by Nusrat Ara
It is Sunday noon. I am standing outside the only functional cinema in all of Indian administered Kashmir.
Located in the city of Srinagar, the shabby Neelam Cinema sits quiet. It looks more like a war torn military post, with coils of razor wire and bunkers, than a cinema. A paramilitary guard looks out from a bunker above as we approach the tin door. “No film today,” he says. “Go back.”
Cinema halls were a big business in Kashmir before the outbreak of armed insurgency against Indian rule in 1989. There were nine halls in Srinagar alone, all doing great business, before Muslim separatists called for their closure for being “un-Islamic.”
“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,” said businessman Shameem Ahmad, 38, about the pre-insurgency days.
The guard lets us in only after we convince him we have to meet the manager.
Inside we learn that they have been waiting for a movie to arrive for three days. “We are getting it by this afternoon,” Muhammad Ayub, the projector operator tells us. The big poster for a film assures us that we are in the right place.
An empty ticket counter and fluttering pigeons greet us in a lobby that repels us with its junkyard look - dust laden broken chairs and piles of discarded items fill the corridor.
Upstairs fresh paint on the walls smells of a desperate attempt to make the premises presentable.
I am looking for life. In the balcony three men are fixing a chair in the dark, under a narrow torch light, despite the fact the hall is full of seats with ripped covers.
“We are waiting for the new film. It is coming in an hour or so,” says Ayub, one of the men working on the repairs.
Neelam is one of three cinema halls that tried to resume business in the late nineties. Two others, the Broadway and the Regal, which reopened for some time, have downed their shutters again.
“There is no income to manage the maintenance and renovation. And surely it affects the business,” says Ayub. But more than the condition of the hall, Ayub says, it is the presence of paramilitary posts that repels visitors. “You see those coils of razor wire, those high tin sheets, 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 men brought in to fight the Muslim 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.
The Broadway cinema operated in a high security zone and was the first to reopen in 1996. After a few years of business the theater abruptly closed. Industry insiders say the closure had more to do with management problems of the halls than with the security situation.
A grenade exploded outside the Regal Cinema on the first day of its reopening in 1999. The cinema pulled down its shutters before the next screening. With violence in the region on the decline, Ayub thinks the paramilitary presence at Kashmir’s lone cinema is no longer warranted. “It in fact creates a threat. We asked them so many times to vacate the place. They are affecting our attendance.”
Among the few employees of the cinema hall fighting for its survival, there is no optimism. They are not happy with the monopoly either. “There should be a few more halls operating. Then this business could pick up – through competition. We have so many problems - like with the administration, and cable TV violating copyright - we could take up them together,” says Noor Muhammad, the manager in charge.
Noor and the other employees have been associated with the Neelam for decades. During the years the hall was closed the owner employed them in his other businesses - 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.
The managers have tried their hands at various movies: fresh, old, hot, and even a Pakistani movie. A few have seen good business, but nothing has helped to revive Kashmir’s cinema culture. Barring a few sessions, the screenings attract between one to two dozen visitors. Sometimes they run screenings for less than five people in the hall built for 800.
“There are more urgent concerns for people in Kashmir than the cinema. And the new generation has never seen a cinema working in the city, so they probably don’t miss it,” says Khan.
“Still it is strange that that while most of the things have revived - even cable TV, which was introduced in the peak of the insurgency, has not only survived the turbulence, but has flourished - why are the cinemas suffering?” he adds.
Noor Mohammad believes people are afraid of visiting a cinema. “It’s like what if something happens, so they keep away,” he explains.
As we are about to leave Ayub calls the distributor again.
“It is on the way. Will be here in an hour,” Ayub tells us as he hangs up the phone.
After two days without a screening Neelam will have a show again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nusrat Ara is a freelance journalist based in Indian-administered Kashmir who is interested in covering issues that have gone underreported in the media. She holds a postgraduate degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from the University of Kashmir and is a contributor to the Women International News Gathering Service (Canada), as well as Kashmir Newz, a Srinagar-based online news content provider. She also reports for The Press Institute and has also worked with various local English dailies in Srinagar. In 2008 Nusrat was awarded a Sanjay Ghose Media Fellowship.