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?”
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?”