Since the late 1980s, when insurgency exploded in Kashmir, militant outfits such as the Allah Tigers have issued a series of morality-based diktats, ordering cinema owners to pull down their shutters. Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Faith), a women’s separatist organisation, has long rallied against perceived degeneracy in Jammu & Kashmir, and has many times marched through the streets of Srinagar, attempting to ensure that cinema halls were darkened. Similar bans have been imposed on liquor shops and street vendors selling fashion and film magazines.
Although the revival of popular cinema culture in Kashmir remains a distant dream, this spring did see Srinagar’s Tagore Hall suddenly bedecked for a weeklong film festival, the first International Film Festival of Kashmir. The idea behind the event was not only to entertain, but also to groom aspiring filmmakers and art lovers in the Valley. The dramatic turnout – writers, filmmakers and students in particular – proved that the Valley’s citizens have been awaiting such an opportunity to indicate their rejection of the fundamentalist lockhold on popular culture.
Not only had most festival-goers never attended a similar event, many had never even been in a cinema hall. Shafia Wani, a college student, said that she was more excited about the ambience inside the hall than about watching the films themselves. “There is a need to revive cultural activities in the Valley,” she said. For most Kashmiris in Shafia’s generation, entertainment has been – and remains – limited to the confines of the family house.
As dusk sets in, doors and gates in the Kashmir Valley are quickly shut and padlocked, restrictions on night-time movement having long been routine. “The fear of the gun, of the combat-gear-wearing trooper, is always there,” says Mariah Majid, an undergraduate student from Hyderpora, in uptown Srinagar. “No one can gather courage to roam around freely after dusk sets in. Here, darkness brings more darkness. It throws us back into the Stone Age.” Mariah, who also attended the recent film festival, called the experience a “bonanza …We hardly get to see films on the big screen!”
Although there is clearly a yearning to watch films in a hall, in general the level of danger has simply precluded going to the movies. Fifteen-year-old Aqib did not attend the festival, and he has never ventured into a cinema hall. With the excitement generated by the event at Tagore Hall, Aqib says he will go to a cinema hall at least once in his lifetime. Not only have Aqib’s parents disallowed him from going to movie theatres, they have barred him from playing in the central polo grounds in Srinagar as well. Following school, he has to rush home before dark. But even if Aqib’s parents were to allow him greater freedom, he would not have many friends with whom to play – their parents have all imposed similar rules.
Prior to the insurgency, the Kashmir Valley alone had 18 cinema houses. Among the most prominent of these were the Broadway, Paladium, Neelam, Shah, Sheraz, Khayam, Firdous, Naaz and Regal. Theatres dotted the urban landscape, and cinema lovers were able to watch any new release from Bombay, even in the remote corners of the state.
Following the early-1990s ban imposed by the militants, in 1997 some cinema halls, including the Broadway and Neelam in Srinagar, were reopened, and this seemed to indicate a ‘return of normalcy’. However, the re-opened theatres did not fare well due to the public’s fear of being targeted by fundamentalist groups. The Broadway theatre subsequently downed its shutters again – and this time, the decision was the proprietor’s own. Despite being situated in a locality with arguably the highest troop presence in the world, a stone’s throw from an army cantonment, the Broadway could not attract enough cine-goers to remain solvent. The building is now being converted into a hotel. Another cinema hall, the Regal, was targeted in a grenade attack the day that it reopened in 1999. It shut down again immediately.
The Neelam is currently the only functioning cinema hall in Kashmir, but it shows films to just a handful of people at a time. The theatre gives the appearance more of a military installation than a place of entertainment. Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troops guard the building, aiming guns at passers-by from sandbagged bunkers atop the theatre building, while the cinema’s outer fence is surrounding by coils of razor wire. Given the area’s restricted-movement designation, pedestrians generally prefer to take alternate routes, to avoid any untoward incident.
In his late 60s, Noor Mohammed sells tickets for the shows at the Neelam. The tedium of waiting for customers is writ large on his wrinkled face. Nonetheless, with a pile of ticket books in his hand, he welcomes everyone with a smile. Behind him are a couple of hoarding boards advertising the current show – Kabul Express, the controversial film on Afghanistan that was screened several months ago outside the Valley. “We cannot afford to show any film soon after its release,” says Surrinder Singh, the Neelam’s buyer. “The reason is, people here don’t turn up in big numbers, and so we cannot afford first-run costs.”
From screening five shows a day, the Neelam now only schedules three showings. On this particular day, the first two shows have already been cancelled, because no viewers showed up. The third show is now playing, with just ten viewers in the theatre’s balcony. The rest of the hall has a ghostly appearance, as scenes from the movie flicker over row upon row of empty seats. Although the Neelam can take an audience of 800, since the hall reopened the number of viewers has never gone over 40 at a single time, Noor says.
Noor has worked at the Neelam since its opening in 1966. “In those days, there was no threat,” he recalls. “People used to throng cinemas to entertain themselves. Tickets used to sell out in advance.” He looks at the little-used ticket book in his hand: “When the cinema was closed, I was asked to work at the flour mill owned by the proprietor of this cinema hall.” Others at the Neelam similarly shifted to the mill between 1990 and 1999. A couple have been lucky enough to have been able to move back, although making a living at a place like the Neelam remains difficult. Noor is sceptical about the prospects of reviving the Valley’s cinema culture. “Unless and until Pakistan and India reach a compromise on the long-standing Kashmir dispute, nothing can happen,” he says.
Certainly little is happening at the rest of the Valley’s theatres. At the Palladium, in the centre of the city at Lal Chowk, the hoarding boards now bear images of gun-wielding CRPF men. Sycamores and other trees have grown through the washrooms and balconies (see photo). Three other halls – the Firdous, Sheraz and Shah – remain under the occupation of paramilitary troops garrisoned there. The Khayam is now a hospital. The Naaz is securely locked up. The Regal is out on rent, where local vendors sell cheap items to Srinagar’s citizens.
Some of the grandeur of the cinema halls of the Kashmir Valley lives on, in absentia, if you will. Their familiarity as well-known, well-loved landmarks remains ingrained in the life of this city, and the streets and areas surrounding these old theatres still retain the names – Broadway, Regal, Naaz, Khayam – that once inspired notions of excitement, splendour and leisure. Kashmir used to be the favourite haunt for Bombay filmmakers, but they have largely stopped shooting in the Valley. Now even their productions are a rarity here, as Kashmiris are denied the pleasures of watching cinema as a collective exercise.
~ Peerzada Arshad Hamid is a Srinagar-based journalist.