Kashmir city opens its doors to cinema after 14-year hiatus

SRINAGAR (AP): Indian-occupied Kashmir has opened its doors to movie theaters after 14 years of hiatus through an effort to showcase normalcy in the disputed region that was brought under India’s direct rule three years ago.

Decades of a deadly conflict, bombings, and brutal Indian counterinsurgency campaign have turned people away from cinemas, and only about a dozen viewers lined up for the first-morning show, the Bollywood action movie “Vikram Vedha.” The 520-seat hall with three screens opened under elaborate security in Srinagar’s high-security zone that also houses India’s military regional headquarters.

“There are different viewpoints about (cinema) but I think it’s a good thing,” said moviegoer Faheem, who gave only one name. “It’s a sign of progress.”

Others at the show declined to comment.

According to India’s premier movie booking website, the afternoon and evening shows had less than 10% occupancy on Saturday.

The multiplex was officially inaugurated on Sept. 20 by Manoj Sinha, New Delhi’s top administrator in Kashmir. The cinema is part of Indian multiplex chain Inox in partnership with a Kashmiri businessman.

After Kashmiri forces rose against Indian rule in 1989, launching an insurgency that was met with a brutal response by Indian troops, the once-thriving city of Srinagar wilted. The city’s eight privately owned movie theaters closed amid the clashes.

In the early 1990s, government forces converted most of the city’s theaters into makeshift security camps, detention, or interrogation centers. Soon, places, where audiences thronged Bollywood blockbusters, became feared buildings, where witnesses say torture was commonplace.

However, three cinema halls, backed by government financial assistance, reopened in 1999 amid an official push to project the idea that life had returned to normal in Kashmir. Soon after, a bombing outside one hall in the heart of Srinagar killed a civilian, wounded many others, and shut it again. Weary Kashmiris largely stayed away, and the other hall locked its doors within a year. One theater, the Neelam, stuck it out until 2008.

Officials said the government is planning to establish cinemas in every district of the region, where tens of thousands have been killed in the armed conflict since 1989. Last month, Sinha also inaugurated two multipurpose halls in the southern districts of Shopian and Pulwama, considered as hotbeds of armed rebellion.

“The government is committed to changing perceptions about Jammu and Kashmir, and we know people want entertainment and they want to watch movies,” Sinha told reporters at the inauguration.

In 2019, India revoked the region’s semi-autonomy and brought it under direct control, throwing Kashmir under a severe security and communication lockdown.

The region has remained on edge ever since as authorities also put in place a slew of new laws, which critics and many residents fear could change the region’s demographics.