Why would I drive 4-1/2 hours to see a Pakistani movie?
Well, for starters, the only movie theater in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, was torched by a Sunni mob during sectarian riots four years ago.
But there were other reasons for the trek. I wanted to attend the premier of "Khuda ke Liye" or "In the Name of God," a movie about the religious rift wrenching Pakistan.
The film is being hailed in some segments of Pakistani society as the most important cinematic event in memory. The other draw was the venue: the DHA Cinema, a world-class movie theater, had just opened its doors for the elite of Lahore in "Defense," a posh neighborhood run by the military.
As the title suggests, the movie is about Islam and the battle between two polarized groups – modernized elites carrying the banner of "enlightened moderation" and radicals with their "jihad" – both had claims to the religion.
I took a cab from the house where I was staying. As we pulled up to the theater, the cabbie was as excited as I was. "The last time I saw crowds like this," he bubbled, "was when 'Titanic' came to town."
My initial attempts to get tickets for the première had failed. "In the Name of God" had been sold out for weeks in advance. But there were two showings, one at 9 p.m. and one at 3 p.m. (Bruce Willis in "Live Free or Die Hard" was on at 6 p.m.) I might score a ticket to the matinee, I was told, by just showing up.
I swallowed hard at the price: 250 rupees ($4.15) – ten times that of a regular movie ticket. Once inside, I found a packed house of some 500 immaculately dressed Lahoris, munching on buttered popcorn, bouncing in reclining seats, and enjoying the digital sound system.
For many Pakistanis – or at least those in this theater – the movie offers an explanation for the unrest around them.
"I had been dying to see this movie," Sara Malik, a 17-year-old student, dressed in jeans and a powder-pink T-shirt told me after the movie. "It's an amazing story, because it explains what really happens behind things like the Lal Masjid [Red Mosque]," she said, with nods of agreement by nearby school friends. The violent weeklong battle between religious militants and the Pakistan Army this month in Islamabad was unnerving for the entire country and unlike anything the youth of the country had ever witnessed.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf reportedly had the first private screening of the movie right here. He supposedly became an instant fan, and he has seen it twice since. After seeing it, I understood why a movie patronized by the president could also play across the country to packed halls without ever having to go through the strict and powerful state censor board.
The movie centers around an upper-middle class Pakistani family, the kind whose stories the director Shoaib Mansoor – a successful age-old hand in Pakistan state media – made a name for himself portraying in popular soap operas in the 1980s. The story of two musician brothers – one studies music in Chicago and the other becomes a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan following the American invasion – is a fantastical tale that warns its audience of the threat of Islamic radicalism to Pakistanis.
The inspiration for the movie, Mr. Mansoor writes, came from Junaid Jamshed, the former lead singer for Pakistan's most successful rock band, Vital Signs. Like the lead character in the movie, Mr. Jamshed turned from rock star to mullah after 2001.
Jamshed was once a joyous icon for the Western-looking youth of the 1980s, after the Soviet-Afghan War and the Islamic military rule of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq came to an end. But six years ago, he turned a corner and quickly became one of the most high-profile Islamic preachers associated with the Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim missionary group that spans the globe.
A metaphor for the segment of society that was rejecting Western influence in a time of war, Jamshed grew a full beard and swapped his tight jeans and T-shirts for a more nationalistic salwar kameez. He dedicated himself to spreading the word of the Koran to the masses and preaching about the evils of music.
Mansoor, who was a close friend and had helped propel Vital Signs to mega-stardom, was disturbed by Jamshed's transformation. "It really shook me badly," the director told a local magazine before the movie premierèd. "I couldn't believe God could hate the two most beautiful things he has given to mankind ... music and painting."
"I felt that a confused man like Junaid had no right to confuse thousands of his youthful followers," he said.
The movie is also being touted as the revival of Pakistani cinema, which has been a casualty of increasing religious militancy in the country. Abdul Rashid Ghazi of the Red Mosque, for example, made one of his last anti-vice stands against the release of "In the Name of God." Mr. Ghazi called the movie blasphemous and anti-Islamic. "We won't allow this," he warned the government earlier this month.
Ghazi was killed a few days after uttering those words at the hands of the Pakistani military, and the movie is now showing all over the Punjab province, the Pakistan Army's stronghold, in the city of Karachi the financial capital, and a few well-to-do surrounding towns in Sindh. It is unlikely to make its way west to the provinces bordering Afghanistan and Iran. The uncensored movie is not only likely to be rejected by the provincial governments led by Islamist parties, but also by the Pashtun and Baluchi tribes themselves, who are portrayed as violent, cunning, and chauvinistic religious fanatics in the movie.
I drove back to Islamabad the next day and violence broke out at the Red Mosque again. The capital saw its second suicide bombing of the month. For a moment, I was tempted to go back to the theater in Lahore. At least there, I could find a clear, if simplistic, explanation for the tragic panic unfolding in the city and the country.