Tamasha (Circus of Life) is about a man shunned after a video of him dancing at a wedding goes viral.
The film’s director said he never intended to offend anyone.
Before the suspension, renowned Pakistani filmmaker Sarmad Khoosat, who made the film, had said he, his family and team had been subjected to bullying and threats.
“Don’t spew hate, fear and anger in the name of religion.”
The controversy over the film has again revealed the deep divisions in Pakistani society as religious groups have grown more vocal in recent years.
A spokesperson for the political party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) was quoted in local media as saying the film’s content was “blasphemous”.
The blasphemy accusation is a highly sensitive one in Pakistan which has seen those accused targeted by hardline groups. A number of the country’s highly controversial cases have grabbed global headlines.
‘A grave test’
Zindagi Tamasha had its world premier at the prestigious Busan International Film Festival last year, where it was awarded the top fiction prize.
It was to have hit Pakistan’s screens on 24 January, and ahead of that date a trailer for the film was released showing a bearded man who is a singer of naat (religious poems).
But despite being cleared by the country’s main censor board as well as provincial boards, the film is now on hold.
Last week Mr Khoosat published an open letter to the prime minister, saying he was being inundated with complaints and threatening calls and was considering not releasing the film.
TLP then called for mass rallies across the country to protest at the planned release of the film.
“The characterisation of the naat-reader in the film is such that it can cause discomfort to the public and might lead them to deviate from Islam and Prophet (Muhammad),” the group said in a statement.
“Thus this movie must not be released as it could otherwise be a grave test of the Muslims of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.”
On Tuesday, Firdous Ashiq Awan, adviser to the prime minister on Information and Broadcasting, said on Twitter that the producer of the film had been told to delay the release until the film censor board consulted with the Islamic Ideological Council, an advisory body which is influential but has no binding authority.
After the announcement, the TLP cancelled its call for a nationwide protest.
Who are the film’s opponents?
The TLP is the political arm of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) movement which has previously gathered huge crowds to protest over blasphemy issues.
Led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, it came to prominence for its opposition to the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, a policeman who killed the governor of Punjab Salman Taseer in 2011 because he spoke out against the blasphemy laws.
Under Pakistani law those found guilty of insulting the prophet Muhammad can face the death penalty.
The TLP showed its power in 2017 when it staged a lockdown of the federal capital for weeks to protest against the government of then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
However, last year it saw some of its influence curtailed when its top leaders, including Khadim Hussain Rizvi, were arrested for their involvement in violent protests against the release of Christian woman Asia Bibi who had been jailed for blasphemy.