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Opinion |  Why you can’t watch ‘Circus of Life’ in Pakistan

The people of Lahore are having a birthday party for their prophet, and Sarmad has captured his hometown in rapture.

Three censorship councils authorized the film’s release in theaters in different regions.

Screenwriter Nirmal Bano told me in September, “I felt indescribable joy writing a male character who did all the chores without making him some sort of hero.” It is this head of the family, a caring man and a struggling property dealer and, according to Sarmad, a fairly good Muslim, who faces the wrath of his community after a short video of him dancing goes viral. This, even though videos of old bearded men dancing at weddings are practically a subgenre on Pakistani YouTube.

Enter Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a real-life cleric and self-proclaimed keeper of the Prophet’s honor.

If a character like Mr. Rizvi were shown in a feature film, he would likely be seen as overkill. Mr Rizvi, who died in November, appeared at rallies in a wheelchair wearing a crisp, starched white robe and a black turban. He was fiery and funny, mixing poetry and curses in his sermons with quotes from sacred texts.

Mr Rizvi also believed he spotted profanity everywhere, including in Sarmad’s film.

A blasphemy charge in Pakistan is a tricky thing to deal with: a person accusing another of blasphemy cannot say what the insult was because simply repeating it would also be blasphemy. It is also a dangerous thing.

In 2010, Salman Taseer, the governor of the province of Punjab, defended Asia Bibi, a Christian accused of insulting the prophet. He visited her in prison, even had his picture taken with her and demanded that the blasphemy laws be changed. Mr. Taseer’s bodyguard, Constable Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, shot him dead in January 2011. Twenty-seven times.

Mr. Qadri was sentenced to death under the country’s law, and a cult was born: an ordinary policeman killed a powerful governor, not because of personal hostility, but because he could not bear a insult to the prophet. Mr. Rizvi founded the religious party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) in part around the cause of Mr. Qadri’s release.

Mr. Qadri was hanged in 2016, but TLP continued to hunt blasphemers. Mr. Rizvi latched onto a brief argument between two bearded characters from the “Zindagi Tamasha” trailer, in which one threatens to accuse the other of blasphemy. He claimed it was an insult to Islamic scholars, and therefore an insult to Islam. He said the film would be shown “on my corpse”.

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