Kashmir’s Now-Forgotten Culture of Cinema Theatres
Video Editor: Ashish MacCune
Producer: Zubair Lone, Gowhar Hassan
Ask anyone who has lived in the Valley before 1989 and they’ll tell you about a time when the cinema halls in Kashmir ran to packed houses every weekend.
“I remember, we used to bunk classes to watch the movies in cinema halls,” Hussain Khan, a Kashmiri filmmaker and the director of the film Kashmir Daily (2017), told The Quint.
Kashmir Daily is the first independent Kashmiri film to be shot and edited entirely in Kashmir. Directed by Hussain Khan under the banner of his production house, Seven Two Creations, the film attempts to expose the issues of drugs and unemployment in Kashmir.
Mir Sarwar, the lead actor of Kashmir Daily, recalls the first time he watched a film in his hometown. “I watched my first movie in 1980. It was the Bollywood film, Ilzaam. It was a wonderful experience,” he told The Quint.
It has been over 27 years since the cinema halls were shut, but the memories of the time spent in these theatres remains vivid in the minds of the residents of Srinagar. In the 1980s, there were a total of 15 functional cinema halls in the Valley, of which nine were in Srinagar. The most famous among them were Broadway Cinema, Regal Cinema, Neelam Cinema, and Palladium Cinema in Srinagar.
“I remember once when we went to watch the movie Kaalia, there were no tickets. We had to wait till midnight to get tickets. That day, I returned home at 1 am. I got quite the thrashing from my father,” recalls Hussain Khan, as the memory of Palladium Cinema brings a smile to his face.
The January That Cinemas Were Shut Down
After the summer of 1989 all the cinema halls of the Valley were closed down under the threat of armed insurgency after a militant outfit, who called themselves the Allah Tigers, appeared on the scene. On 18 August 1989, the chief of the militant outfit, Air Marshal Noor Khan, announced a ban on cinemas and bars in the Valley. Khan considered both the alcohol and the cinemas to be un-Islamic and took it upon himself to rid Kashmir of them.
Young militants of the now-defunct Allah Tigers would roam Srinagar, ordering hotels to stop serving drinks and forcing liquor shops to shut down.
Iftikhar Khan was 25 years old when the cinemas were closed down. But the movie buff says he managed to watch a number of films in the cinema halls before their shutters were drawn for good. Recalling the time the cinemas were shut down, Iftikhar says:
On 18 August 1989, Allah Tigers gave a press note in a local newspaper telling cinema owners and liquor shop owners to shut down their cinemas and shops. Although people took it lightly, the condition became so terrible that all the cinema halls were closed down by 31 December 1989.Iftikhar Khan
What Was Once Kashmir’s Finest Theatre Hall
By January the next year, the last cinema hall in Kashmir had shut down. “In 1990, all the cinema halls were closed down,” says Manmohan S Gawri, the owner of Palladium cinema.
“Palladium cinema was known for showing English films. Films were shown at our cinema before they could get screened in Delhi. All the big hits were shown in Palladium,” he says.
However, in 1993, three years after it was shut down along with the other theatres, “Palladium was burnt down and destroyed completely,” Gawri recalls.
Today, the once popular and thriving cinema hall has all but faded away from public memory.
As the government started pushing in troops to suppress militancy, the abandoned cinema halls came to be used as makeshift bunkers.
Palladium Cinema, like several others, has been converted into a camp for security forces.
“Some cinema halls have been turned into hospitals and shopping malls while others are locked as the buildings are damaged completely. Only their ruins remain,” says Hussain Khan.
Attempts to Reopen Cinemas Failed
In 1999, three cinema halls – Regal, Neelam and Broadway – reopened. In September that year, Regal was attacked by militants with grenades, killing one moviegoer and injuring 12.
In September 2005, Neelam – then the only functional movie theatre in Srinagar – was the stage for an encounter between the police and suicide attackers, in which one militant was killed. Around 70 people were in the theatre at the time, watching the Aamir Khan-starrer Mangal Pandey.
Although the Mehbooba Mufti government in J&K is in favour of reopening the cinema halls, Hurriyat has opposed the move, arguing that if cinemas are opened as a sign of normalcy, then there is no right time to open them.
Of late, there have been efforts to boost cinema in the Valley and create an environment that is conducive to the opening of the cinema halls.
Voices Promoting Film Growing Louder in the Valley
Hussain Khan’s Kashmir Daily was released in theatres across the country – everywhere but Kashmir, that is. “We have produced Kashmir Daily so that we can register that Kashmir too can make films on its own. But we tried our best to screen the movie at Sher-i-Kashmir International Conference Centre (SKICC) of J&K tourism department. The film was appreciated by people and it was screened for 14 days,” says Hussain.
The Actors Creative Theatre (ACT) conducted the Kashmir World Film Festival (KWFF) twice in 2017. The event saw classic films from across the globe be screened at Srinagar’s Tagore Hall.
Movie lovers and filmmakers from the Valley say there is a need to reopen cinema halls so as to promote art in the Valley. “There should be some sort of option to watch some films. The opening of cinema halls will provide an option for people to watch films,” says Kashmir Daily’s Mir Sarwar.
Despite several efforts to revive the culture, watching a film in a cinema hall still seems a distant dream for those in Kashmir. Hussain Khan puts it best when he says: