SRINAGAR, India – It has been nearly two decades since cinema projectors were turned off in Kashmir, India, after the violent conflicts in the late 1980s and 1990s prompted the closure of movie theaters, and despite efforts to re-open them, they’re likely to remain shuttered in one of the most militarized areas on the planet.
Much like anywhere else, young Kashmiris can be seen milling around the vendors of pirated version of movies or download them on hard disks, but unlike their peers in the rest of the world, they cannot go to the cinemas.
It was not always like this, and in the late 1980s there were 14 movie theaters in Kashmir, with nine in Srinagar.
“I would bunk my school to watch a movie. At times, it was difficult to get a ticket over the counter. We had to mostly rely on the black market,” Iftikhar Khan, a movie buff and film expert who puts on his critic hat each time a Kashmiri newspaper wants to broach the topic of films, told EFE.
In 1989, the situation worsened, when 14 blasts were recorded in the valley in the month of May alone, and at least 43 insurgent groups emerged in Kashmir during the three years that followed.
“I still remember the day when I watched my last Hindi film on a cinema screen in Srinagar, it was ‘Apna Bana lo’ (Make me your own), in Regal Cinema,” said Iftikhar remembering it was the last day of the year in 1989.
A former militant commander in the early 1990s, Javed Ahmad Mir, who is now actively involved in politics, told EFE that the insurgency did not deliberately shut down the theaters.
“It was the fear psychosis prevailing in those days which led to the closure of cinema halls,” said Javed.
Inspector General of Police Kashmir Range, Munir Khan, told EFE, “We have enough records with us to prove that cinema halls were not only attacked by militants in the early nineties but the owners were also threatened to close the theatres.”
A question emerges as to why, after such a long passage of time and with much less violence compared to those days, the movie theaters remain closed.
“Film is a tool of communication,” Mushtaq Ali, a Kashmiri film maker told EFE, adding “I wonder when other forms of communication, like the publishing of newspapers is going on smoothly, why cinema theaters have been closed.”
Mushtaq Ali organizes film festivals of short duration to try and satisfy Kashmiri movie enthusiasts.
Despite the continuous closures, there have been efforts to re-open movie theaters.
Movie houses such as Broadway, Neelam and Regal re-opened between 1988 and 1999 following the-then regional governments’ intense efforts, but most people stayed home because of the safety measures one had to go through to see a movie, said Iftikhar.
According to the police records, a grenade attack in August 1999 in the Regal theater left one dead and another 14 wounded, making the attempt to re-open theaters look like a failure.
One of the theaters that did not bid to reopen was Khyam, belonging to Khyber Group of J&K and it was later converted into a hospital.
“We converted the cinema building into a hospital which is funded by the companies owned by our group,” an official in the Khyber Group of Companies told EFE.
“We opted for a hospital to remain safe,” he added.
Another re-opening effort failed in September 2005, when 60 people were trapped in a movie hall while a clash raged between insurgents and security forces. The incident left one separatist dead and the movie theater remains closed.
Mushtaq said the relationship between Bollywood – India’s lavish film industry – and the region is inseparable, and that “had the movies not closed down, Kashmir would have had its own film industry.”
He said there are at least 100 cinema students in the University of Kashmir in the year 2017, which proves the young generation’s interest in the silver screen.
The Inspector General of Police said if people decide to re-open the theaters, they would be given protection.
“We are here to protect people and we are capable to do our job,” he added.