The deranged Pakistani film that reinvented the controversial author as an international super-villain, and was briefly banned in Britain.
As you may recall, Salman Rushdie caused a bit of a kerfuffle with his novel The Satanic Verses in 1988; or, more accurately, a lot of religious fanatics took great offence to a work of fiction, rioted around the world, killed a bunch of people and forced Rushdie into hiding with a bounty placed on his head by Iran’s supreme leader. It was, perhaps, the first salvo of the ongoing culture war between Western secularism and Islamic extremism – though unlike in more recent cases, publishers, journalists and academics were fairly united in their support of Rushdie and his right to free expression and against the idea that blasphemy should be punishable by death.
The threats against Rushdie, his publishers and book stores came in many forms – some trivial, some horrific. The case seemed to galvanise the more extremist elements in Islamic society, and things have never been quite the same since. But amongst the death threats, murders and fire bombings came what might be the most ridiculous attack on the author, in the form of Pakistani film International Guerillas (International Gorillay), where Rushdie was transformed from a little-read literary author into an international criminal mastermind, hellbent on obliterating Islam.
The 1990 film tells the story of three Pakistani brothers who join forces to seek out and kill the evil Rushdie, who here is revealed to be the head of an international gang aiming to destroy Islam, thus paving the way for a series of casinos, nightclubs and brothels to be opened – such places apparently not already in existence anywhere in 1990. The villainous Rushdie is hiding out in the Philippines, guarded by a private army that is led by – of course – an Israeli general, and spends his time torturing and killing mujaheddin – sometimes by reading passages from his book to them. Sounds like someone had been watching episodes of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Eventually, the three brothers arrive in the Philippines where, disguised in Batman costumes, they track down Rushdie and seduce the general’s daughter, converting her to Islam in the process. After a gun battle, Rushdie flees, only to be trapped as three giant Qur’ans appear in the sky and fire bolts of lightning at him. Sorry about the spoilers there.
The Urdu film lasts for a whopping 167 minutes and is full of song and dance scenes, as was standard with Pakistani films of that time. Producer Sajjad Gul has denied that there was any great meaning in the film – it was simply designed as a crowd-pleasing fantasy, though what that says about the crowd in question is a matter of opinion. It is, of course, entirely dreadful, with the production values of a home movie and awful performances all around. In normal circumstances, it probably would’ve disappeared without a trace, but – not for the first time – the British censor was determined to give an otherwise forgettable film a degree of immortality.
The problem for the BBFC was not so much the content of the film, though it might be argued that it was an incitement to violence against a living person; no, the issue here was one of libel. The BBFC had some form with banning films that it considered to be potentially libellous – back in 1958, the Board had refused certificates to a pair of films that sought to expose the secret Nazi past of now-respectable German citizens. When a London-only release of one of the films was delayed by a successful libel action, the BBFC decision seemed validated. However, deciding whether or not a film libelled a living person was not something that the BBFC was qualified to do, and legal advice suggested that they should not try; no libel action could hold them responsible for the content of a film that they had simply certificated and banning films on this basis was a considerable overreach of their powers.
In the case of International Guerillas, however, it was more complex. The BBFC’s leader James Ferman had an obsession with ensuring that films didn’t break all manner of laws – some of which no one even knew existed – and thought that the film might be considered a criminal libel, which was a more serious offence than its civil equivalent, potentially leading to a breach of the peace. While there were several question marks over this – not least of all was the fact that the film could be seen as satire, or at the very least was hardly going to be taken seriously by anyone apart from the sort of extremists who already wanted to kill the author, it was decided that the film should be banned outright.
This, of course, made International Guerillas immediately much more appealing to people who might have otherwise been disinterested in a crappy three-hour movie full of dance routines. Rushdie was only too aware of this and publicly stated that he had no intention to sue anyone involved. “As a writer, I am opposed in principle to the use of the archaic criminal laws of blasphemy, sedition and criminal libel against creative works, even in the case of a film which quite plainly vilifies me. If that film had been banned, it would have become the hottest video in town: everyone would have seen it”, he stated.
With this assurance, the BBFC decided that there was no justification for a continued ban, and the film was duly awarded an 18 certificate. It slipped out, unnoticed, on UK VHS through Famous Video, an importer of Pakistani titles that only distributed in Pakistani shops. Any wider interest in the film – which had been a big hit in its native country – fizzled out as soon as the ban was lifted, and it now stands only as a curious example of the depths to which some people will sink creatively – and the ever-vigilant protectiveness of the British censors.
The whole, numbing experience can be watched below. Remember – it’s only a movie…
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