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|Kashmir’s Celluloid Years|
Khalid Bashir Ahmad
The beginning and the end of cinema halls in Kashmir is linked with the turmoil it has witnessed for about nine decades now. During the early 1930s, when Kashmir was passing through an uncertain situation following the massacre of about two dozen unarmed civilians on 13 July 1931 and the consequent public revolt against an autocratic rule, a Punjabi speaking Sikh businessman built the Valley’s first cinema hall, the Palladium Talkies at the city centre, later named as the Lal Chowk. In 1989, when armed insurgency started in Kashmir and a militant outfit, the Allah Tigers, ordered closure of cinema houses and liquor shops in the Valley and grenades were hurled at some movie theatres, all of them were shut on 1 January 1990. The State Government’s efforts to reopen cinema halls, linking it with the return of normalcy in Kashmir, did not materialize albeit a short lived success when three movie theatres in Srinagar reopened in 1999 but quickly shut down in the face of grenade attacks resulting in the death of at least one person and injuries to many. Today, most of the cinema halls are either converted into commercial centers, including one into a hospital, or occupied by paramilitary forces.
The cinema in Kashmir is essentially the story of the Palladium Talkies started in 1932 by Bhai Anant Singh Gauri, who — unknown to most for his philanthropy — donated over 50 kanals (6.19 acres) of land to the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), Srinagar in 1978. An acknowledgement to this huge gesture is the Institute’s Ward №4 named after him and dedicated to the treatment of urology patients. A letter of gratitude signed by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the then Chief Minister and the man behind the construction of the SKIMS, on 14 January 1978 welcomed the donation as coming from “a great family of our State which is known for their numerous acts of philanthropy.” Bhai Anant Singh’s grandson, Manmohan Singh Gauri claims that the Palladium Cinema was the oldest movie hall in north India and would screen Hollywood movies before these were released in Delhi which did not have a good market for English films then. “We had the privilege of hosting a meeting of a leading Hollywood film producing company, the 20th Century Fox”, he reminisces. The cinema also held variety shows. In 1940, for instance, it held Mumtaz Shanti Variety Show whose first day’s proceeds it gave to the War Fund. Shanti was a famous film actress of 1940s.
The Palladium Cinema was Kashmir’s big leap in the entertainment arena. It was run by the Kashmir Talkies Ltd. One of the first movies, if not the very first, screened at the cinema was the India’s maiden sound picture, Alam Ara, released in 1931. Directed by Ardeshir Irani, the film had Master Vithal and Zubaida in lead roles with Prithviraj Kapoor as a supporting actor. In October 1947, when Kashmir was pushed into a never ending tumult, the Palladium Cinema was screening Kismet, the first blockbuster in Indian cinema, featuring Ashok Kumar and Mumtaz Shanti. The screening of the film had begun on 10 October 1947. After Maharaja Hari Singh ran to Jammu for safety on 26 October in the wake of Tribal Attack on Kashmir and the arrival of Indian army in Srinagar, the Palladium Cinema became the hub of the Emergency Administration headed by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, and his Peace Brigade. Many adjacent hotels and other buildings were also used as offices of different wings of the Administration. In front of the cinema hall, the red flag of the National Conference with an image of a plough fluttered on an iron pillar about 30 feet high. Later, during G. M. Sadiq’s Government (1964–71) the flag was removed. However, during the long Plebiscite Movement, Holy Relic Movement and other political agitations, a protestor would climb the pole to unfurl a black flag. It was in front of the cinema in 1948 that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India, made a solemn pledge to Kashmiris of holding a plebiscite to determine the future of Kashmir once the situation was normalized. Whether the screening of films was temporary halted in the Palladium Cinema is not known. However, the cinema screened Kasam, featuring Prem Adib, a Kashmiri origin actor, and Najma, from 16 November 1947. The screening of the film was extended to 30 November, after which films Taj Mahal and Man ki Jeet were screened. The earliest and the longest serving gatekeeper of the Palladium Cinema was Muhammad Abdullah of Dalgate. The Palladium was burnt in a major incident of fire in 1993 which consumed many adjacent buildings also. It could not be rebuilt due to a dispute over the land lease and the gutted building was taken over and used by paramilitary forces as a security camp. Within the collapsed four walls of the cinema hall different species of plants, especially Himalayan Horse Chestnut, grown over the years have turned into huge trees. The Government in 2017 announced that the site would be developed as a heritage museum.
The inauguration of the Palladium Cinema was soon followed by the opening of the Regal Cinema in Srinagar by Bals, another Punjabi speaking family whose progeny, Rohit Bal, is a leading fashion designer of India today. The Bal siblings — Amresh Bal, Prakash Bal and Mahinder Bal — owned two more cinema houses of the same name at Gulmarg and Lahore, and run these under the banner of the Universal Pictures Ltd. The Regal Cinema at Srinagar was the only theatre which had a bar also. The Annual Administration Report for the year 1940–41 talks about two cinema halls in Srinagar as “one caters chiefly for Europeans and educated Indians and the other provides amusement chiefly to Indian audiences”. The Regal Gulmarg was a summer time talkie situated near the Gulmarg Club where only Hollywood movies were screened for the Europeans who thronged the hill station during summers. The dilapidated wooden building of the cinema collapsed under the weight of snow somewhere during 1970s. The Palladium and the Regal cinemas were connected with landlines with phone numbers 252 and 138, respectively.
In 1935, one S. D. Puri applied for grant of land for construction of a cinema hall, third in Srinagar. The Revenue Minister recommended to the Prime Minister allotment of 2 kanals of land to the applicant near the Police Station Kothibagh on the assurance that educational films for school going boys and girls would be screened in the proposed cinema hall twice a week. However, the proposal faced opposition, both within and outside the Government. Within the Government, it was feared that crowds of people of all sorts passing the adjacent Zanana Palace (abode of the widows in the then ruling family, now Government College for Women) on way to the cinema hall every evening and returning in batches late at night, “the road may not maintain its desired respectable appearance.” There was public outcry also against setting up of a third cinema hall in the city. On 11 March 1936, a telegram sent to the Prime Minister by both Muslim and Hindu subjects informed him that due to the current trade depression and unemployment the existing two cinema halls were proving harmful for the people, and urged him to reject permission to “outsider exploiter” for construction of a third cinema hall in Srinagar and “save His Highness’ loyal subjects from ruination”. The issue was agitated through the Press also. The daily Martand, owned by the Yuvak Sabha of Kashmiri Pandits wrote against starting a third movie hall in Srinagar. In its publication of 30 November 1935, the newspaper cautioned that “a third cinema hall will reduce to extremity a people already depleted of their resources by the existing cinema halls”. Ultimately, the State Council decided to reserve the land for Government purposes and the question of construction of a Cinema Hall was “automatically quashed.”
There were others also who saw ‘a great educative and moral value’ in the cinema and focused on the need for good selection of movies. That year, a body named Cinema Reform Association was formed to ensure, among other things, reduction in rates and fair selection of movies for exhibition. The Association comprised Ramsaran Das Malhotra as President, Fazal Ahmad as Vice President, Mr. Nishat as Secretary and Yahya Rafiqi as Joint Secretary. The Association was “of the opinion that Cinema Industry has a great educative and moral value & that open competition alone can provide good treatment, reduction in rates and fair selection of pictures.”
By the end of 1930s, there were only two cinema houses in Kashmir- the Palladium and the Regal. However, in early 1940s, the Bals were permitted to construct another movie hall, Amresh, named after one of the three owner siblings, behind the then existing Regal Cinema that stood where the Bata Shop at the Regal Chowk exists today. The Bals used the upper floor of the Amresh Cinema as their residence. In 1950, the ownership of the Regal and the Amresh cinemas changed hands from the Bals to Bakhshi Abdul Majid, brother of the then Deputy Prime Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad who later became the Prime Minister of the State in 1953. The two cinema halls were purchased for a sum of Rs. 1, 50,000. By 1956, three more cinema halls had come up in Kashmir including the Samad Talkies, Sopore, the Regina Cinema, Baramulla and the Nishat Talkies, Anantnag. Those days, cinema halls were required to send to the Government a quarterly statement of gate collections. During the second quarter of 1956, the Palladium Cinema made a collection of Rs. 64, 367, the Regal Cinema Rs. 47, 347 and annas 6, the Amresh Talkies Rs. 48, 529 and aanas 14, the Regina Cinema Rs. 12, 688 and annas 2, the Samad Talkies Rs. 1836 an annas 4, and the Nishat Talkies Rs. 5231 and annas 10.
On 28 December 1963, a day after the mysterious theft of the Holy Relic at the Hazratbal Shrine, an infuriated mob set ablaze the Regal and the Amresh cinemas for alleged involvement of the Bakhshis in the sacrilegious act. When the situation normalized, the owners sought permission of the Government for reconstruction of the two gutted cinema halls. However, the permission for reconstruction was granted only for one cinema hall following which a new Regal Cinema was constructed at the site of the Amresh Cinema. It was then the largest cinema hall of Kashmir with a capacity of 1340 seats, almost equal number the Regal and the Amresh had together. The cinema was inaugurated in 1967 with the Raj Kapoor movie, Around the World in 8 Dollors. On the first day, the roof of the entry to the ticket counter collapsed under the weight of the people who had climbed over it to obtain tickets for the late night show. Many of them sustained injuries. It happened to be the auspicious Shab-i-Baraat, the night when Muslims believe Allah writes the destiny of the people for the coming year, and many people believed the accident was caused due to ‘disrespect’ shown by cinema-goers to the sacred occasion. For two decades after the commencement of the Amresh Cinema, Srinagar had no more movie halls until 1964 when the Shiraz Cinema was inaugurated in the heart of the old city at Khanyar. The first three cinema halls were located in the uptown area of Lal Chowk. The Shriraz opened with Sangam, a Raj Kapoor-Vijayanti Mala-Rajindra Kumar starrer, that drew huge rush of people.
The decade of 1960s saw rapid expansion of cinemas in Kashmir. After the Shiraz Cinema, the Broadway Theatre was opened at Sonawar in May 1965 with Shammi Kapoor’s Jaanwar, and the Neelam Cinema at Suthra Shahi near the Civil Secretariat in 1966 with Dil Diya Dard Liya featuring Dilip Kumar and Waheeda Rehman. The Neelam Cinema was originally built by Gauris as the Jai Hind Talkies but the building was acquired by the Government to use it as coal storage. After sometime, it was auctioned and its new owner opened it as a movie hall. Bhai Anant Singh Gauri had another cinema house, the Regina, built on the present Maulana Azad Road which was also taken over by the Government for the Transport Department. The Regina was built in 1945–46 and the Jai Hind Talkies in 1946–47. Soon, Kashmir was engulfed by turmoil in October 1947 and opening of the two new cinema halls was put on hold. However, when the situation somewhat stabilized, the Government refused cinema license to Gauri in either case, allegedly to save Bakhshi Abdul Majid, owner of the Regal and the Amresh from any competition in regard to his two cinema houses. The building of the Regina Cinema was acquired by the Government on 7 January 1953 for Rs. 1, 10,000. On 22 November 1949, Majid applied for license claiming that he had taken the Jai Hind Talkies on lease and intended to run it as the Shalimar Pictures. Later, he stepped back arguing that “it was not the policy of the Government to grant any more licenses for cinemas.” In the meanwhile, Gauri approached Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad, who was now the Prime Minister, for issuance of license but without any success. The matter lingered on till 1961 when the Government acquired the building. Between 1946 and 1948, residents of the locality also objected to running a cinema in the building, pleading that a mosque, a girls’ school and a Muslim graveyard were nearby. The then District Magistrate, M. A. Shahmiri, too had pointed out the undesirability of a cinema there. The denial of cinema licenses to Gauri for safeguarding business interests of his brother formed part of the charges of misconduct against the former Prime Minister, Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad, investigated by a Commission of Inquiry appointed by the Government on 30 January 1965.
Following the opening of the Neelam Cinema, the next movie hall inaugurated in Srinagar was the Khayam Cinema, at Muniwar opened on 2 December 1968 with the Hollywood war movie, The Dirty Dozen. It was the first cinema hall in Kashmir with a 70 mm screen. Next in the line were the Naz Cinema opposite the Huzoori Bagh, now Iqbal Park, and the Firdous Cinema at Hawal, which were inaugurated in 1969. The Firdous Cinema opened with Tumse Achha Kaun Hai, a Shammi Kapoor and Babita starrer. The cinema was thrown open on 13 April on the Baisakhi festival. For the next 14 years, the Firdous was the last cinema hall to come up in Srinagar before the inauguration of the Shah Cinema at Qamarwari in October 1983.
Besides these 9 regular cinema halls in Srinagar, there were few run by the army where civilians also were allowed entry. One such cinema, Badam Kutir, was located at the Sadar Bazar in the Badami Bagh Cantonment. Another was an open air projector-and-a-screen facility at the Tattoo Ground. Jalaluddin Shah, a geologist by profession who has a remarkable memory of developments taking place in Kashmir since 1960s recalls that on 9 August 1965 when the Tattoo Ground was attacked by the alleged infiltrators from Pakistan, the cinema was showing the movie April Fool with actors Biswajeet and Saira Banu in pivotal roles. Next day, Batamaloo, an adjacent congested locality, went up in flames. Outside the city of Srinagar, there also were cinema halls in Anantnag, Baramulla and Sopore towns and in 1980’s a cinema hall at Kupwara was also started. A 1946 archival document mentions existence of a cinema hall each at Pahalgam and Anantnag without mentioning their names. In all probability, the Anantnag cinema was the Nisaht Talkies which was an old structure when it got burnt in 1982 at a time when Hindi movie Surakhsha, feauring Mithun Chakarvarti, was screened there. In 1985, a new theatre named Heevan Cinema was inaugurated in the town. Other cinema halls included the Regina and the Thimaya (an Army cinema hall) at Baramulla, the Samad Talkies and the Kapara Theatre at Sopore, the Zorawar (another army cinema hall) at Pattan, and the Marazi Theatre at Kupwara. In 1989, when cinema was banned in Kashmir, there were at least 15 functional cinemas in the Valley, 9 in Srinagar city alone.
For a long time, Kashmir society did not openly accept its youth visiting cinema halls. In fact, as late as up to the 1960s, parents seeking matrimony of their daughter would first convince themselves that the prospective groom was not a cinema or a hotel going guy. A woman visiting a cinema hall was a taboo. During 1940s, only a few of them could go for a movie. Gradually, the number of college going girls and working women visiting cinema halls picked up and during 1970s ladies at a cinema hall was a common sight. The 85 year old Krishna Misri, a former college principal, would watch films from her childhood and “went to the Palladium a lot”. “This place”, she told BBC Radio 4, “was so dear to me and so familiar to me. I can still picture it clearly in front of my eyes”. Author and former professor of English, Neerja Mattoo, too has fond memories of the cinema. “This cinema had the unique feature of a Lady’s Gallery where even unescorted young girls would feel safe to watch a movie”, Mattoo recalls. The first film she watched, in the company of her father and grandmother, in the cinema was a mythological movie, Ram Rajya. During 1940s, a cinema going daughter of a Muslim civil servant married the Sikh Manager of a cinema and created a flutter in a conservative society.
Before 1947, film prints would arrive in Kashmir via the Jhelum Valley Road. However, in the wake of the Indo-Pak hostility over Kashmir the road was closed and film prints, as other commodities, started coming via the Banihal Cart Road, later named as the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway. The management of a cinema hall was required to intimate in advance the Government about the films it intended to show in the coming weeks. At times, which frequently happened during winters, when the snow caused roadblock and no film print could reach Srinagar the screening of the ongoing film was extended till the arrival of a new movie. Failure in electric supply would also disturb cinema schedules. In 1942, breakdown at the Power House, Mohura resulted in the closure of cinema halls in Srinagar for two days. In early 1930s and 40s, the films screened in Kashmir were generally based on mythological and historical characters, social and moral subjects, and romance and fantasy. Some of the films screened in the Palladium, the Regal and the Amresh between 1942 and 1945 include Dil ka Daku, Charnu ki Daasi, Daku ki Ladki, Hunter Wali ki Beti, Return of Toofan Mail, Hanso Hanso Duniya Walo, Pistol Wali, School Master, Rustum Sohrab, Hatim Tai ki Beti, Nausherwan-i-Aadil, Bhagat Surdas, Pagli Duniya, Mahatma Vidur, Din-o-Duniya, Circus Queen, Achut Kaniya, Nal Damyanti, Bhagat Kabir, Alibaba Chalees Chor, Krishna Sudama, Vish Kaniya, Shakuntala, Tansen, Ramraj, Laila Majnu, Sangal Deep ki Sundari, Shakuntala, and Kadambari.
Around the same time, the English movies screened at Srinagar and Gulmarg included Gold Rush, House of Seven Gables, History is Made at Night, The Earl of Chicago, One Night in Tropics, Magnificent Obsession, Blossoms in the Dust, How Green Was My Valley, The Little Foxes, To Be or Not To Be, Pied Piper, Jungle Book, They All Kissed the Bride, Sailor’s Wife, Black Panther, Strange Death of Adolf Hitler, Tarzan Triumphs, Arabian Nights, Sky’s The Limit, Bogie Man Will Get You and Wuthering Heights. During later decades, films like The Godfather, Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, Mackenna’s Gold; World War movie like Where Eagles Dare, The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen and Patton, and James Bond and Charlie Chaplin movies remained in great demand. Actors Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Gregory Peck, Al Pacino and Omar Sharief (more for his Muslim sounding name and Egyptian origin) were among the Hollywood actors watched with interest in Kashmir. A sizeable section of the Hollywood movie watchers would comprise people with little or no knowledge of English language and amazingly they understood and enjoyed the movies and appropriately reacted to dialogues with claps or howls.
New films would open on Fridays. It was after Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s return to power in 1975 that the 1 p.m. show on Fridays was scrapped for it weaned people, especially youth, off the Friday prayers. During 1970s, the Palladium Cinema held regular shows of South-Indian and Bengali movies which were screened daily at 10 a.m. The audiences for these films were army and para-military personnel posted in Kashmir. Around that time, Chan Mahi, a Punjabi movie from Pakistan, was screened in the Shriraz Cinema and drew large number of people, majority of whom did not speak or understand the language of the film.
In 1954, a feature film titled Pamposh, set in the backdrop of Kashmir, was screened in the Amresh Cinema. The film had many dialogues in Kashmiri language. Significantly, it was the first Indian movie in Geva colour. The film written and directed by Ezra Mir, had Mogli, Savi Multani and Rusi Patel in main roles. Young and handsome G. M. Parray of Sonawar, then Demonstrator (Geography) at the Amar Singh College, also did a supporting role in the film. It so happened that in 1952, Ambalal Jhaverbhai Patel established India’s first colour laboratory at Bombay. However, film producers were skeptical of handing over colour processing work to his lab. To demonstrate that the processing by his lab was of high quality, Patel produced Pamposh shot on Geva colour film negative which was highly appreciated for its beautiful visual quality. The film, however, did not do well in Kashmir and was removed after few shows.
When Khana-e-Khuda, a film based on the annual Islamic pilgrimage of Haj, was screened in the Shiraz in 1968 the entire cinema hall was first washed to give it a holy ambiance. Many people who came to watch the movie removed their footwear in reverence before entering the cinema hall. Many others showered candies on the screen. The cinema drew heavy rush of people — men and women of all ages. Likewise, many Sikh cine-goers removed their footwear before entering the Palladium Cinema where devotional film Nanak Naam Jahaz Hai was being screened in 1969. Another well attended ‘Islamic’ film was the 1970 release, Ziaratgah-i-Hind — Zeenat. The film captured all major Muslim shrines of India. Kashmir’s two important shrines, Hazratbal and Charar-i-Sharief also figured in the movie. The film’s credits were given in Urdu. A versified tribute to the shrines sung by Muhammad Rafi was the main attraction of the film. About the Hazratbal Shrine, the eulogy went like this: Srinagar mai hai Hazrat e Bal Khuda ke fazl o karam ka saaya Yahi Medinay ka paak tofta naseeb Moi-i- Mubarak aaya (Hazratbal in Srinagar is the silhouette of Allah’s blessings where the sacred gift of Medina, the Holy Relic has arrived). Films with religious appeal were screened to cater to the interest of a particular community. Jalaluddin Shah recalls that the Palladium in particular would screen Hindu mythological movies like Har Har Mahadev, Sant Tuka Ram and Sampuran Ramayana on festive occasions like Shivratri. A movie with Muslim characters was usually publicized as an ‘Islami shahkaar’ (Islamic masterpiece) although it had nothing to do with Islam, the religion.
In 1968, the Shriaz screened the first Kashmiri feature film, Maenz Raat, in 1968 which was shot completely on location with Omakar Aima and Mukta in lead roles. The story of the film was written by playwright Ali Mohammad Lone. Other actors included Som Nath Sadhu, Pran Kishore, Shaheen Afroz, Nabla Begum and Pushkar Bhan. In 1970, Shair-i-KashmirMehjoor, a biopic on Kashmir’s popular poet, Ghulam Ahmad Mehjoor, was released in the Regal Cinema. The movie, produced in Urdu and also dubbed in Kashmiri language, had veteran actor Balraj Sahni and his son Parikshat Sahni as the main actors besides several Kashmiri performers. Abdul Gani Wani, an elderly shopkeeper at Sonawar was very upset after watching the film and used uncharitable words against Mehjoor for exhibiting, what he felt, “shamelessness” by running after girls. It turned out that when he had arrived at the cinema hall he enquired if the film on Mehjoor was being screened there. A person selling tickets in black answered him in affirmative and sold him a ticket at a higher price. Throughout the movie, a yellow turban wearing innocent Wani could not make out that he was watching the Sunil Dutt-Asha Parekh starrer, Bhai Bhai, and not Shair-i-Kashmir Mehjoor that had been taken off a day earlier. He was such a naive guy that during the Indo-Pak War of 1971 when many people in Kashmir thought that China, in order to help Pakistan wrest Kashmir, would invade India, believed that the Red Army will “descend on Assam and seize Pathankot corridor connecting Jammu & Kashmir with India”!
In 1985, a Hollywood movie changed forever the complexion of resistance in Kashmir. That summer, producer Moustapha Akkad’s Lion of the Desert, a film on Libya’s resistance led by an uncompromising aged teacher and freedom fighter, Omar al-Mokhtar against the occupying army of Mussolini’s Italy, was screened at the Regal Cinema. Portrayed by actor Anthony Quinn, Mokhtar’s great courage and wisdom in fighting a mighty enemy and turning down offers of materialistic rewards to end the resistance won the hearts of the audience. They compared Mokhtar with Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, a mass leader and first Prime Minister of post-1947 Jammu & Kashmir who also had started his career as a teacher, whom they accused of selling out the “enormous sacrifices of Kashmiris for his lust for power”. Abdullah had died three years ago after abandoning resistance against Indian rule over Kashmir and embracing power. As the first wave of enraged young viewers came out of the theatre, they raised slogans against Abdullah and pulled down hoardings and banners in Lal Chowk depicting his name and image. Each show of the film brought out more enraged youth and the authorities quickly took off the movie but not before it had inspired a new resistance in Kashmir which erupted in 1989 as a full grown armed insurgency. One of the youth inspired by the movie was Muhammad Yasin Malik, Chairman Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front.
Movies on Indo-Pak hostility were not shown in Kashmir for the fear of cinema halls being targeted by agitated audience. It was only after the Indo-Pak War of 1971 in which Pakistan lost its eastern flank that the Broadway Cinema, located in the cantonment area broke this tradition and screened a newsreel on the fall of Dacca [Dhaka] and surrender of Pakistan army. The newsreel was shown before each show of the Hindi movie, Maryada. Streams of Kashmiri Pandits — men and women -were seen visiting the cinema to watch the newsreel while Muslims generally remained away. Later, a feature film, Hindustan Ki Kasam, based on Indo-Pak war was also screened at the Broadway Cinema.
Dilip Kumar’s films would run packed houses in Kashmir. As elsewhere, he had a huge fan following in the Valley. Even the re-runs of his movies would go houseful. Films like Devdas, Mughal-e-Azam, Naya Daur, Deedar, Aan, Leader, Dil Diya Dard Liya and Aadmi would keep on returning year after year to a huge response. In 1970, when Gopi was released at the Palladium Cinema for an All India premier, Lal Chowk wore a festive look with buntings and colour posters of the film fluttering everywhere, and a huge gathering of Kumar fans jostling each other to reach the ticket window. Dilip Kumar and his wife Saira Banu who was his co-star in the movie, also came to the Palladium to watch the film. They had a tough time to wade through the river of fans including men with long grey beard, dying to have a glimpse of their favourite actor or shake hands with him. “A beaming Kumar shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with some of them”, recalls Javed Azar, senior journalist and a former resident of Amira Kadal. Large crowds of fans were also seen when actors Rajindra Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Sunil Dutt, Waheeda Rehman, Mehmood and Om Prakash visited the cinema hall on different occasions. Actor Ajit was on several occasions seen sipping local salt tea at the shop of Sultan Joo, a dealer in Kashmir Art. Dev Anand was another popular actor in the Valley. His Mahal in 1969 caused a traffic jam in the Regal Chowk and police had to can-charge people to clear the traffic. Raj Kapoor, Raj Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Dharmehendra, Rajesh Khanna and, later, Amitabh Bacchan too were popular actors who had a large fan following in the Valley. So were actresses Madhubala, Nargis, Meena Kumari, Vyjantimala, Sadhna and Asha Parekh. Some ardent fans would go to any length to watch a particular movie. When Raj Kapoor’s much talked about Bobby was released in 1973 many Kashmiri film buffs travelled to Jammu, a 300 km road journey, to watch it there before it was screened in Srinagar.
Films had a deep impact on people. Young boys and girls would dress up like their favourite actors or imitate their mannerism. You had a Dilip Kumar or a Dev Anand or a Rajesh Khanna in every neighbourhood. During 1960s, the Sadhna haircut was very popular among girls. In some cases, the impact was of a different kind. Young Ghulam Nabi Hajam of Drugjan was so consumed by the tragedy afflicting Dilip Kumar in Devdas that he nearly turned mad, grew beard, stopped eating food and wandered on the Bund along the Jhelum for weeks. Ghulam Muhammad Bhat, a 1931 born from uptown Sonawar, was a film buff from a very young age. There was hardly any movie during those times that he missed to watch. So charmed was he by movies that despite being an illiterate, he fancied the idea of writing stories for films and, in fact, dictated one to his cousin. One day, in the midst of narration of a standoff between the hero and the villain he was at a loss for words to carry forward the wordy duel and took a long pause. Waiting for the next scene to jot down, his cousin observed that the silence was getting longer and asked Bhat what he should write next. Using his imaginative skills, Bhat quickly offered sound filler: “Zradga’un”. The story was titled Mohabbat ki Kahani (The Story of Love) and posted to a film company in Bombay but, sadly without any success. Nazir Ahmad, a college student, was so carried away by Feroz Khan, the black robed hero of a 1974 movie Khotay Sikkay, riding a white horse and galloping through the ravines and mountain valleys with a Kishore Kumar number, Jeevan mai tu darna nahi sar neecha kabi karna nahi, playing in the background, that after watching the movie he announced that the first thing he would do after securing a job “is to buy a white horse and ride to my office”!
Publicity of the upcoming and ongoing movies in itself was an entertainment. The Palladium Cinema had its own innovative style of doing it. At the stroke of 9.30 in the morning, two men holding a large hoarding with a poster of the film, followed by a band of pipers and a drummer, led by Band Master Mohammad Rajab, would start from the cinema and march through the streets of Srinagar. Javed Azar recalls that so accurate was the timing of the Band that mothers would rush children to school at the first beat of the drum. Some youth carrying placards with images and names of actors of the movie beautifully calligraphed by painter Assadullah Wani, would also join the band as Mama Gasha’s bagpipe played tunes of popular movie songs. Amused children followed the band as it walked through the city and returned to the Palladium by the time the first show was about to start. At the ticket window, while police constables would fail to control the crowd, a hugely built Mohammad Ismail, staffer of the Palladium, would appear on the scene and feverishly use his cane or leather belt on the ticket seeking throng causing a commotion during which weak hearted and the ‘respectable’ would fall into the hands of ‘Blackers’ who illegally sold tickets on a high price. Each cinema hall had its own group of ‘Blackers’ who invariably worked under the oversight, if not with the blessings, of the cinema management and local police unit.
In later years, cinema owners would hire tongas to publicize new arrivals and show timings. A tonga with mounted colourful film hoardings and a drummer inside taking rounds of the city roads was a common sight in Srinagar up to mid 1970s when plying of Tongas in the city was prohibited. Handbills were distributed to draw people’s attention to new releases and show timings. Newspaper columns were also used for the publicity of films. Many newspapers like the Aftab and the Srinagar Times published weekly film pages. Prominent journalist, Yusuf Jameel edited Aftab’s film page for several years, besides editing its Islamic page on Fridays. Film hoardings were also installed over shop fronts in busy markets and in lieu of that a shop owner was given a weekly free pass to the movie. From very early days of cinema in Kashmir, many Government officers and influential citizens would demand and get free passes. They included journalists. In 1936, the Cinema Reform Association asked the Government to issue orders that “no State employee should avail free passes at Cinema houses.” Certain elements would resort to blackmail to secure free cinema passes. On 4 November 1940, the weekly Desh accused the Palladium Cinema of ‘mismanagement, black marketing of tickets, misbehaviour of gate keepers with cinema-goers and overcrowding in the cinema’. Next week, the newspaper carried another piece lambasting the management for screening ‘third class and immoral movies’ and appealed the Government to take action against the cinema management. An explanation was sought from the cinema management and the Manager Kashmir Talkies Ltd. informed the Government that the allegations, made in the newspaper, were false and an attempt at coercion. He accused the Editor Desh of demanding free passes “which he had been availing for four months” and was insisting for more free passes “for his staff and relatives” which was not possible for the cinema management to do.
Many college and school going boys would often bunk classes to watch movies in nearby cinema halls. Head Master Ghulam Ali Shaheed Salmani would, in the middle of a film show, quietly enter the Broadway Cinema with a torch in his hand and catch hold of unsuspecting boys of his High School Badimagh and pull them out of the theatre. Master Niranjan Nath Wanchoo alias Nerre Kak of the adjacent Sanatan Dharam Pratap Sabha High School would do a similar act at the Palladium Cinema. On 11 May 1936, the Kashmir Students Union headed by Janki Nath Zutshi passed a resolution seeking concession in cinema tickets for students and appointment of a few poor students against some emolument for identification of bonafide students at the cinema halls. There was this section of people, mostly young men, unable to buy tickets, which was seen eves dropping at the closed doors of cinema halls enjoying the sound track of a movie. The State Government also held free film shows at public parks, schools and Panchayat Ghars for the entertainment and education of the people. A mobile film unit of the Information Department, equipped with a projector and screen, would go to different places in cities and villages to hold a film show carrying a social message. The movies screened during 1960s included Do Aankhein Barah Haath, Jagurti, Dosti, Do Bheegah Zameen, Mirza Ghalib, Kabuli Wala, Chaar Darvaish and Boot Polish. Newsreels on subjects of sanitation, small savings and elementary education were also screened for general awareness.
For its lush meadows, white mountain-peaks, brimming streams and beautiful gardens, Kashmir was always Bollywood’s favourite locale. During the decades of 1960s and 70s in particular, film units would make a beeline for shooting in the Valley. The earliest known arrival of a film unit in Kashmir dates back to 1944. That year, the Taj Mahal Film Company, Bombay arrived at the fall to shoot scenes of its movie, Begum, featuring Ashok Kumar as a shepherd and Naseem alias Pari Chehra or the Fairy-Face, as a village damsel. The movie, an adaptation of a short story by Sadat Hassan Mantoo, was laid in the countryside and snows of Kashmir. The crew of the film company comprised Director Sushil Mazumdar, Assistant Director Prabha Mitra, General Manger Samuel Ibrahim, Cameramen Kapadia and Ahmadullah, Sound Recordist Naik, Make-up Director Belcha Parera and Art Director Majeed. The music of the film was by Ghulam Haider.
The first scene was short at the Kabutar Khana, Gagribal inside the Dal Lake. Other sequences were filmed at Gulmarg, the Weir at Chhatabal and Kokar Bazar, Hari Singh High Street. One of the significant aspects of the shooting was that an ‘educated Kashmiri girl’, whose name was withheld, also acted in the film. At the Weir, she was filmed crossing the Jhelum and carrying under her arm a willow basket while a man was chasing her. On the other side of the river, a group of children ran after her forcing her to take shelter in a poor man’s hut. In another scene, Prabha Mitra was filmed walking through the Kokar Bazaar. Another shot of her was taken at the Huzoori Bagh, now Iqbal Park. The crew also shot snowfall at Gulmarg. The Taj Mahal Film Company was so impressed with the acting of the Kashmiri girl that she was invited to permanently join the film line. A film journal refuted the rumour that the film company had actually engaged a Kashmiri Pandit boy to do the female role. The boy, it clarified, had served with the film company as a coolie for a few days. The promo of the film published in the Tribune on 5 March 1946 gave out the cast of the movie which included Misra, a very common female name then in Kashmir, who in all probability was the ‘educated Kashmiri girl’. The Taj Mahal Company was asked to first send the filmed scenes to J&K Board of Censors for approval before the release of the film in and outside Jammu & Kashmir. The consignment of the film shots was charged custom duty of Rs. 16 and annas 4 by the Maharaja’s Government.
Jammu & Kashmir had its own Cinematographic Act promulgated in 1933, and the Board of Censors to keep a watch on the cinema halls. The Board consisted of the Chief Secretary as the Chairman, the provincial Governors, the Senior Superintendents of Police, Srinagar and Jammu and two non-official members, one from each province. The Publicity Officer of the Government acted as Secretary to the Board. Prominent bureaucrat turned politician and the first Kashmiri Muslim graduate, Khawaja Ghulam Ahmad Ashai, served as Secretary of the Board for several years. Others who held the position included S. L. Koul and G. D. Sharma.. In 1939, one of the two nominated members of the Board of Censors was Khwaja Abdur Rahim Banday, Custodian of the Holy Relic at the Hazratbal Shrine. In 1940, the Government rejected a Srinagar Municipality passed resolution seeking to appoint a Provincial Censor Board comprising officers of the Municipality. The resolution claimed that the officers of the Municipality were “responsible for the good moral conduct of the citizens ever since cinema halls have come into existence within the municipal limits”. Later, the Municipal Committee passed another resolution demanding representation in the Board.
The authority of issuing licenses under the Cinematograph Act vested in the Board of Censors was transferred to the District Magistrate concerned in 1943–44. The Board of Censors was active till as late as 1960s when autonomy of the State was systematically eroded. No film imported from India even if certified by other Boards of Censors like that of Punjab, Bombay or Calcutta was allowed to be screened without the State Board of Censors first viewing the film and issuing a go-ahead. The Boards of Film Censors of different states would exchange information about certification or ban on a movie. The Boards were very sensitive to ethically distasteful scenes and portrayal of the British Empire in a negative frame. The movie Damaged Lives was denied permission for the suggestion of nudity by showing “a married couple in bed”. Likewise, the movie Gunga Din was refused certification for portraying a British Sergeant “kicking a thug” and killing him while he was “at prayer in a temple”. In an unusual step, the British Resident in Srinagar wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of Jammu & Kashmir on 14 November 1939 requesting him to “ensure that this film is not exhibited in the Jammu and Kashmir State as the exhibition of the film of this nature is particularly undesirable in present circumstances [when the World War II was going on]”. Consequently, the cinema halls in the State were instructed not to screen the film. The iconic war film, All Quiet on the Western Front also was not allowed screening for being an “anti war propaganda”.
Some ‘vigilant’ people would beforehand caution the Board of Censors against screening of a film likely to hurt sentiments of the people. The Sudarshan published from Jammu asked the Board to ban exhibition of the just produced movie, Dnyaneshwar as “it hurt sentiments of Hindus by showing a buffalo delivering Vedic sermons”. In 1939, the Punjab Board of Censors shared with its Jammu & Kashmir counterpart a list of 132 movies it had uncertified between 1922 and 1936 and banned for screening. The cinema halls had to also exhibit propaganda films or newsreels known as Advisory or Information Films like Frontline Air Force, Indian News Parade, Conquest of Germany, Workers and War Front, School for Farmers, Tube Well, Musical Instruments of India, and Workers’ Weekend. After 1947, the newsreels were produced by the Films Division of India and distributed among cinemas for exhibition before each film show.
The two decades of 1960s and 1970s will always be remembered as the period when Bollywood used to the fullest the beauty of Kashmir for producing super hit films, mostly in the genre of melodramas. One such movie that instantly comes to mind is Junglee (1961) that inspired industrialist Rattan Tata to visit Kashmir along with 17 of his college friends. Other movies include, Kashmir ki Kali (1964), Jab Jab Phool Khilay, Arizoo, Jaanwar(1965), Do Badan (1966), Hamraz, Pathar ke Sanam (1967), Ek Phool Do Maali (1969), Aan Milo Sajna, Kab Kyon aur Kahan, Geet (1970), Bobby (1973), Roti, Aap ki Kasam (1973) and Kabhie Kabhie (1976). Betaab, a 1980 movie, was shot in a valley in Pahalgam which came to be known after the film as the Betaab Valley. Silsila (1981) was another major hit shot in Kashmir. At one point in time in 1983–84, there were “over four hundred film units active in Kashmir.” At times, there were 10–12 film shootings going on simultaneously in Srinagar. Pahalgam. Gulmarg and the Mughal Gardens in Srinagar were Bollywood’s favourite shooting locations.
Sometimes, during shooting of a film peculiar situation would arise like enthusiastic onlookers becoming unmanageable for a film crew, or a fan in order to meet or take a picture with a film star creating a scene. An interesting anecdote is narrated about the shooting of Roti in Pahalgam where actor Rajesh Khanna who was then on the zenith of fame had misbehaved with a local guy, Aziz Nartcur. The aggrieved person approached a prominent local man, a Zaildar, who, not knowing enough about Khanna, confronted him on behalf of the guy and demanded to know why he had manhandled him. Unable to understand what the Zaildar was saying in Kashmiri, Khanna in his trademark filmy style responded, “Humai to kuch bolna nahi aata” (I cannot speak [Kashmiri]). Irritated, the Zaildar retorted: “Hata ma kar yim zanane war” (O, you! Stop bevaing like a woman). When he was told by some onlooker that the film actor cannot speak Kashmiri, the Zaildar shot back, “Yeli ba Zaildar aesith Koshur bole amis kus prah chhu” (When I, a Zaildar, can converse in Kashmiri why he can’t?)
For a long time after the eruption of militancy and ban on cinema halls, film shooting in Kashmir suffered disruption. It were only occasional films, mostly on the subject of militancy, like Roja, a Tamil movie, and Mission Kashmir that film shooting under tight security cover was held during 1990s. Other films with the same theme subsequently picturized in Kashmir and accused of furthering the State Narrative at the cost of facts include Dil Se, Lakshya, Sikandar and Shaury. In recent years, some movies partly or substantially shot in Kashmir on subjects other than militancy include Highway, Yeh Jawani Hai Diwani, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Student of the Year, Saat Khoon Maaf, Rockstar, Lamha and Yahaan.
From Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad to Omar Abdullah, politicians in power in Kashmir have always tried to woo Bollywood to visit and shoot in Kashmir. Some had developed close relation with film actors and actresses. Dr. Farooq Abdullah, for one, is known to have a warm rapport with movie stars. He was reportedly offered a role by noted film producer B. R. Chopra opposite actress Salma Agha. A day before he was ousted from power on 2 July 1984 in the wake of revolt by a group of his legislators, he was pillion-driving actress Shabana Azmi on his motorcycle at Gulmarg. In 1960s, there was uproar about an alleged incident involving a leading film actress and some local politician. The matter was also raised in the State Legislative Assembly where a Member sought to know from the Government the identity of the person involved. On 23 March 1964, participating in the discussion on the grants for the Home Ministry, legislator Shiv Charan Gupta spoke about deteriorating law and order situation and chastity of women being “violated”. Addressing the Chair, Gupta said, “I want to know the person who brought film actress Bina Rai here and where did she stay for that long period? The members who are not seated in treasury benches now, but were so previously, will suffer rather are suffering for such wicked and moral depravity.”
The allegations of misrepresentation of Kashmir by Bollywood are not new. For long, it has stereotyped Kashmiris. In a Hindi movie, Kashmir is either all about tourism without which its people would starve, or terrorism. There is no grey area. Earlier, if they were boat people or small time handicraft traders ever dying for a tourist to run their kitchen, now they are either gun wielding terrorists or a collection of unfaithful people, sponsored by a neighbouring country and ever disrespectful of India. The 2014 movie, Haider, co-written by a Kashmiri journalist, Basharat Peer, was an exception that avoided Indian nationalist narrative and portrayed the tragic human cost of the Kashmir Conflict, disappearances, military torture and extrajudicial killings.
People wedded to tradition and cultural values have often spoken about negative impact of films on Kashmir society. Apart from opposing the opening of new cinema halls — the Naz Cinema was not allowed operation for a long time -, newspaper columns were used to express anguish over ‘bad influence’ of movies, especially on young generation. Opposition was also voiced against ‘wrong depiction’ of Kashmir and its people. When film Begum was screened in a Srinagar theatre in 1947, the Kashmir in a column titled, Ye Kashmiriyun ki Gairat castigated the movie for “portraying Kashmiri women in a bad light”. The conservative society did not take very kindly the image of a Kashmiri girl openly romancing with a young boy. The newspaper alleged that the movie depicted Kashmiris as “more uncivilized than the Afican Negroes”. It challenged the self-esteem of the people and demanded the Film Censor Board of the State to ban the movie, recalling that Shouri Film Pictures had earlier made a similar film which was banned in the State after the Editor Martand, Prem Nath Kanna, led a campaign against it. On 21 September 1939, Dr. Balram Das moved a resolution in the Praja Sabha recommending that “boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 18 be prohibited from attending the Cinema.” Rejecting the resolution, Prime Minister Gopalaswami Ayyangar argued that in modern times there were several films necessary for the education of children and if certain kind of cinema films has to be shut out then it should be prohibited for all people irrespective of their age.
During 1970s, when cinema and television had made deep inroads into the culture of Kashmir, voices of concern were raised on weakening social norms. The cinema attracting women audiences in a large number was considered the main culprit. It was during this period that Maulvi Mohammad Sultan, nicknamed as Slacks Maulvi, with a cane in his hand, would appear on the Maulana Azad Road to admonish and chase college girls away for wearing slacks, a skin tight leg-wear. This happened for several days before he was taken into custody by the police. Poet and educationist, Ghulam Ali Shaheed Salmani, captured the public mood against ‘erosion of social values’ in his long poem, Naev Bochhi (New Appetite) whose opening stanza reads:
Naev bochhi laejmetch az chhi zamanas waqtan bronh kun kor parwaaz
Mael karaan az neichvein paelish kori chhi bawaan majen raaz
Hayihik parde wudith geyi London zulfan dooh dith geyi maikraaz
Gare chha akh woin kus kati tchhandoan Neelam kaale te subhan Naaz
In 1989, amid rising wave of armed insurgency, a militant outfit, Allah Tigers, issued a warning to the owners of liquor shops and cinema halls to immediately wind up their business in Kashmir. The outfit’s chief, ‘Air Marshal Noor Khan’, attacked some liquor shops in the city, seizing and destroying crates of liquor. There were also bomb blasts targeting some cinema halls. Amid scare and serious security threat, all the cinema houses closed down on 1 January 1990. Nine years later, the Jammu & Kashmir Government gave huge monetary incentives to owners for reopening their cinema halls. The Government was desperate to sell the reopening of the cinema halls as Kashmir’s return to normalcy. Three cinema halls — the Broadway, the Neelam and the Regal — reopened albeit for a brief time. The reopening of the cinema halls did not evoke much response. People were scared of visiting a movie theatre despite tight security arrangements. On 24 September 1999, the Regal Cinema reopened with the Sunny Deol and Mahima Chowdhary starrer, Pyar Koyi Khel Nahi when a grenade was thrown at the cinema killing at least one person and injuring many. The cinema hall downed its shutters. Later, the building of the Regal Cinema was pulled down by its new owner to pave way for construction of a shopping complex. The Broadway Cinema located in a high security zone, was the first after the Regal Cinema to shut down. The cinema hall has since been demolished and a new commercial complex built on the site. The Neelam Cinema remained functional for some time but ultimately closed down during the widespread civil unrest in 2010.
Since then, it is curtains down for the cinema halls in Kashmir.
(Khalid Bashir Ahmad is writer and Former Director Information and Secretary J&K Cultural Academy)
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