In a valley without cinema halls, the Kashmir World Film Festival (KWFF) concluded on Sunday after bringing to the city, diverse films and a renewed debate on the re-opening of theatres. At the festival’s opening ceremony, Naeem Akhtar, senior PDP minister and spokesperson, called for the re-opening of the cinema halls and told reporters, “Our government would definitely take steps towards restoration of cinemas.”
Akhtar’s remarks have been met with varied responses, and like films, the debate around Kashmir’s absent theatres has a deeper context.
Festival attendee Surinder Kaul’s story is a reminder that such a history. His wrinkles and difficulty in walking may speak of his old age but his eyes lit up while narrating youthful adventures in the 1950s of Srinagar.
“I used to bunk college with my friends and go watch films at Palladium, Regal, and at the big one, Neelam,” he says.
Kaul moved out of Kashmir in the late 50s to settle down as a chartered accountant in London, decades later, the militancy moved in. Early on in the rebellion of 1989, cinema halls and liquor shops were termed “un-Islamic”; and after threats from radical outfits, more than a dozen halls closed down in succession.
The brimming theatres of Kaul’s youth instead turned into giant, eerie concrete structures, some were demolished while many served as interrogation centres of the security forces, infamous as places of torture. Even as attempts were made to reopen three cinema halls in 1999, they became settings of violent incidents, ranging from a grenade attack to an encounter between militants and the police. Going to the cinema soon became an elaborate exercise that drove audiences away because of the checkpoints and the heavy presence of the security forces.
The present debate raises similar concerns of tackling security concerns without alienating audiences. DGP SP Vaid responded to the concerns by saying, “The government knows better than me and my policemen.”As for the government, Akhtar’s subsequent conversation with The Indian Express didn’t have any mention of possible initiatives. “We don’t have any plans (for re-opening halls), the people create the environment,” he said.
Arshad Mushtaq, film and theatre director has for long used his productions to talk of the valley’s people and environment. In 2006, Mushtaq released ‘Akh Daleel Loolech’, a Kashmiri film he directed, by screening it in an auditorium and distributing it on DVD.
“The decision to avoid commercial cinema halls was a conscious one. The government uses cinema halls to portray normalcy but Kashmiri people’s stories are not told in the films. The environment for films comes first and the theatres come after,” he says.
When asked about the absence of films from Kashmir, Akhtar replied by saying, “Cinema halls don’t open for documentaries, they open for Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan…the Kashmiri film industry may develop alongside.”
Debates about the purpose of cinema may be evergreen but KWFF’s Director Mushtaaque Ali Ahmed Khan has simple intentions. “The absence of halls has meant that people’s exposure to the world outside has decreased, cinema provides a larger view. As for the government’s role in re-opening cinema halls, if there is will, it can definitely happen” he says.