By Qurat ul Ain Feb. 18, 2020
Back in the day, Kashmir was breathtaking – the Dal Lake still had clean water, the entire valley didn’t smell of blood. And it had a cinema. Today, the valley doesn’t have a single working theatre. Nobody in Kashmir who is under 30 years old has had the privilege of watching a film in the theatre on the very day of its release.
“Let me cry out in that void, say it as I can. I write on that void: Kashmir, Kaschmir, Cashmere, Qashmir, Cashmir, Cashmire, Kashmere, Cachemire, Cushmeer, Cachmiere, Cašmir. Or Cauchemar in a sea of stories? Or: Kacmir, Kaschemir, Kasmere, Kachmire, Kasmir. Kerseymere?”
~ Agha Shahid Ali (The Blesséd Word: A Prologue)
My first encounter with movies was when I was five years old. I was watching Bobby and recall my father telling me that Dimple Kapadia went to Pahalgam in the film, the same place where we spent summer vacations every year. The coincidence thrilled me as did watching the Kashmir I lived in on television. Back in the days of Jab Jab Phool Khile and Kabhi Kabhie, Kashmir used to be a favourite location for Hindi film directors. The Kashmir of that time was breathtaking – the Dal Lake still had clean water, the entire valley didn’t smell of blood.
And it had a cinema.
The Kashmir of today isn’t home to a lot of things: fast food joints, shopping malls, high-end brands, or even peace. It also doesn’t have a single working theatre. Even war-torn places like Syria have movie theatres and Saudi Arabia got its first theatre in 2018. But nobody in Kashmir who is under 30 years old has had the privilege of watching a film in the theatre on the very day of its release.
That’s the reason why many of us are fascinated with the big screen and the world behind it. For a large part of my life, it was inaccessible, out of reach. It also drove home the point of how those facing cruelty, trauma, violence and defeat were united by films; how they had the courage to trust their faculty to translate it into art and beauty. Cinema became my crutch. Anything that takes one away from a deathly silence becomes a messiah. Cinema allowed agency; it allowed hope, it inspired and healed.
But movies weren’t always alien to the valley.
Even today, it takes me a while to wrap my head around the fact that not having access to the internet or a film has become a routine activity in Kashmir, as natural as breathing.
Before a Kashmiri extremist group called for the shuttering of all theatres in the late ’90s – insurgency was at its peak during this period – Kashmir had almost 15 of them. In fact, the valley’s love affair with Bollywood has left an imprint in local neighbourhoods being colloquially recognised by the names of the theatres in the vicinity – there’s Firdaus Chowk in Hawal (named after Firdaus cinema) and Regal Chowk in Lal Chowk (named after Regal Cinema).
My family’s involvement with the movies runs deeper than just my pining: My great-grandfather owned the lease to Regal Cinema in Lal Chowk for about 20 years. My childhood has been bookended by stories of my parents bunking college to watch films and having free snacks served to them. The bread-toast and kanti with green chutney and the chicken patties from Ahdoos find a consistent mention.
I remember my maternal uncle maintaining a record of films he used to watch every Saturday, making a note of the frequency with which he repeated certain favourites even. Till date, whenever my father sees an old song play on the television, he instinctively recounts the name of the film and the year of its release immediately. When the song details confirms his assessment, a grin takes over his face like a sort of homage to his childhood. My grandfather on the other hand, remembers Balraj Sahni who acted in Shayar-e-Kashmir Mahjoor (1972), a biography of the Kashmiri poet Mahjoor visiting Regal. All these anecdotes are now memories tucked away in corners none of us wish to visit.
In 1999, Regal,accompanied by a few other theatres, was reopened but was met with a grenade attack on the same day, resulting in its permanent closure. Today, all the former theatres are either makeshift bunkers for military forces or detention centres. Theatres were regularly burnt or bombed with grenades when the insurgency was at its height. For instance, after a clash between the Indian army and militants, Neelam cinema, the last surviving theatre in Kashmir was permanently put under lock. That was back in 2005. Fifteen years have passed since anyone came-of-age inside a movie theatre in Kashmir.
As a child, I was oblivious to the political reality of my homeland but a love for cinema is my family inheritance. Yet my geography entailed that my access to the world of movies was indiscriminately restricted. I watched whatever SET Max played and relied on pirated DVDs of films that my brother used to source from a shop outside Tyndale Biscoe School (which is in the same area as Regal Cinema). In 2009, when Gulzar and AR Rahman were nominated for Original Music at the Oscars, I desperately wanted to see Slumdog Millionaire at the same time as the rest of the world. But I eventually watched it a couple of years later on a holiday in Delhi. It is in retrospect that you understand the little ways in which suppression seeps into the normalcy of life in Kashmir.
It was only when I moved to Mumbai for college that I had the luxury of watching a movie in the theatre as an act of recreation. Here, I could go to Regal (the coincidence!) and Eros alone and watch films on the big screen on the day of its release. It seemed like a milestone. It’s something most of my peers from other states take for granted, but only someone from an oppressed homeland can appreciate the significance of such flippant freedoms.
But movies weren’t always alien to the valley.
Initially, I would be anxious throughout the film, subconsciously thinking of my identity, paranoid about someone bombing the theatre while I was inside it. But going to the movies promised everything I had envisaged during my escapades into films: liberation, absence of everyday terror, a fire that would melt all my fetters.
But I was still an outsider – for what was a run-of-the-mill experience for everyone else was a laborious luxury for me. Watching Haider in Mumbai really drove home the irony of its existence for me. Watching it at a theatre was out of reach for the very people it was based on. It concretised a harsh truth: I can never escape my home; the collective trauma would follow me like a shadow.
Last year, I moved back to Kashmir. Within two months, Article 370 was abrogated and brought with it a total internet shutdown. The little access that we had to movies was also snatched away. Ironically, the five years that I’d spent in an overcrowded Mumbai had offered me space, even if I could never resolve the cognitive dissonance that accompanied that freedom.
Even today, it takes me a while to wrap my head around the fact that not having access to the internet or a film has become a routine activity in Kashmir, as natural as breathing. I suppose what we tend to forget is that normalisation of oppression is also another form of oppression. The nonchalance with which we Kashmiris speak of curfews, deaths, gunshots, detentions, and disappearances continues to astound me. The only way out of the darkness in a politically volatile state used to be art. Today, even those doors are closed.