Stalled Show: How Kashmir’s cinema halls became torture centers

It’s a Friday. Before the day ends, the schools and colleges are closing for the weekend. The offices are emptying. Coats and ties are coming off and formals are being tossed into the laundry. It’s time to blow off some steam. The streets are as bright as the day. The movie theatres are filled up with hordes of happy faces.

It’s a Friday in Kashmir. Before the day ends, the schools and colleges are closing. The offices are emptying. The armour and guns are coming on, normalcy is being tossed out of the streets filled with teargas smoke and scores of young men hurling stones at the Indian Armed Forces. The movie theatres are filled up with hordes of soldiers.

Shah Cinema (FPK Photo/Shuaib Mushtaq)

Teaser: The trauma theatre

Bashir Hajam was an auto driver from Saraibal, Lal Chowk. He would park his auto in the premises of Naaz Cinema, which is till date, occupied by the Central Reserve Police Force. In 1994, he went missing. He was 23 then. It is said that he went inside the cinema one day and never came out.

A week later, boatmen fished his body out from the Jhelum river near the Amira Kadal. Bashir was well known in the locality, and even in the state that he was in, he was identified by them immediately. His eyes had been gouged out and his body bore cigarette burns, as a resident recalls.

By then, Kashmir had fiercely changed. People had stopped stepping out of their homes after twilight. And cinemas had become detention centres cum torture centres.

Neelam Cinema (FPK Photo/Shuaib Mushtaq)

Trailer: The popular hangout

Cinema halls were a big business in Kashmir. Now, they are a symbol of nostalgia. More often than not, the nostalgia is painful. If you ask anyone, they would probably still remember the time when Bollywood was not a ‘blasphemous’ luxury or even Hollywood, for that matter.

Back then, people would flock in groups to go watch a movie starring actors loved by people all over the globe. The cinemas flourished. The nights were bustling with tea stalls and snack counters. If you ask people in their 40s and 50s, they would reminisce what thrill watching a late night movie brought to them.

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Purchasing tickets in black was common practice. The late night movies would end at the stroke of midnight when the tea stalls in front of the hall would be hot and ready. The older men would sip in hot tea, smoke cigarettes, and discuss, analyse and criticise whatever movie they just saw, shivering in the perpetually cold Kashmir night air.

The younger men would imitate the protagonist of the movie they just saw. One can almost imagine the teenagers trying to pretend that they were smoking too: the cold midnight air and the makeshift smoke. There were no questions about safety, no uncertainty about going back home.

Outside Neelam Cinema, a tea stall owner selling snacks and cigarettes there today is a father of two. “The dilapidated Neelam with its (new) inhabitants (troopers) is the closest my kids have been to a cinema,” he says with hesitation. “They will probably never know what the insides of a movie theatre looks like.”

Image Source: AndrewWhitehead.net

Interval: The revolt

On August 18, 1989, a lesser known militant outfit ‘Allah Tigers’ led by its chief Air Marshal Noor Khan appeared on the scene, announcing a ban on cinemas and bars through local newspapers. The aim to shut these popular public hangouts was to wage a full-scale rebellion against the Indian rule.

Despite the ban, cinemas continued to operate giving a blind eye to writing, now literally on the wall. But the mood on the streets of Kashmir changed shortly. Thousands were participating in daily protests against the Indian state.

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The cinemas, once a source of entertainment, became home to Indian armed forces and were turned into detention centres. The ones that didn’t turn into bunkers, found their way to becoming hotels, shopping complexes, even a hospital; anything but a theatre. The barbed-wires on the windows, the bunkers on the gates, and bullet-torn walls of cinemas became the poster of Kashmir’s new reality.

But the yesteryear hippies and witnesses in Srinagar trace the ‘cinematic’ spark behind Kashmir’s insurgency quite raptly.

In 1981, the movie Lion Of The Desert was released.

Set during the reign of Mussolini, this epic tale revolves around the Libyan leader, Omar Mukhtar. Omar, an Arab Muslim rebel takes on the Italian attack which is directed toward conquering Libya. The movie features Anthony Quinn as Omar Mukhtar, the Bedouin leader who fought a brilliant, relentless guerrilla war against the Italian invaders of Libya from 1911 until his capture and execution by Mussolini’s forces in 1931.

In Kashmir, when the movie was screened, the young people of the valley found relevance in the plot. Omar Mukhtar was the inspiration for countless young Kashmiri men who felt that the Indian rule in Kashmir was illegitimate; the departure of which they thought was long overdue.

When young Kashmiri men watched the movie, they walked out of the theatre with a new perspective on the ‘movement’. The reckless teenagers became romantic revolutionaries, ready to sacrifice their lives for the ’cause’.

Following the screening of the movie, there were widespread protests across Kashmir against Sheikh Abdullah. His posters were purchased and torched. Every screening was a full house with tickets a rarity. Eventually, the then government in Kashmir forced the cinema to take down the movie in the first week of its incredible success.

The spark of the movie set in 1985 turned into a wildfire in a matter of two years. Gradually after the movie, and then quickly pacing after the violations following the assembly elections of 1987, the angered, freedom-inspired youngsters started crossing the Line of Control (LoC) for getting arms training in “Azad Kashmir” to launch a rebellion against the Indian rule in the region.

It stoked a fresh rebellion in the Valley, which, more than two decades later is still sparking with slogans of “Aazadi” with countless lives to its name.

Climax: The End

After the cinemas were ‘occupied’, a shift took place in the nineties.

The shift was from the sales of tickets to sales of televisions, CDs and DVDs; video cassette recorders, and VCRs became popular. The shift was from a 70-mm reel experience to 21-inch Television, where local cable TV pirated new releases on the weekends.

“The popular opinion within the mainstream India media is that the movie going habit of Kashmiris was cut down because of the radicalisation of Islam in the valley,” says Khurram Parvez, a human rights activist in Kashmir. “Despite the shutdown of every cinema in the valley, people have not stopped watching movies. In fact, more movies are being watched now in the absence of cinemas than ever. And why not; during long months of confines in curfews, you could only resort to watching movies to kill the time, and escape from the harsh reality. The blame game is used to demonise the Kashmir’s struggle for self-determination.”

To screen ‘normalcy’, the government tried to resume three cinema halls—The Broadway, The Regal and The Neelam—in the late nineties. But these halls needed security from militant threats. On its part, the government trumpeted cinema opening as a ‘return of the halcyon days’ in Kashmir. However, it only invited militant threats who wanted to bust the normalcy claims of the government.

The famous Broadway, towering opposite the Polo View was the first to reopen in 1996 only to be closed after a few years. The claimed reasons for closing down the cinema vary from scarce management, to threats from the forces, and the militants.

The Regal cinema reopened in 1999. On the very first day of the screening, a grenade exploded, which ended up killing one and wounding twelve persons. There was no second day. The Regal had to be shut down; the reasons for which are just as ambiguous. Now, the ‘haunted building’ stands decimated apparently to pave way to a shopping complex.

The Neelam, however, tried to revive the culture of Kashmir cinemas with a fresh start. Bollywood movies, old and new, were played. Even Pakistani movies were screened. But despite that, it drew only 10 to 20 visitors in a hall capacity of 800 – unlike in past when it used to run five screenings in a single day with a full-house.

This demise of the movie-going culture resulted in the collapse of a socio-economic structure of the people associated with this business. While some saw no hope in its revival and moved on to other businesses, many were left fighting for survival.

By the fall of 2005, Neelam was the only operational movie theatre in Srinagar when fidayeen stormed it. Around 70 people in the theatre at that time watching Amir Khan starer Mangal Pandey got stuck.

That Ketan Mehta directed flick was based on the life of an Indian soldier known for sparking the Indian rebellion of 1857—“the First War of Indian Independence”. But in Kashmir, Mangal Pandey: The Rising could never become another Lion Of The Desert. Instead, as insurgent guns rattled inside Neelam, people snubbed the cinemas.

It was the last nail in the coffin.


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