If cinema halls could speak

FOND MEMORIES

If cinema halls could speak

STILL SURVIVING Neelam cinema hall in Srinagar tried to resume business in 90s.

Located in the city of Srinagar, the shabby Neelam Cinema sits quiet. It looked more like a war-torn military post, with coils of razor wire and bunkers, than a cinema. I remembered a paramilitary guard looked out from a bunker above, as we approached the tin door. “No film today,” he said. “Go back.”

Cinema halls were booming in Kashmir before the outbreak of armed insurgency in 1989. “I would ditch school to watch a movie. It was difficult at times to get a ticket from the counter. Mostly, we had to rely on the black market,” says businessman Shameem Ahmad, 38, reminiscing about the pre-insurgency days. 

There were nine halls in Srinagar alone, all doing great business, before separatists called for their closure for being ‘un-Islamic.’ The long violent period following was also a story of struggle and survival, which no one was paying attention to. Those of cinema halls like the Neelam. Yes, it was about the viability of the business, but in a sense their struggle was also about retaining modes of communication, interaction, of having a space for people to take a peep into other realities, than the harsh one, that Kashmir was experiencing and still continues to. The road has been arduous. “There has been no income to manage the maintenance and renovation,” says Muhammad Ayub, the projector operator. But more than the condition of the hall, Ayub says, it is the presence of paramilitary posts that repelled visitors. “You see those coils of razor wire, those high tin sheets, and this paramilitary camp? As long as they are here, there will be no visitors,” he says. “People visit cinemas for entertainment, not for this.” Paramilitary forces, brought in to fight the insurgency, occupied most of the cinema halls, after they were shut down in the early 90s. At least three cinema halls in Srinagar still house paramilitary camps.

The halls that resumed business in late 90s, in the face of militant threats, needed security too. “The government trumpeted cinema reopening as a symbol of normalcy in Kashmir. It invited militant threats who wanted to bust the normalcy claims of government,” says Shahnawaz Khan, a researcher on Kashmir cinemas. Sadly, that has been the pattern.  Neelam is one of three cinema halls, which tried to resume business in the late 90s. Each had a different trajectory. The Broadway Cinema, operating in a high security zone, was the first to reopen in 1996. After a few years of business, the theatre closed abruptly. However, industry insiders say, the closure had more to do with management problems than with the security situation. On the first day of the reopening of Regal Cinema in 1999, a grenade exploded outside, leading the owners to panic and pull down the shutters before the next screening.

Till the recent outburst of violence and protests in Srinagar, there was a period of relative peace. With violence in the region on the decline, Ayub was of the opinion that the paramilitary presence at Kashmir’s cinema halls was no longer warranted.

Even in this period of calm, things were not looking up for the movie business. Noor Muhammad, manager, and a few old employees, have been through the bumps and highs of the cinema, struggling to survive long after others closed down. During the years the hall was closed, the owner employed them in his other businesses of cement and flour mills. “Now I think he is just running the cinema for us. Otherwise it is pure loss,” says Noor Muhammad. Memories of old days bring a sad smile to their faces. “We used to run five screenings in a single day with a full house and would leave for home at two in the morning,” says Muhammad Saleem.

Interestingly, they viewed their position of monopoly as a negative. After all, competition was required to keep the edge of quality, to keep the competing units on their toes and the business dynamic. “We have so many problems, the administration, cable TV violating copyright — it is difficult” rues Noor Muhammad. The managers have tried their hands at various movies, expanding their menu to attract viewers. Some did good business, but nothing has helped to revive Kashmir’s cinema culture.

Barring a few shows, the screenings would have an audience of 15-25 persons. Sometimes, they would run screenings for less than five people in the hall, which could otherwise seat 800, and at times, there would be days without a screening. Yet, in fits and starts, in spurts and hiccups, the celluloid would burst into life again and a hope for its resurgence would rekindle.  

Noor Mohammad believes people are afraid of visiting a cinema. Khan takes a more expansive view, “There are more urgent concerns for people in Kashmir than the cinema,” he says. The story of Neelam is not merely about the business of one cinema hall in Kashmir.

In a sense, it is reflective of the hope for normalcy, for an environment which fosters creativity, the arts, and learning, and even fun. Whether the cinema hall and all that it stands for will endure is something that should concern not only the local population, but all those working for the restoration of peace in the Valley. 

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