Back in the 1980s, movie theaters were an integral part of daily life in Jammu and Kashmir, an Indian-administered region that lies north of India and east of Pakistan. According to historian Khalid Bashir Ahmad, who wrote about theater history for Greater Kashmir in 2018, about 15 cinemas operated in Kashmir Valley—nine in Srinagar, the area’s largest city.
Feroz Ahmad, a 52-year-old Kashmiri movie buff, tells Scroll.in’s Safwat Zargar that Kashmir’s love for movies was a “craze.”
“[W]e would save money for days to buy a ticket,” Ahmad says. “We wouldn’t mind if it was a late-night show or if there was no transport available to go home. We would walk home, discussing the film.”
Those thriving cinemas came to an abrupt close in 1989, when militants banned movie theaters and liquor stores, declaring them anti-Islamic—and blowing some of them up. Others have since been repurposed as security checkpoints, interrogation centers, hospitals and malls.
The militants were part of an insurgency against Indian control of the Kashmir region. Pakistan and India have long fought over the area, which has been wrought with violence and instability for decades.
Throughout the decades of unrest, former cinema owners have attempted comebacks. With financial backing from the government, three cinemas reopened in 1999 in an effort to promote the appearance of a return to normalcy in Kashmir. However, one theater quickly shut down after a bombing killed a civilian; another closed within a year. The other, the Neelam Cinema, held on until 2008.
In 2019, India revoked the semi-autonomous status it had granted Kashmir, bringing it under direct control with security troops and an internet ban. Three years later, many security restrictions are still in place.
Now, movie theaters are back in the Indian-controlled region.
Manoj Sinha, lieutenant governor of Jammu and Kashmir, told reporters after the inauguration that “the government is committed to change perceptions about Jammu and Kashmir, and we know people want entertainment and they want to watch movies,” per the Associated Press’ Aijaz Hussain.
Ticket sales, however, do not reflect a Kashmir eager to return to cinemas. The multiplex has many security checkpoints and wraps up every night before 9:45 p.m. due to government restrictions. Between October 1 and October 9, it sold only 12 percent of its available tickets, a staff member of the multiplex tells Scroll.in. The audience, he adds, has mainly consisted of tourists and young people from other states who study in Kashmir.
Many see the reopening of cinemas as a thinly-veiled attempt by the Indian government to promote a false image of normalcy in the region, per NPR’s Raksha Kumar.
Filmmaker Sanjay Kak, who made a documentary in 2007 about modern militancy in Kashmir, says the reopenings are out of touch with the needs of Kashmir’s residents. “There is something slightly bizarre about all this attention being focused on a commercial multiplex in a place which is riven by violence,” Kak tells NPR.
Srinagar’s main mosque, Kak adds, has been closed for over a year in the majority-Muslim region. In the face of restrictions like these, he says, cinemas “cannot be seen as having any significance in the life of the people of Srinagar or of Kashmir in general.”