Pakistan on Friday delayed the review of a ban on an Indian Bollywood comedy poking fun at Osama bin Laden, which censors said was a threat to security and offensive to Muslims.
Pakistani censors banned "Tere bin Laden" (Without you, Laden) before it was due to open at cinemas nationwide on Friday. Advertisements for the film in the Pakistani press have been accompanied by "subject to approval" notices.
The film is a spoof about a Pakistani reporter who wants to migrate to the United States and hopes his interview with a chicken farmer who is the spitting image of the world’s most wanted man can get him the visa he has been denied.
Pakistani pop singer Ali Zafar plays the starring role, but the board of censors said the film could incite suicide attacks in a country already suffering Islamist militant bombings weekly if not daily.
Censors said the film ridiculed Pakistani society, was offensive to Muslims, portrays bin Laden as a "coward and ridiculous," contained vulgar language and could fan hostility among "fanatic and fundamentalist elements" in Pakistan.
Bombs and attacks blamed on Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants have killed more than 3,560 people across the nuclear-armed country since government troops besieged a radical mosque in Islamabad in July 2007.
But the film’s promoters appealed the ban as a violation of freedom of expression, forcing government officials to review the decision.
"I’m astonished they did this," said promoter Nadeem Mandviwala.
"There are many TV programs in Pakistan criticizing the president, prime minister and everybody else in a comic way. Our society has become tolerant."
Pakistan has a relatively free media, but authorities in May briefly shut down YouTube and Facebook over blasphemous content on the internet. Internet links to material considered offensive are still blocked.
Government officials on Friday attended a private screening of the film to decide whether to uphold the ban or release it for public consumption, but delayed a decision — meaning that the film did not open on Friday as planned.
"We have postponed the meeting and delayed the decision until Wednesday," culture ministry official Moeen-ul-Islam Bukhari told AFP. He attributed the delay to members of the appeals’ committee failing to show up.
The "Tere bin Laden" controversy comes after a number of Gulf states banned a hard-hitting Bollywood film that claims to tell the true story behind violence in the Muslim-majority region.
In India’s entertainment capital, Mumbai, the film’s producer, Pooja Shetty, said earlier that they were still hoping for clearance for the film.
"I’m hopeful that they will look at it in a positive light," Shetty, the joint managing director at production company Walkwater Media, told AFP.
"I don’t think it’s a preachy film, neither is it making fun of terrorism. It’s about a fake Osama … It’s a comedy, a spoofy film."
The film was being released in India and a number of countries on Friday, including Australia, Britain, Singapore, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates.
It is expected to be released in the United States at a later date, added Shetty.
The film’s subject matter and publicity about Pakistan’s ban have catapulted the low-budget film into the spotlight in India and abroad.
The Times of India newspaper gave the film three stars, despite saying its production was a "shade amateur."
"’Tere Bin Laden’ has both: smart script and some smart acting."