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A Decades-Old Pakistani Cinematic Masterpiece that Challenges Mental Health Stigmas and Social Norms

A conceptual film by the Pakistani media industry is a rare occurrence, They Are Killing The Horse by Mushtaq Gazdar, a short documentary film is a decades-old hidden gem. It is a black-and-white film released in 1979 that aptly portrays the social dilemmas of that era. The story unfolds with a bleak, bone-chilling song and the iconic scene of a man riding a horse which is a verbatim to the movie’s title and a recurrent symbol throughout. The theme of the film was ahead of its time, disclosing the languid, agonizing descent of a young girl Noori into complete madness. Saeeda Gazdar, writer of the movie, not only dauntingly took upon the taboo of mental health but also webbed an immaculate story around a woman. In the decade when women's existence was an emblem of threat – under Zia-Ul-Haq’s regime.


The iconness of the movie does not only reside in the legendary feminist and educational theme but also the social misconceptions about mental health treatment. Gazdar masterfully although not so subtly highlights the decades-old malpractice of treating mental illness with imprudent spiritual amulets, taweez, and invocations. While, indicating that all psychological diseases stem from possession by jinns and witchcraft. In the movie, Noori is suffering from social isolation and depression and is dragged around from Pir’s sanctuary to the mausoleums of famous spiritual figures like Abdullah Shah Ghazi. Where she is brutally chained to a wall until the Pir finds a cure for her illness.


The narration throughout the film bravely indicates and targets the societal norm of laying unwavering faith in the hands of self-proclaimed spiritual healers instead of seeking professional healthcare. The idea of electing and posing questions about the religious integrity of the masses so blatantly in a time where blasphemy laws forgave none is what makes this short film commendable. Therefore, worthy of a Grand Prix award at the Cannes Festival.


Notably, the film’s creativity in terms of gallant ideas, champions at fighting the social conventions. Nonetheless, when it comes to the actual portrayal of the disease it falls short of fully explaining the social isolation and long-term depression of the protagonist, and somehow reduces it to unfulfilled sexual lust. Noori hallucinates a horseman as her potential lover who satisfies her intimate longings. She is presented dressed up as a bride, kissing her husband later as the film progresses. This portrayal raises the question: was marriage the solution to her worsening mental health? This seems the most imminent explanation, as contradictory as it may sound to the progressive nature of the film. However, this ideology was not distinctively manifested by any characters or dialogues so it could hopefully be a speculation – not good enough to taint the advanced theme of the film.


Lastly, it does not matter in which era it is, the regressiveness of our society has made this masterpiece, despondently, timeless. Gazdar made a movie to identify cultural and religious misbeliefs around mental health but such scenarios stay true in this century as well. While one can see the fiction in real life, enjoy it as an art.

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I like how you mentioned both the 'good' and 'not-so-good' things about the movie. Though I haven't seen the movie, it is a very powerful move to make a movie talking about mental health and religion, especially during Zia ul Haq time. Most people relate mental illnesses to kala jadu (black magic) making it hard to get any proper treatment and the movie does a great job of showcasing that other factors can be involved in deteriorating mental health rather than black magic. Talking about a woman's mental health was taboo and is to this date, where our society fails to even recognize it as something, so it was also rare for a movie at that time to challenge the…

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Mental illness is a taboo and consistently has stayed one, I like the aspect where you highlighted the concept of "Taweez" and how they greatly influence this plight. Taweez are used to "treat" someone according to their practice. South Asian households have a firm belief in this and sometimes believe these can eradicate past mistakes and fully help in curing someone. As much as western medicine has advanced seeing these practices still being used just highlights how strong the cyclical direction of beliefs is.

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Sara Masood
Sara Masood
Nov 30, 2023

You use the word “lust” when you refer to unfulfilled sexual desire. Perhaps “desire” would be the right word to use here. This is our own social biases playing a part where we have internalized that sexual needs are lust only and to normal human needs. We need to perhaps let go of the idea that it is only binary – only lust. The movie although uses this idea here counter productively, but overall to show that sexual unfulfillment and lead to other bigger issues is progressive itself rather than limiting. Because these are real needs that humans experience but nobody talks about them because they are seen as inappropriate and needs to be expressed only behind closed doors.

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Sara Masood
Sara Masood
Nov 30, 2023

An insightful read, however, Noori’s social isolation and depression is shown in one extreme where she “is dragged around from Pir’s sanctuary to the mausoleums” and “is brutally chained to a wall until the Pir finds a cure for her illness” – this then limits depression to a state and perhaps a phase. The way it limits it to a state is because it is far away from what depression looks like otherwise. Depression here is extreme and the outward signs of it are highly obvious. Depression exists as being in your bed and scrolling or even dressing up and taking pictures but being depressed internally. Does this representation then not become very one dimensional and counter productive because at…

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Mahnoor Zafar
Mahnoor Zafar
Nov 27, 2023

A very interesting article! I have not watched the film, so my comment to follow will be a type of words in a cloud thing but I wonder why the filmmakers married off the protagonist in the end. The film tackles some serious mental health issues but does not the marriage in the end defeat the purpose of this representation? I see this an another example of a media product belittling serious issues by offering marriage as a happily ever after solution. However, given the time period when the film first came out, it can lauded as an avant garde piece which dares to talk about mental health, regardless of how problematic the representation might be. One can argue tha…

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