KASHMIR CONFLICT

Kashmir has lost its cinema halls but not its love for the movies

Abandoned theatres have been turned into security camps, hotels, and even a hospital, but piracy keeps alive the passion for moving images.

In Srinagar’s Lal Chowk market are the ruins of what was once a movie lovers’ paradise – the Palladium cinema. Today, all that remains is the faded blue mosaic-tiled facade, surrounded by buildings that are still full of life. Once, people stood in long queues to buy tickets to watch their favourite movie stars on the big screen. Today, the Palladium’s only permanent guests are security forces.

A few kilometers away, it’s the same sorry tale at Neelam. Here too, vigilant soldiers guard watchtowers; long sheets of tin hide the building from view; spools of concertina wire surround the theatre’s compound. The only sign of Neelam’s past grandeur is a decaying signboard bearing its name.

The eruption of militancy in the 1990s brought down the curtain on the 19 cinema halls in Kashmir, including nine in Srinagar. Today, most of the theatres are camps for security forces, while others have been turned into hotels, shopping complexes and even a hospital. But they live on in the memories of the people, who still remember the joy of going to the movies.

Aijaz Ahmad, a resident of downtown Srinagar, attended a school close to Neelam. Every Saturday, which was a half-day, he and his friends would plead with the school watchman to let them off early so they could catch the afternoon show.

Sheikh Irfan, also from the same area and now in his 40s, recalled watching Sholay several times with friends, never once paying for tickets. “We would go to the nearby Khayam cinema,” he said, a broad smile lighting up his face. “With sticks we would make slits in the [window] net to watch the film from outside.”

Ahmad Warsi, a shopkeeper in his late 50s, was a regular at Palladium. According to him, the post-’90s generation grew up in “an abnormal situation”, never knowing 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,” he said. “What do we tell them about how we enjoyed ourselves?”

Then: Long queues outside Palladium in the 1980s.
Then: Long queues outside Palladium in the 1980s.
Now: The cinema house in ruins. It houses a bunker for security forces.
Now: The cinema house in ruins. It houses a bunker for security forces.

The slow death of cinemas

Everything changed as the Valley plunged into chaos in the summer of 1989. As Islamist militants took over the streets within a matter of months, the campaign against what they deemed un-Islamic intensified. Among the first diktats was a ban on liquor vends and cinema halls, issued by Allah Tigers, a radical outfit.

Amidst threats and intimidation, the vends and cinemas shut down one after another. As the government started pushing in troops to suppress the militancy, bunkers made an appearance in the abandoned cinema halls. By 1994, these venues of entertainment had become some of the most dreaded places in the Valley – home to camps formally called interrogation centres but more commonly known as torture chambers.

In 1999, three cinema halls – Regal, Neelam and Broadway – reopened. That same year in September, militants attacked Regal with grenades, killing one moviegoer and injuring 12. Then, in September 2005, Neelam – the only operational movie theatre in Srinagar by then – 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.

Going to the movies became so dangerous, and the taboo associated with it so strong, that “no one wanted to be found injured in a cinema”, recalled Irfan. “If you got injured while watching a film and people got to know, they would question your character,” he added.

With political turmoil and unrest following years of militancy, many Kashmiris no longer mourn the movie halls. “Kashmiris have been dying [because of recurring turmoil] in the last 25 years to 30 years,” said Aijaz. “This [cinema halls] is a nonsensical issue now.”

Pirates to the rescue

However, the demise of the movie-going culture in Kashmir – which once served as the setting for numerous Indian films and songs – did not end of the people’s love for cinema. They turned to television sets and video cassette recorders. Sales of televisions, VCRs and video cassettes picked up. Later, video CDs and DVDs became popular. For Kashmiris who had never watched a film in a theatre, the small screens of their computers, laptops and television sets became their window to the world of moving images.

Irfan has been in the pirated movie trade since the ’90s. Following the ban on cinema halls, business was good, he said, until internet downloads became widespread.

However, people still come to his shop, near a defunct cinema hall, looking for cheap DVDs of old Hindi movies. “While browsing, they talk about the cinema halls where they watched the movie,” Irfan said.

Video cassette dealers were on the radar of militants in the early days, Irfan said. “We, too, were threatened in the 1990s,” he said. “Posters and bans were issued by militant organisations. There was once a grenade attack on us but we did not pay heed.” Despite the risks, customers still came to them.

While the summer of unrest in 2016 broke the backs of businesses across the Valley, it had the opposite effect for Irfan’s customer base. Pirated copies of the latest Hindi, English and Tamil movies did not stop, Irfan’s store did better business than usual, helped by the internet ban. “People from across Srinagar came to buy CDs, many of them buying in bulk for reselling,” he said. “What else was there to do?”

Movie pirates did roaring business even during the summer unrest, helped by the internet ban.
Movie pirates did roaring business even during the summer unrest, helped by the internet ban.
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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