Forgotten, Forbidden Cinema Culture of Kashmir
Nasrun Mir (Rising Kashmir)
Srinagar: Iftikhar’s last cinema experience came 22 years back on a beautiful summer day of July in 1989. He still remembers the joy of the bright sunshine, aroma of the flowers and melody of the song, he had heard in the Broadway cinema in Srinagar. It was one of his most blissful walks home. He was extraordinarily happy that day. For him, future was bright, just like the dazzling sun in the blue skies.
“Nothing special happened that day, but I felt this happiness, which was never there with me,” said Iftikhar, who has forgotten that joy in the 22 years of bloodshed and violence that has engulfed Kashmir since 1989.
Political tension was already brewing in Valley after rigged elections of 1987 brought coalition of National Conference and Congress to power, leaving leaders like Syed Ali Geelani and Hezbul Mujahedein supremo Syed Salahudin high and dry. Some of the opposition activists were jailed and others went underground, preparing for a full-scale guerilla war against India. The rumors of “mujahids” in mountains were in whispers. Iftikhar heard them all. But he still didn’t believe a word, not they were gossip, but he didn’t want to. For him being happy was essential, irrespective of if anyone else was.
A lesser known militant outfit ‘Allah Tigers’ appeared on the scene and its chief, Air Marshal Noor Khan on August 18, 1989, announced a ban on cinemas and bars through local newspapers. The aim to shut these popular public hangouts was to create an atmosphere for an Islamic movement and to wage full-scale jihad against Indian rule.
Quite contrary to his earlier avatar, Noor Khan now sells stamp papers in the Srinagar High Court. The slogan from the 1979 Iranian revolution, “La Sharakeya Wala Garabeya, Islamia, Islamia - Nor West nor East only Islam is the best” became the banner of the uprising, which many in Kashmir believe was inspired by the fall of Soviet Union, a key ally of India and formation of Islamic Republic of Iran.
“These joints acted as the places of evil and symbolization of normalcy in Kashmir,” said Javaid Mir, one of the founding members of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which is now split into three factions. Mir is the chairperson of JKLF’s Haqeeq (original) splinter group. “To generate a scoop for a mass movement, cinemas and bars were essentially the first targets.”
In 1984, Anthony Quin’s, ‘Omar Mukhtar- Lion of the Desert’ was shown in Srinagar’s Regal Cinema. The impact of the film was so strong that after watching it, Mir started shouting pro-freedom slogans along with those who were inside the theater in Lal Chowk. The film was taken off next day.
“It was a film which showed us the way forward,” said Mir, who was one of the most celebrated militants of his era and the only guerilla to make it on the front page of the ‘Time’ magazine. But these days, Mir pitches for a non-violent solution of Kashmir dispute and frequently visits the newspaper offices to give his own press handouts.
Despite the ban from Allah Tigers, cinemas continued to operate giving a blind eye to writing, now literally on the wall. By the middle of 1989, the mood on streets of Kashmir had changed. Thousands were participating in daily protests against the government and the Indian state. Many of Iftikhar’s friends were part of these processions. He was skeptical. His dreams were shattering; his helplessness caged him in his room. Iftikhar did not know which side to take.
The growing protests started to turn violent with killings, carnage, strikes and curfews becoming norm of the day. Finally, on December 31, 1989, his favorite hangout called it curtains, after months of losses, growing public outcry and death threats to owners. The following two decades of mayhem saw thousands of people lose their lives. The cinemas, once the source of entertainment, became home to Indian security forces and notorious detention centers.
The barbwires on the windows, the bunkers on the gates and bullet torn walls of cinemas became the poster of Kashmir’s new reality. In mid-nineties when militancy was still strong in Kashmir, government tried to open 3 out of 10 cinemas once operating in Srinagar. The move was aimed to revive the cinema as a sign of normalcy.
But a grenade blast outside the Regal in Lal Chowk in which one man lost his life, managed to keep the attendance in these cinemas restricted. After the incident, the government immediately closed the Regal. Neelam and Broadway, the two other cinemas, which reopened continued to run amid tight security. The losses and change in public mood made Broadway owners to turn their cinema into a hotel. Neelam operators also shelved the project after 2010 summer uprising in which over 120 people lost their lives and Kashmir remained on boil for over six months.
“The subject of cinema is like digging the old graves for nothing. The topic has the potential to take many inside the graves,” said a cinema owner, wishing anonymity. He refused to comment further on the issue. Some ticket blackers, who were once social outcasts turned to be famed militant commanders after armed conflict broke out in early 1990. Later many of them turned renegades and much later political activists of pro-India parties.
Minister of State for Home, Nasir Aslam Wani said the government has nothing to do with the revival of cinemas in Kashmir. “If someone wants to open a cinema he can,” Wani said as he recalled that his last cinema experience in Kashmir was Tezaab, a super hit Hindi film starring Anil Kapoor. The film gave Bollywood a new superstar in Madhuri Dixit.
Iftikhar, on the other side, drifted into the haunted corners of the state run radio station, where he joined as a broadcaster. He was lucky to have a job, but it was dangerous. He had few choices as family compulsions were too strong to be ignored. “Working for State broadcast in those days meant you are taking an allegiance with India and are a part of propaganda machine,” said Iftikhar who was abducted by militants and was asked to leave the job, the threat he defied.
As militants released Iftikhar, he migrated to Jammu, like so many others did during that time. Being a Muslim Kashmiri, he was never entitled to the status of Pandit refugees who also left Valley; he survived and they never returned. Iftikhar now lives in Kashmir, stills works for Radio Kashmir and is happily married. On his off days, he watches films on cable, but misses the aura and enjoyment he was a part of in those sweet 80s. “Going to cinema was a taboo in my teenage,” said Iftikhar who comes from a middle-class family where social value system is a cultural necessity. “But families knew about our night outs and used to accept silly excuses for the delay.”
Two decades later, Kashmiri families still love Indian cinema, in fact the regular strikes, curfews and violence has made it stronger component of normal Kashmiri family as they spend most of their times glued in front of television and discuss Bollywood grapevine over dinners.
“The only shift is 70 mm experience has shrink to 21-inch TV screens, where local cable TV without any rights plays new releases on weekends,” said Iftikhar who finds it difficult to see a return of cinema in Kashmiri culture as the World Wide Web and DVDs have changed the dynamics the way films are watched now. “The new generation can hardly relate to cinemas as a culture here.”
Now in his early 40s, Iftikhar has never been to a cinema in last two decades, though he travelled outside the state many a times. “I don’t feel going to cinema anymore,” said Iftikhar who occasionally as joke to his friends says, he was 20 when he went to sleep, and when he woke up from the nightmare, he was already 40.
Recalling his youth, Iftikhar still manages a smile as he puffs his Gold Flake cigarettes. “Hardly few girls used to visit cinema in those days and you will consider yourself very lucky if a young woman sits next to you, while Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz go cozy on the silver screen.” Apart from girls, the film posters, their starts and timing of the release were some major crowd pullers in the pre-militancy Kashmir. “Sex aur maar dhaad say barpur (Film is full of sex and action)” used to be one of the favorite crowd pulling lines. There was also a specific group of filmgoers who used to watch movies of Dara Singh, a legendary Indian film actor with fanaticism. “All walks of people used go to cinema. Well-off families used to watch a lot of Hollywood films, particularly the western films of Client Eastwood,” he said.
There was also one major factor to bring massive crowds to cinemas – winter. Iftikhar remembers a December of mid 80s when heavy snowfall snapped power supply for over a month and brought Kashmir to a standstill.
Firdous, a popular downtown cinema, which had bad reputation of playing old and outdated films ran houseful for that whole month as people got bored in their homes. “I remember sitting near the window of my house when a friend called me and said Firdous is playing a 60’s film and is running houseful and he has a ticket for the night show,” said Iftikhar who still remembers the joy on his friend’s face. “Cinema was the only form of entertainment. Now we don’t have it nor we miss it,” he said as he asks his colleague to get him a DVD of a latest film, which will have lot of fight, but very little skin.