The movies have returned to Indian-administered Kashmir after an absence of more than three decades.
A new multiplex cinema, INOX Srinagar, lit up its three screens for the first time on September 30, almost 33 years after all of the region’s theaters shut down in the face of a campaign by armed militants opposed to cinemas, beauty parlors and liquor shops.
Even today, the threat of violence remains high for the several dozen theatergoers who visit the multiplex each day, seeking a novel experience in the case of the younger generation or, in the case of their elders, a nostalgic reminder of times past.
Would-be patrons must pass through a tight security cordon, having their cars checked by a rifle-bearing policeman, and then being frisked at the main gate before entering the theater. An armored truck with at least a dozen policemen is stationed near the entry gate, and an elevated security tower stands next to the ticket counter.
The Kashmir Valley boasted some 15 movie theaters until 1989, when militants opposed to Indian rule in the region demanded their closure. All were shut down on January 1, 1990.
Some were turned into malls, some into hospitals, and some into bunkers now occupied by Indian paramilitary forces. Several, subjected to grenade or firebomb attacks, are nothing more than piles of bricks. A few short-lived attempts to reopen theaters since 1990 failed in the face of heavy security and militant threats.
None of that history has dampened the enthusiasm of INOX Srinagar owner Vikas Dhar, whose family has owned movie theaters in Srinagar since the 1960s. He told VOA that for him, the opening of his multiplex marks the realization of a dream.
So far attendance has been sparse, with a little more than 5,000 patrons visiting the 524-seat complex in its first month of operation. But Dhar is already looking ahead.
“It is not a big figure, but it will increase with the passage of time when people will come out of their houses without being afraid of anyone,” he said.
“We are planning to provide a wholesome entertainment for the entire family, and it requires more development,” Dhar continued. “The launch of multiplex is generating interest among people and will surely increase in the near future. We are also thinking of developing a play area for children and food court for the adults next year.”
A peek at the past
For Mahjabeen Ashai, a homemaker in her early 60s, a visit to the cinema brought back the past. “Though hard but I visited INOX Srinagar just to recollect memories of old times when I used to watch movies in halls with my husband,” she told VOA.
But for a younger generation of Kashmiris who have never visited a movie theater, there is the question of why they should put up with the security risks when they can enjoy the same films in their own homes on streaming video – commonly referred to in the region as OTT (Over The Top).
“I like watching stuff from the comfort of my home,” said Tayba Gulnar, a 27-year-old lawyer. “Almost all of us have big TV screens with OTT subscriptions at home. Cinema is a public place and is different from what it used to be 10-15 years ago.
“Why should I go to the cinema to watch a movie?” she asked. “I would only watch an animated movie in cinema, if I ever go there.”
But Dhar is convinced that even younger Kashmiris will learn to appreciate the unique experience of watching a film in a cinema. He said that movies such as “Avatar” and “Avengers” with their dramatic special effects can only be fully enjoyed on the big screen.
Dhar’s optimism is shared by Manmohan Singh Gauri, whose Palladium Cinema was perhaps the best-known theater in the region before shutting down with the others at the beginning of 1990. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was photographed shaking hands in front of the theater with Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, then prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir, not long after independence from Britain.
Gauri told VOA that he hopes to open his own two-screen multiplex if he is granted permission by the government. He said he expects his bid could make a big impact, adding that the return of cinema to the valley can give younger Kashmiris access to more information about what is happening around the world.
Despite the strict security measures, the threat of violence remains a concern; just in the past week four militants were killed in twin encounters with Indian forces in Kashmir.
But Dhar said he is taking steps to keep his patrons safe. “At present we are running three to four shows in a day and don’t have any plans for late evening shows,” he said.