While the Kashmir region recently got its first plush multiplex after a gap of over two decades, a few moviegoers are showing up at the guarded cinema hall with the owners reaffirming that the “show must go on.”
Massive movie posters showing Bollywood’s top-notch stars adorn the newly built Myoun INOX Cinema multiplex in the Shivpora area of the summer capital, Srinagar. The owners of the Cinema are keeping all the arrangements in place to keep the show going without any interference.
Inside the four-story building, one could see Kashmiri craftsmen have been employed to do paper machie and Khatamband works to give it a classy traditional look. However, a handful of moviegoers are seen dotting the halls. A few of them are seen grabbing buckets of popcorn, and coffee to watch their scheduled shows. Few of the big-budget movies, which witnessed immense response from other states of India, have fewer takers.
Abdul Majeed, a government employee and a movie buff from central Kashmir’s district Budgam, recalled, how he along with his childhood friends used to be stationed outside Cinemas in Srinagar.
“It used to be full of adventure for us. We used to be short of money and getting tickets used to be a great adventure for us. Living in a world of non-IOS, non-android, non-OTT would give you a lot of hardships but that used to be worth the adventure,” Majeed recalled.
“It is sad our young generation had to live without such amusement and see a lot of conflict during their prime years,” he says, adding “Cinemas have been part of our lives, especially in Kashmir,” he said.
Unlike Majeed, the new generation is upbeat about the trends in the cinema and has options available to switch to their favourite programmes and watch series of their choice.
In the Kashmir region, an entire generation grew up without movie halls, banned by militant groups in 1989. Like other protected establishments in Kashmir, the brand-new Inox multiplex also remained highly guarded and under security cover. Shivpora, where the movie theatre is located, is one of the most high-security zones in Kashmir.
“Honestly this should have been done long before. I wonder why all good things are happening now. You know the more progressive & developmental approach is adopted, people of Jammu and Kashmir will have a sigh of relief,” said artist and Bollywood singer, Saim Bhat. “Cinemas are vital for any society. Look at Iranian cinema, how vibrant and powerful it has become globally.”
Bhat, who also calls himself an altruist research scholar, said that when you relate Kashmir with the rest of the things, politics is bound to emerge. “Same happened with the Cinemas in Kashmir. Some saw it as un-Islamic, and some saw it as a tool of propaganda. Some banned it. Some bombarded it. So, the story of cinemas in Kashmir has always been full of drama, politics and violence.”
Bhat lashed out at the political parties for “befooling” the people of the region. “For me, the reopening of Cinemas is a welcome step. I care less about any political personalities because they only built their empire in the last so many decades. Maybe they are unable to do so now. But honestly, I feel Kashmiris are wise enough to take the decisions in any adverse political situation.” “As they say, the show must go on and this generation should also experience the power of cinema.”
Talking to Greater Kashmir, some of the moviegoers, after coming out of the hall, shared their experiences. “I just came here to have an experience of watching cinema for the first time in Kashmir. I may not have liked the movie but I just wanted to go back with some kind of experience,” said Owais Maqbool, a radiographer from Magam area.
The multiplex is owned by a Kashmiri Pandit business family from Srinagar and it was inaugurated by J&K Lt Governor Manoj Sinha. For the owners, this is a dream come true as they have been pursuing this for many years. The inaugural show was Lal Singh Chadda, a recently released Bollywood film. “This has marked a new beginning in the history of cinema in Kashmir. For us, this is a big dream which has come true,” said Vikas Dhar, owner of the multiplex.
“Sitting in the cinema is a new experience for movie buffs. We have installed state-of-the-art equipment. And it will all be a different experience from what it used to be 30 years ago in cinema halls in Kashmir,” Dhar said, who himself oversees operations at the multiplex.
It took nearly five years for owners to complete the multiplex, INOX, with three auditoriums, a food court and a total seating capacity of 520.
“When we decided to open a multiplex in Kashmir, profit was never in our minds. We wanted to give our people entertainment and hope people will turn in good numbers to watch the movies once the regular shows begin,” he said. “We want people to come and experience and relive their memories.”
After the closure of movie theatres in the militancy-ridden valley, the first attempt to open cinema halls was made in 1999, when movie theatres – Neelam, Regal and Broadway – opened in Srinagar. However, after militants lobbed a grenade at Regal Cinema, which led to the death of one person, the halls closed down. After some time the government again announced subsidy packages for the owners, however, there were few takers. Government also inaugurated multipurpose cinema halls in the Pulwama, Anantnag and Shopian districts, which according to officials can also be used for skill enhancement of youth, training and social awareness.
Talking about the changes, Dhar said that bringing the latest technology and equipment like Dolby Atmos, safety features such as a fire safety tank, which I think nobody in Kashmir has, was the biggest obstacle. “The interactions with INOX were fruitful because they had the technique and the know-how. The people here and the agencies of the State and Central governments have been helpful. It ultimately turned out to be not half as difficult as I thought it would be,” he said. “This cinema project is close to my heart as it takes me back to that era when Kashmir was calm politically. For me, it is already a success. We are not looking at making money out of it, it is just a dream come true.” “My father used to run the Broadway cinema hall, which was once a prestigious haunt in Srinagar. It shut down in 1989. Cinema is in the heart of every Kashmiri.”
According to local observers, there was a time when Kashmiris used to remain glued to the cinemas. The first-ever cinema hall in the Valley, Palladium Talkies, was built in 1932 in Lal Chowk in the heart of Srinagar. The theatre was owned by Bhai Anant Singh Gauri, a Punjabi-speaking Sikh businessman and philanthropist.
Prominent filmmaker, Bashir Budgami, said that during 1955 to 1989, Kashmir witnessed a massive expansion of cinemas in Kashmir. “All the influential businessmen of that time jumped into this sector and created their own niche in the cinema sector. Kashmiris got cinemas in every district.
Noted academic and Dean School of Media Studies, Central University of Kashmir, Prof Shahid Rasool, while recalling his tryst with cinema in Kashmir, shared that watching movies in a cinema hall is a “totally” different experience. “I used to watch a lot of films in Cinema halls during my college and university days. My first experience of walking inside a cinema dates back to the early seventies when, as a 6-year-old, my father took me to Samad Talkies at Sopore to watch, ‘Kaniyadhaan’. He later also took me to Regal at Srinagar, to see ‘Phool Khelay Hain Gulshan Gulshan”. “As a child, I used to go with my uncles and elder cousins to see movies. Till 1988, I must have seen films in almost all the cinema halls of Sopore (Samad Talkies and Kapra Theater), Baramulla (Regina Cinema and Thimaya Hall) and Srinagar (Pladium, Naaz, Neelam, Sheeraz, Khayam, Regal, Broadway, Shah Cinema and Firdous).”
Rasool recalled when he got an opportunity to watch a film in a box with other family members. “After I left the valley in 1988, I used to see films in cinema halls almost every weekend. Even now whenever I find some time during my travels outside the valley, I prefer seeing a good movie in a theatre rather than seeing it online or on the TV set.”
When Curtains Fall
According to observers, when militancy erupted, English films were the first casualty. Dukhtaran-e-Millat, a militant outfit which was formed 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 went 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 militant attacks foiled the move.
Pertinently, when Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor, Manoj Sinha inaugurated the multiplex, he called it part of the “major socio-economic revolution” that had swept through Jammu and Kashmir in the last three years. This was a reference to the legislative changes of August 5, 2019, when the Centre revoked formal autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 and split the former state into two Union Territories, directly administered by Delhi. “Peace is to be established, not bought,” Sinha had said in his inauguration speech. Lal Singh Chaddha, starring Aamir Khan and partly shot in Kashmir last year, was then screened at the inauguration.
Regional Cinema – A Farfetched Dream
Noted actor and theatre director, Ayash Arif, while speaking to Greater Kashmir, said that the reopening of cinema in Srinagar was a welcome step.
“We highly appreciate the government for this move,” he said. “This should have been done quite early,” he said, adding “We have watched good films, bad films, classic films in Kashmir cinemas and our legacy of cinemas was very rich. Cinemagoers of our times were critical of the art and the cinema.”
He demanded that the government should also think about reviving ‘regional cinema’ in the Kashmir region which would not only give employment to the local artists, filmmakers and other crew members but it would also strengthen the new cinemas and the people will have a free will to choose films of their choice.
“Cinema in our regional language is very important for any region. We are yet to realise it,” he said. “Our aim and dream are that we should introduce our regional cinema in a proper perspective.”
He said that even if the local filmmakers would try to come up with any film projects, there were not any financial agencies around. “We don’t have financial agencies. I had requested LG sahib to keep a dedicated amount for regional filmmakers. Soft loans should be provided to the filmmakers,” Arif said. He continued, “Cinema brings humanity’s immense capacity for compassion, unity, and brotherhood to the fore.”
“I really applaud the concerned decision makers for reopening cinemas in Kashmir. Additionally, Kashmir has an Immensely rich artistic talent which needs to be encouraged. I have not watched any movies in Kashmir. Though my dad shares that Kashmir had good theatres that time,” said Vandana Daftari, working for a reputed organization in Srinagar.
Talking to Greater Kashmir, scores of local artists said that although the public response to the theatre hall has been lukewarm for now. However, if people get a sense of security, they would appreciate the move and they would love to spend some time in cinema halls. “One must understand why the first day witnessed heavy footfall because the owners had decided to give free passes. Also, local artists are happy if such institutions are coming for the benefit of the community without portraying any political gains,” said Hassan Javid, a Srinagar-based TV artist.
According to staff members at the multiplex, the theatre opened for commercial operations on October 1. The multiplex is running several shows a day, playing to a total of 18,000 seats.
“Weekends and evening shows did better business. Many of the audience were tourists and youth from other states who study in Kashmir,” they said.
Whatever be the response, those in show business are aware of the axiom, ‘the show must go on’ and it is on in Kashmir.