On December 11, 2001, angry youth tried to set ablaze the Firdous cinema, just ten days after the central reserve police vacated the premises after decades of control. The bid came close on the heels of union home minister for renewable energy, and president of National Conference, Farooq Abdullah calling for opening liquor bars and cinema halls for the benefit of tourists. The statement has been met with strong reactions among the separatist camps and the youth have responded with sarcasm, both amused and angered by Abdullah’s priorities in a strife torn region. Beneath this aversion to cinema halls lies the complicated history of people’s unfathomable alternating relationship with films, mostly dictated by a political mindset.
“But this dichotomy and the penchant of some Kashmiris to give an Islamic definition to the ‘movement’ for ‘azadi’ alone is not what caused the brouhaha over Farooq Abdullah’s recent announcement.”
Kashmir Valley’s 18 cinema halls were closed down on the dictates of militants in January 1990, after they declared them un-Islamic. This was only five years after, Mustafa Akkad’s ‘Lion of the Desert’, screened in its fashionable Regal cinema hall, in the heart of the city, had played a crucial role in sparking the rebellion. After the first show of the film, young men tumbled out of the hall, close to Srinagar’s Lal Chowk (the name of which is inspired by the Russian Revolution), and headed to tear down the life size posters of Sheikh Mohd Abdullah, just outside National Conference’s office at the historic Mujahid Manzil building. The building lies adjacent to one of the oldest cinema halls of the city, Palladium; the existing front façade of its foyer and the imposing presence of security personnel around it is a grim reminder of the militant attack in the early 90s, during which it was almost fully destroyed. One of my everlasting old memories of Srinagar in the 1980s is of the rush outside Palladium, one of the most popular cinema halls. Enthusiastic crowds jostled with each other to buy tickets to witness the life of songs and dance that breathed behind its walls, often creating traffic jams even on that widest of road spans of the city. Bollywood films were much sought after and special shows of films from Hollywood were equally popular.
But it was ‘Lion of the Desert’ that created a passion like never before, inspiring people like Yasin Malik, who now heads the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, and separatist leader Shabir Shah. Lion of Desert, featuring Anthony Quinn, is based on the life of Omar Mukhtar who led the Libyan revolutionary movement against fascist Italian forces of Mussolini, making the Kashmiri young audience draw parallels between the hero of the film and Kashmir most towering political and spiritual leader Sheikh Mohd. Abdullah, who had entered into an accord with Indira Gandhi, bartering Kashmir’s autonomy for a throne in 1975, ten years before the film was screened in Srinagar. The very youth the film inspired to take up arms against India and its sponsored local governments, branded cinema halls un-Islamic, rallying for their complete closure, revealing the very convoluted and intricate relationship Kashmiris have had with movies.
Both Bollywood and Hollywood films continue to be popular across Kashmir but people mostly watch them at home on television or videos. However, cinema halls continue to remain a taboo. Two cinema halls – Neelam and Broadway – reopened in 1997 but they usually do not fetch an audience of more than a dozen odd people. This inexplicable lack of enthusiasm for the 72 MM screen, however, alone does not make Farooq Abdullah’s latest announcement to reopen cinema halls, which are now mostly occupied by security forces, bizarre. At the same time, one needs to grant that the lukewarm response to the cinema halls also stems from the run down condition of these two functioning halls in Srinagar. Cinema halls, despite the reopening of these two, and despite Kashmiris visiting Jammu and Delhi being avid cine-goers, when it comes to any public discourse on reopening cinemas in Kashmir often tends to put the Kashmiris on their defensive. The shut cinema halls continue to be treated as an icon of pro-movement sentiment, even as many Kashmiris who would justify the opposition to cinema halls, are unable to explain how an Islamic discourse would suit an otherwise supposedly secular agenda of ‘azadi’. The aversion to cinema halls, or even liquor, to some extent, may not be uniform across the Valley.
But this dichotomy and the penchant of some Kashmiris to give an Islamic definition to the ‘movement’ for ‘azadi’ alone is not what caused the brouhaha over Farooq Abdullah’s recent announcement. What adds to the oddity of lobbying for cinema halls as a necessary component of boosting tourism, an idea which is bereft of logic or any empirical evidence, is the Abdullahs’ total unconcern for other more important issues. While locals continue to brave unpredictable curfews, crackdowns, arrests, torture, fake encounters and other kinds of influences of heavy militarism, the Abdullahs remain unmoved. When voices for justice – whether it is in seeking human rights or basic amenities like paani, sadak, bijli – remain stonewalled, the merry Abdullahs twiddle thumbs or indulge themselves with the belief that more happy and high spirited tourists coming to the Valley will change everything in Kashmir. This is what makes Farooq Abdullah’s words so tragic and invited a much harsher reaction than the words cinema hall, or even liquor, would otherwise invite. Farooq’s announcement on the birth anniversary of his father Sheikh Abdullah, at the latter’s grave, betrays his complete indifference and apathy for the major issues that bog the people of Kashmir and an exaggerated concern for the things that even tourists may deem trivial. That such an announcement should come at an odd venue and odd occasion only adds to the absurdity of having uttered what he did.