Cinemas were once fixtures of daily life in Kashmir, particularly for the inhabitants of the Srinagar city where nine of the Valley’s total 15 movie theatres were located.
Given the near-total absence of movie halls in Kashmir today, one would be hard-pressed to imagine that the tradition of going to movie halls was very well entrenched before the militancy took the Centre stage in 1989, forcing all 15 theatres to shutter.
Once deemed as popular movie-watching destinations and crowded by the locals of all stripes, the cinema halls of Kashmir today are desolate, stolid buildings stripped of their former glory and in ruins
But a recent move by the administration of Lt Governor to open two multi-purpose screening halls in Pulwama and Shopian and one multiplex in Srinagar is likely to reverse this 32 year long privation.
The Srinagar multiplex which was inaugurated earlier in September, is going to be thrown open to the public starting 30 September, premiering Hrithik Roshan-starrer “Vikram Vedha”. Across Kashmir, the return of cinema halls is being viewed with some level of excitement but there is also a lingering suspicion.
The Palladium Cinema in Srinagar’s iconic Lal Chowk area was a paradise for cinema enthusiasts.
It is very common in Srinagar to meet elderly locals who reminisce with nostalgia about their youthful days when going to a theatre was a favorites’ pastime.
Muhammad Aslam, a 63-year-old retired government officer, who was raised in Srinagar’s downtown area, recalls the time when cinemas were the go-to-places for young Kashmiris seeking recreation. “I walked from my home to Lal Chowk and from there boarded a bus for 25 paise that dropped me at Batwara where the famous Broadway Cinema was located, he said.
We used to wait in long queues for our turn to buy tickets. Some of my friends slipped out of their homes secretly and went to cinema halls to watch the night shows.”
In 1989, as the militancy billowed out, cinema halls came under attack from various militant groups, forcing them to wind up and from January 1990, the halls stopped screening.
Three years since article 370 was abrogated and the former J&K state dismembered, people are wary about the potential implications of displaying over-enthusiasm for government measures that may be viewed as their endorsement of the larger discourse about normalcy.
But that hasn’t stopped people in Srinagar from harkening back to the old days. “Back then, cinema halls were divided in sections based on the rates,” Aslam recalls. “The row on the front was called ‘Third class’ and each ticket here sold for 95 paise. Then, there was a Stall where prices went up to Rs 2.50 per seat. This was followed by the Dress Section which sold Rs 3.50 per ticket and lastly, the Gallery which was always occupied by the wealthier class and was bought for Rs 5 per seat.”
To contain the sometimes unruly crowd of cine-goers rushing to buy tickets, Aslam says, the Cinema owners employed bouncers who would swing their batons on the more excited ones should someone try to create a pandemonium.
In the case of Palladium Cinema, he recalls, it was Muhammad Ismail, a heavy-set, mustachioed tall man known for his ruthlessness. “Cigarettes were not allowed at all,” Aslam recalls. “There were also other cinemas in Srinagar where movies like Do Ankhen Barah Haath were showcased that promoted social causes.”
The story of cinemas in Kashmir is probably older than the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. In the year 1932, Kashmir saw the commissioning of its first cinema hall called ‘Palladium Talkies’ owned by Bhai Anant Singh Gauri, a Punjabi philanthropist. “His grandson, Manmohan Singh Gauri claims that the Palladium Cinema was the oldest movie hall in North India and would screen Hollywood movies before these were released in Delhi which did not have a good market for English films then,” writes Historian Khalid Bashir in Kashmir: Looking Back in Time.
The first movie to be screened at Palladium Talkies was Alam Ara, a 1931 fantasy movie. The screenings swelled in numbers and the craze for movies caught up so quickly that even during October 1947. Palladium continued to broadcast films with the movie Kismet being screened at the theatre.
Following the departure of Hari Singh, Kashmir’s last monarch from the Valley, the theatre became the Centre of Emergency Administration headed by Former Chief Minister of J&K Sheikh Abdullah but the screening immediately resumed a month later.
After Palladium, another Punjabi family, the Bals, opened two more halls – Amaresh Cinema and Regal Cinema in Srinagar city but they later changed their ownership to Bakshis, a prominent Muslim family associated with Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad, the former Prime Minister of J&K.
The cinemas were set on fire by a mob in 1963 following rumours that Bakshi was behind the theft of Holy Relic inside Srinagar’s Hazratbal shrine whose brief disappearance sparked a political uprising. Later, when the situation normalised and the reconstruction was started, the permission was given to the rebuilding of only one hall which eventually became the life-size Regal Cinema that was operational till 1989 when militancy erupted.
“It was then the largest cinema hall of Kashmir with a capacity of 1340 seats,” Bashir writes. “The cinema was inaugurated in 1967 with the Raj Kapoor movie, Around the World in 8 Dollars. On the first day, the roof of the entry to the ticket counter collapsed under the weight of the people who had climbed over it to obtain tickets for the late night show.” The movies streaming inside Kashmir’s theatres had, by and large, managed to remain aloof from the region’s political peculiarities. But that was until summer of 1985 when Producer Moustapha Akkad’s Lion of the Desert, a film on Libya’s resistance led Omar al-Mokhtar against the occupying army of Mussolini’s Italy, was screened at the Regal Cinema.
“As the first wave of enraged young viewers came out of the theatre, they raised slogans against Abdullah and pulled down hoardings and banners in Lal Chowk, depicting his name and image,” writes Bashir.
It was in the decades of 1970s and 1980s that the adoration of cinema climaxed in Kashmir. Over four hundred film units were active in Kashmir at one point in 1983-84 with at least 10-12 film shootings underway simultaneously in Pahalgam, Gulmarg and the Mughal Gardens in Srinagar.
“Most people were Dilip Kumar fans and it was his movies that created the most buzz. Whenever his movie was showcased, entire neighborhood’s would be emptied of the people,” said Muhammad Amin, a 69-year-old Srinagar-based craftsman.
“The most anticipated movies during those years were Devdas, Mela, Roti Kapda Aur Makaan, Deedar, and Gambler. I recall a dramatic moment during the screening of Devdas when people erupted during a scene where Dilip Kumar coughed out blood. It triggered a chaos in the hall as his fans thought Dilip Kumar was actually going to die.”
J&K had its own oversight mechanism to regulate cinema halls and the content shown there. The Jammu and Kashmir Cinematograph Act, 1933was enacted when J&K was still a kingdom. There was also a Board of Censors consisting of the Chief Secretary as the Chairman, the provincial Governors, the Senior Superintendents of Police, Srinagar and Jammu and two non-official members, one from each province.
Others in the list include members of civil society and religious fraternity whose discretion was given a regard before green-lighting the release of any particular movie. The Board had powers to deny screening of the movie even if it was certified by its counterparts in Punjab, Bombay or Calcutta but it was discontinued in the 1960s amid a broader assault on the autonomous structures of the J&K.
Broadway Cinema and Neelum Cinema, two other theatres that continued to operate until early 2000s eventually had to shutter due to the disinterest shown by the public at large. One of the last movies screened at Broadway was Mahesh Bhat’s Jism.
But today, most Kashmiris want to leave those days behind. A segment of the young population in Srinagar even has a very positive assessment of things. “Before this, I had to wait for my favourite movies for months before winter vacations were announced and I would travel to other Indian cities to attend movie halls,” said a 21 year old business student from Srinagar. “But now I can watch them here.”
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