Friday 18 August 2017 News Updated at 03:08 AM IST
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Militancy delivers blow to movie-going culture - Deccan Herald
Militancy delivers blow to movie-going culture
Zulfikar Majid in Srinagar,
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Once a famed Neelam theatre in Srinagar. Umer Asif
It was 28 years ago when on a beautiful summer day in July, Faisal Ahmad, as a teenager, last experienced the joy of watching a movie in a cinema in Srinagar. Ahmad, a shopkeeper, still remembers the melody of the songs he had heard in Palladium Cinema in city centre Lal Chowk that day.

"It was one of my most blissful walks from my home to the cinema with my dad. There was joy all around and I felt the happiness, ” 42-year-old Ahmad, who has forgotten that joy in the 28 years of bloodshed and violence that has engulfed Kashmir since 1990, said.

Ahmad, who was 14 then, had no idea what was brewing in the Valley that summer. "The rumors of militants in mountains were in whispers and I as a teenager would not give much importance to it. For me movies, cricket and gossiping with friends were more important than anything else,” he remembers vividly.

But all of a sudden everything changed in Kashmir within a few months and now-defunct militant outfit "Allah Tigers” announced a ban on cinemas and bars through local newspapers. On December 31, 1989 curtains came down on 19 cinemas in Kashmir, including nine in Srinagar. As radical militants took over the streets within a matter of months, the campaign against cinemas, liquor shops and other businesses they deemed un-Islamic intensified.

In subsequent years, most of these venues of entertainment had become security forces camps and torture chambers. The barbwires on the windows, the bunkers and bullet torn walls of cinemas became the poster of Kashmir’s new reality. Some were even turned into hotels, shopping complexes and hospitals. But they live on in the memories of the people, who still remember the joy of going to the movies.

Like Ahmad, the insurgency shattered the dreams of thousands of teenagers in Kashmir as they were caught in a vortex of violence. "When youth in rest of the country were enjoying their life, we were either caged in our homes or faced the bullets. All the sources of entertainment were closed and youth of Kashmir had no scope for relaxation," says Parvaiz Dar, a government employee.

In 1980s Dar, a resident of the old city in Srinagar, attended a school close to Shiraz cinema in Khanyar. On Saturday afternoons he and his friends would plead with the school watchman to let them off early so they could watch their favourite movies."I watched 'Sholay' movie several times with my friends. Back then it was a craze and after watching the shows we would mimic our favourite stars. Somebody would mimic Gabbar Singh and some would try to emulate Jai and Veru,” he says with broad smile lighting up his face.

According to Dar, the post 1990s generation do not know what life was like for the generations before them. "We would go for the night show at 9 pm and stay out late with friends, sipping tea and chatting. What do we tell them about how we enjoyed ourselves?”

As situation started to slightly improve in the late 1990s, three cinemas in Srinagar--Regal, Neelam and Broadway-- reopened in 1998 with covert support from the state government. The move was aimed to revive the cinema as a sign of normalcy. However, the same year in September, militants attacked Regal with grenades, killing one person and injuring a dozen. But despite the attack, the theatres remained open and movie lovers would visit, albeit in lesser numbers.

However, September 2005 brought an end to the experiment as Neelam - the only operational movie theatre in Srinagar by then - was the stage for an encounter between the security forces and fidayeen (suicide) squad in which one militant was killed. Around 70 people were inside the theatre at the time, watching the Aamir Khan-starrer 'Mangal Pandey’.

"Talking about revival of cinema culture in Kashmir 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.

"Providing security to the cinemas wasn't an issue, but people weren't ready to take risk and see a movie due to taboo associated with it. No one wanted to be killed or injured in a cinema. If you were injured while watching a movie, people would question your character,” he said.

However, the demise of the movie-going culture in Kashmir did not end love for films in Kashmir. "After the cinemas were shut, people initially turned to video cassette recorders and later, video CDs and DVDs became popular. For people, who had never watched a movie in a theatre, the small screens became their window to the world of entertainment,” said Imtiyaz Ahmad, who runs a CD and DVD shop in Srinagar.

"In the initial years of militancy, we would not sell video cassettes in open as the writ of militants was running on the streets of Kashmir. After the militancy waned, our business picked up. Though of late our business has shown decline due to Internet downloads, still we earn our livelihood by selling pirated CDs, DVDs and other material related to movies. People still buy cheap DVDs of old Hindi movies,” Imtiyaz said.

During the unrest of 2016, his business witnessed a surge despite the fact that Valley remained shut for almost five months. "People would buy pirated copies of the latest Hindi and English movies whenever curfew was relaxed for a few hours. It was one of the best sources of entertainment for them at home as Internet services were also shut during that period,” Imtiyaz added.