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Return Of Cinemas In Kashmir–Nostalgia & New Hope

As cinemas return to Kashmir after three decades, Sanjay Raina captures the rise, fall and rise of the big screen in the valley.

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While growing up in the valley, Cinema was possibly the only form of entertainment. Lack of electricity meant that radio sets ( the ones running on valves)wouldn't run for a long time except at night, possibly blaring the popular ‘wadi ki awaz” or if one was lucky, ‘zoone dab’ in the morning. 

The battery powered radios (also called transistors – didn’t knew that an electronic chip would become generic) did improve the listenership, but trust me many a Kashmiri yokels couldn’t afford batteries to replace (quite like the 35mm camera roll in the ubiquitous Agfa or Yashica Camera).

This is where the cinema stepped in. The large, hallowed, barricaded like monolith structures, stony, uncool, a bit ugly, smelly and I don’t even want to take your attention to the “latrines” encircling these dark unkempt edifices. But they served a purpose.

For many these were edifices of love and romance, of eyeing the fabulously good looking Kashmiri girl ( even one ever spotted one), of watching those cheap early morning ( I think 10 am) English films.

 I myself counted having watched a good 75 odd over two years post school. Anything Charles Bronson would invite a full show. Post school, college going kids ( strands of beard on the face didn’t mean we were not kids), struggling with loose currency change, pooling money and buying the famed “stall” tickets would be eclectic, ethereal too. It was a kick in the leg feeling once one managed to get a ticket and then getting out of the hall, felt like being of the Charles Bronson flunkies. 

I recall walking out of the famous Regal cinema after watching ‘Return of the Dragon” starring the one and only Bruce Lee. We all felt we had turned into Kung Foo specialists. Many fights in the localities had people shouting strange Chinese sounding war cries…ooo,aaaai.eeiio.

Kashmiri’s by and large would call a movie a “khel”, especially the muslim community. I haven’t till date realised why. 

‘Walla, khel ha vyechev’..let’s watch a movie. The best place to get a review was in the dusty and dilapidated hair salons where the barber would suddenly, while cutting hair, narrate the story of the “khel” he had watched a day or a week back. Mine in Natipora (pamposh colony) had special love for Mithun Chakraborty films. He would pronounce him “maythun” and narrate the whole film in chaste Kashmiri. It was a sheer delight to listen to him.

There was something undefinable about securing a cinema ticket. ‘Blackers’, a term used to define the guy selling the tickets in black were a feared lot. They were normally those belonging to the lower strata of the society, uneducated and ready to punch at a drop of a hat. Or rather at the drop of the “kangerr’ ( the Kashmiri fire pot used to keep the body warm during winters). 

A lovely place to see all that on display was Naaz cinema near Magarmal Bagh. I haven’t ever been able to buy a cinema ticket normally. I had to go through a blacker and many times one would see the blacker taking his “kangerr” out and swinging it with red hot charcoal and hot ash spreading like a mini volcano. This was to disperse any unruly demand for tickets or even in a fight. 

While all this was going on, one would witness young and daring climbing over each other and trying to buy a ‘legal’ ticket out of a hole, the size of an outstretched palm. Bruised hands, fingers cut and even at times a broken finger was nothing to be startled by. All tickets were either yellow in colour or white, pieces of paper with no predefined seat numbers. 

Buying a ticket for ‘stall’ or ‘dress circle’ or even what was the cheapest enclosure called “Third” ( I guess the ticket cost was one third of the printed value and that’s why Third !!) or even a balcony was an exhilarating experience and then the giant old analog projectors would come to life and reel after reel of some fabulous movies would be put on the spool. Entertainment galore!

The “blacker” meanwhile had respect. For his grit, his muscular body ( never saw a fat one) and his fighting spirit. They lived a normal life and even raised families while “blacking” tickets.

For its size and population, Kashmir Valley had a large number of cinema halls – Let me recall a few. Broadway, Regal (Amresh before), Palladium, Naaz, Neelam (the most smelly toilet, yet a good looking owner), Shah, Sheeraz, Khayyam – all in Srinagar, not to mention what was called ‘Malaysia” ( must be militia , run by the army). 

This was complimented by ‘Kapra’ and ‘Samad Talkies’ in Sopore and ‘Sherwani’ in Baramulla. Horse carts would travel around the city at times carrying large posters of the forthcoming films and people would make a date with the cinema as well as the ‘blacker’. 

Most of the cinemas had their own canteens yet all of them had these “fly by day/evening” food vendors and they were very popular for selling the “buzze maaz ( grilled meat pieces) and ‘lavasa’ (white flour bread), ‘rajama lavasa’ ( boiled and spiced red kidney bean ) and the very famous boiled eggs (peeled of course). 

At Interval, people would rush, empty their bladders in a pool of an already stagnating river of pee and then rush to buy one of these fabulous dishes. The cinema would allow smoking at times although cinema marshals would pick up a fight with anyone smoking. A paradox of sorts.

And suddenly all cinemas and all such life vanished. The onset of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism in the valley took its first toll in form of the shutting down of the cinema halls. A huge ecosystem suddenly came to a grinding halt. Some of them were pulled down and converted into shopping centres, some into army barracks and some others, locked and left to old ‘spirits' to guard. 

I miss Palladium and Regal, my most visited dens of entertainment. I watched most of the English movies during the morning shows at Regal with my school and college friends. I recall watching ‘Sanjay Dutt’s ‘Rocky” with only a five rupee note amongst the three of us. We had bunked the school. And with a little prodding, each one of us dug deeper into the hidden pockets and managed to get a 12 rupee pool, good enough to get into “Third”. We were so close to the screen that we thought as if Sanjay Dutt would fall into our laps.

I am elated that cinemas are making a comeback. A  brand new multiplex is great news! Will the grilled meat or the boiled eggs or the spiced rajma seller make a comeback too? Will we see the old and aged “blacker'' walking in and trying to buy an electronic ticket or shall we see young men and women lining up to buy pastries’ and lattes’?

Alas the former is long gone. The latter is here. Possibly to survive. I miss the cinema hall of the old. I miss its smell, its rickety chairs and it's cold inside. All that we have now is these ultra-modern cinemas, impersonal, greedy and grandiose. 

What’s life which is too easy?




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kashmir cinema bollywood Sanjay Raina

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