What happens when a social media mob swarms a conservative Islamic community? Filmmaker Sarmad Sultan Khoosat explores this in his new film “Circus of Life,” which won the top prize at the Busan International Film Festival and was selected as Pakistan’s contender for this year’s Best International Film Oscar.
Khoosat sat down with TheWrap for its Awards Screening Series this past weekend to discuss his film and the polarizing response it has received in his home country. The film stars Arif Hassan as Rahat, a devout elderly Muslim living in Lahore whose life is suddenly thrown into chaos after he attends a wedding and shows off a dance in front of his friends, not knowing that someone is recording that dance with a smartphone. Almost overnight, the video of the dance becomes a viral hit on Facebook, shattering Rahat’s reputation as a humble hymn composer and instantly ostracizing him in the eyes of his friends and family.
Khoosat has gained a reputation in Pakistan for being a writer of many interests, penning scripts for sitcoms, soap operas and even Agatha Christie adaptations among other genres. But “Circus of Life” is one of his most serious stories yet, collaborating with screenwriter Nirmal Bano to explore social media’s impact on modern Muslim life. One of the major influences on the film was a real-life video of a cleric apologizing for a video of him dancing to a pop song, with Khoosat saying how he was especially impacted by the split-screen comparison between the cleric’s “verbose” apology side-by-side with the dance footage.
“Eventually those videos became a centerpiece of the overall narrative,” he said. “But if that was the seed of the narrative, the second was the setting of Lahore, which is the city I’ve lived in for the last 40 years of my life. My childhood, those streets…they all poured into the universe, so I feel like there’s a lot of me in it.”
While it has received praise from critics both at home and abroad, the release of “Circus of Life” back in January 2020 wasn’t without some backlash. Far-right political leader Khadim Hussain Rivzi accused Khoosat and the film of blasphemy, prompting the director to defend his film in a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan. Even today, Khoosat says that he didn’t set on making a polemic against fundamentalist Islam when he started developing the movie.
“What I was very sure about…I knew I didn’t want to do a melodrama. I knew that this wasn’t going to be an angry statement or angry sort of discourse on religion,” he said. “But there’s a topic we deal in this film about intolerance and I don’t think faith and religion should do that.”
Watch the full interview with Khoosat in the video above.