Before militancy swept Kashmir in 1989, forcing cinema hall owners to bring down the shutters, films, especially English movies, ran to packed houses. But the last three calamitous decades have seen the romance fade. So much so that when the government decided to reopen cinemas in Kashmir recently, the response was tepid. The people of Kashmir fear the exercise is meant to stamp New Delhi’s normalcy narrative on them even as they live under threats of forced demographic realignment, incarceration of religious leaders, and criminalisation of dissent. However, some from within the film fraternity and bureaucracy and a section of the youth have welcomed the move, hoping it will generate jobs.
“Who doesn’t watch cinema? I am glued to the OTT platforms all the time. The opposition is to the government’s depiction of things as normal,” said a grocery store owner on Shopian Court Road. His customers nod in agreement. The consensus is that in the face of continuing discontent over the government’s 2019 decision to scrap Article 370, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir, what the people need is a dialogue on political issues rather than a dose of entertainment. The government remains deaf to this. For instance, these days, Kashmiris are worried about the fate of their apples, which are rotting in trucks stranded on the national highway. An apple orchard owner from Shopian said, “My merchandise of Rs.80 lakh is about to be wasted. You want me to watch a film and say everything is okay?”
Since the beginning of September, the J&K administration has begun to regulate the movement of fruit-laden trucks on the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway No. 44, allowing only a limited number of trucks to enter Jammu. By the end of the month, over 10,000 trucks were reportedly stuck at Qazigund on the highway, some of them for over 10 days. A National Conference spokesperson, Imran Nabi Dar, described it as a “devastating blow to our horticulture sector”.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha inaugurated the Inox franchise in Srinagar on September 20, and described it as a “historic day”. The Aamir Khan starrer Laal Singh Chaddha, an expensive remake of the 1994 Hollywood film Forrest Gump, entertained a motley group of youngsters who attended the show.
Located at Shivpora, the multiplex has three screens, at least two of which are equipped with 3D technology. A swanky food court gives movie-goers a taste of Kashmiri cuisine while an intricately designed roof made of khatambandh, an indigenous wood, gives a sense of Kashmiri artistry.
But Kashmir’s myriad livelihood issues and general restlessness are such that even those who are keen to go to the cinema would perhaps not do so, fearing ostracisation from peer groups. More than a dozen interviewees from across Srinagar, Shopian, Pulwama and Budgam admitted that this was a problem. Said noted historian and political commentator Siddiq Wahid: “If entertainment is promoted in conflicted Kashmir as ‘development’, it is an irony that cannot be ignored by its citizens.”
There are also people who hold an orthodox view of cinema and label it as “un-Islamic”. A 40-something man in Shopian, who was detained under the Public Safety Act soon after the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and spent a couple of years in a Lucknow jail, said he was ideologically opposed to the opening of wine-shops and cinema halls in Kashmir.
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The government seems aware of these underlying dynamics: hence, in Shopian and Pulwama, where two small auditoriums are being readied, the focus is on infotainment and skill development features.
Suhail Ahmad Mallik, executive officer of the Shopian Municipal Council, said the auditorium there would run parallel shows on science and history for school and university students besides adventure programmes for kids. “Today videography and infographics work better than books. We intend to enhance school children’s learning experiences by using the auditorium for educational purposes, even as films will run on a daily or weekly basis, depending on audience reception,” he said. The small auditorium in Shopian town hall, where villagers used to be assembled during cordon and search operations in the early 1990s, can accommodate 63 viewers.
Using cinema to disseminate information or simply highlight the government’s initiatives is not a new experiment in the strife-torn Valley, where the State has battled generations of alienation. Mushtaaque Ali Ahmad Khan, a filmmaker and festival director, reminisces about a childhood in the 1960s and 1970s spent watching films at a makeshift auditorium in Srinagar’s Jawahar Nagar Park. “We loved cinema. Since the shows were free, there would always be a sizeable crowd. The information department of J&K used the opportunity to play reels of 10-15 minutes on the government’s development projects before a movie started. I remember watching Dosti in that open-air screen,” he said.
Ahmad Khan said he was happy that cinemas are reopening in the Valley. “As an artist I support the government’s decision. It will foster cultural and artistic pursuits in a State with a rich heritage,” he said. Asked about people’s apprehension that cinema would pollute young minds, he said, “There is nothing in cinema that is worse than what we have on social media. Cinema goes through censorship whereas anybody with a smartphone has access to any kind of obscenity.” According to him, today’s content-driven cinema has a potential to relay powerful social messages.
Rich theatre heritage
Right-wing ideologues frame Kashmiris’ discomfort with the reopening of cinema halls as an outcome of Islamic radicalisation. Vikas Dhar, whose father owns the INOX multiplex in Srinagar, said that of the 40 local people he employed at his multiplex, about 18 left because they were led to believe that “cinema is not good”.
Yet, experts cite the Valley’s centuries-old love for theatrical experiences that goes back to the 3rd or 4th century when singers and actors called bhands or bhagats started performing in Hindu temples. Twelfth-century Kashmiri historian Kalhana, who authored Rajtarangini, mentions that every pargana had a theatre space and theatre was used not just as a medium of entertainment but also for expressing dissent or voicing hardships faced by the people.
The play, Durze Paether, for example, was an outcry against the high-handedness of the Mughal rulers. There were brilliant plays like Shikargah Paether, which helped promote ecological awareness, and Watal Paether, a moving account of sweepers which spoke of the disadvantaged communities’ poverty.
Muslims imbibed the culture and soon shrines became the venue for plays and ballads. The bhands, despite their new religious affiliation, retained the title bhagat and even today it is not uncommon to find Muslims with that surname in the Kashmir Valley. Kashmiris’ passion for cinema remained alive through the 1970s and 1980s, said Mir Khalid, a medical practitioner and author of the book, Jaffna Street. Khalid recalled that back then Al Pacino was a household name in uptown Srinagar and music trends were defined by Western compositions. He calls it a “pollination of cultures made possible by the influx of foreign tourists”. “While Delhi had only two theatres running English films, Srinagar had at least four: Regal, Palladium, Broadway and Khayyam,” he recalled. English plays were popular too: She Stoops to Conquer ran for weeks at Tagore Hall in Srinagar in 1986, Khalid said.
When militancy erupted, English films were the first casualty. Dukhtaran-e-Millat, a militant outfit which debuted in 1987, defiled the posters of Endless Love, a 1981 romantic drama starring Brooke Shields that was running at Regal. On August 18, 1989, Allah Tigers, a militant outfit led by Air Marshal Noor Khan, issued a handout to a local daily ordering a ban on cinema and wine shops. By December 31, 1989, all cinema halls had shut shop in the Valley.
After militancy somewhat down a bit in the late 1990s, there were attempts to reopen cinema halls, with the ruling National Conference offering interest-free loans up to Rs.45 lakh to cinema owners for renovation. But terrorist attacks foiled the move. In 1999, Regal cinema ran the Sunny Deol-starrer Pyaar Koi Khel Nahin, but a grenade attack right after the inaugural show left one dead and 12 injured. In September 2005, when Neelam screened Mangal Pandey, there was a violent tussle between security personnel and militants on its premises, with 70 people trapped inside the auditorium.
The terrorist shadow still looms large over the fate of cinemas in Kashmir, where targeted killings of Kashmiri Pandits and migrant workers continue. But Vikas Dhar downplays the threat. He says he is hopeful that cine-lovers will gradually pour in, taking the clock back to 1989. The perception, however, that cinema is part of the government’s PR overdrive remains.
- Cinema halls opened in Kashmir after more than three decades.
- Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha inaugurated the Inox franchise in Srinagar on September 20, and described it as a “historic day”.
- But Kashmir’s myriad livelihood issues and general restlessness are such that even those who are keen to go to the cinema would perhaps not do so, fearing ostracisation from peer groups.
- There are also people who hold an orthodox view of cinema and label it as “un-Islamic”.
- But the Valley has centuries-old love for theatrical experiences that goes back to the 3rd or 4th century.
- When militancy erupted, English films were the first casualty.
- After militancy somewhat down a bit in the late 1990s, there were attempts to reopen cinema halls but terrorist attacks foiled the move.
- The terrorist shadow still looms large over the fate of cinemas in Kashmir.
- The perception that cinema is part of the government’s PR overdrive remains.