Cinemas return to Indian-administered Kashmir after two decades

© Umar Ganie

More than 20 years after cinemas were closed in restive Indian-controlled Kashmir, a modern multiplex opened this week in the summer capital, Srinagar.

“A major socio-economic revolution is sweeping through Jammu and Kashmir in the last three years. It is a reflection of a new dawn of hope, dreams, confidence and aspirations of people,” said Manoj Sinha, the region’s lieutenant governor.

A motley group of youngsters attended the inaugural showing of "Laal Singh Chaddha", a big-budget remake of the 1994 American classic "Forrest Gump". The film was shot largely in Ladakh and Srinagar.

Cinemas lost to conflict

In 1989, theatre owners downed their shutters in the Kashmir Valley as militancy gripped the region. Cinemas were deemed “un-Islamic” and forced to shut down because of threats and attacks by armed militant groups.

Some of the theatres were set on fire and by December 1989, all cinema halls in Kashmir were shut down, along with wine shops and beauty parlours. Many of the buildings were turned into Indian security camps or became shopping complexes and hospitals.

A handful of Srinagar's cinemas reopened briefly ten years later, but after a grenade attack on audience members at the Regal in September 1999, in which one person was killed, movie theatres soon closed again.

Kashmir and Bollywood, a 'beautiful bond'

In the past, the picturesque Kashmir Valley has often inspired Indian filmmakers. Movies such as "Haider", "Hamid", "Fitoor" and "Valley of Saints" are several recent examples of films set in the region.

Kashmir also used to be an outdoor shooting hub for scores of Bollywood and other Indian films from 1940 to 1989, until armed insurgency erupted and the film industry lost its connection with the Valley.

Some believe the opening of the theatre complex can be seen as a step towards ‘normalcy’ in Kashmir.

“A whole generation has grown up in the Valley without visiting a cinema hall. Let us see whether this could mark a change,” local businessman Riyaz Bhatt told RFI.

“We realised there is no source of entertainment for the youth and we took this initiative. We want to bring new technology into Kashmir,” said Vijay Dhar, a theatre owner who was instrumental in setting up the three-screen multiplex.

“I hope that the new cinema halls and ongoing film shootings would renew the beautiful bond between Jammu Kashmir and the Indian film industry.”

Ongoing security concerns

Buoyed by the success of the opening, the administration’s next target is to introduce a policy giving incentives to young filmmakers to generate local employment.

The response of the public to the Srinagar multiplex will set the tone for further attempts to revive Kashmir’s past connection with cinema and Bollywood.

The recent killings of minorities, migrant workers, and local police officers in the Kashmir Valley have given the impression that the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir is once again becoming uncontrollable.

However, security officials said the situation is under control due to greater counter-terrorism operations, surveillance along the borders, and a drop in cross-border infiltration along the Line of Control.

In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government brought India’s only Muslim-majority region under its direct control by scrapping Kashmir's special status.

The withdrawal of Kashmir’s special status has triggered a new phase of militancy through the emergence of homegrown militant outfits and local recruitment.