One cinema sticks it out in Indian Kashmir
You can forget the popcorn.
At the only working movie theater in Indian Kashmir, this is what a moviegoer endures: a frisking, a walk past sandbagged bunkers and a once-over by soldiers wearing body armor and carrying assault rifles.
But there are plenty of seats. Every day, Noor Mohammad, manager of the Neelam Cinema, stares at the empty rows, a fruitless wait for customers in a land where the violence of everyday life is more dramatic than on-screen fiction.
Mohammad has worked for the Neelam since 1966, when it opened.
“Those were times when cinema halls used to bustle with life,” said Mohammad, smiling as he sold an occasional ticket for 40 rupees, about $1. For this haggard 65-year-old, a crowd of 10 is enough to roll his movie projector. Fewer than that, and he doesn’t bother.
The theater can seat 750, but it’s a rare day when there are more than 40 people for all three shows. There are no shows at night -- few people venture outside here after nightfall.
Srinagar, the main city in Indian-controlled Kashmir, is a tough town.
After Kashmiri militants rose up against Indian rule in 1989, launching an insurgency that has left more than 68,000 dead, this once-thriving city wilted. Protests shook the streets as Kashmiris demanded that India allow the Muslim-majority region to become independent or join neighboring Pakistan.
Bombings became daily occurrences, and Indian soldiers flooded the Himalayan region.
The Muslim militants ordered liquor stores, movie theaters and the handful of bars to close, saying they were vehicles of India’s cultural invasion and anti-Islamic.
Most of the city’s eight movie theaters soon became something far more ominous. In the early 1990s, the Indian military converted most -- including the Neelam -- into makeshift army camps, detention centers or interrogation centers. Soon, places where audiences thrilled to Bollywood blockbusters became feared buildings, where witnesses say torture was commonplace.
The Broadway and the Neelam reopened in 1999 amid an official push to project the idea that life had returned to normal in Kashmir. But weary Kashmiris largely stayed away, and the Broadway locked its doors within a year. The Neelam stuck it out.
It looks more like a military installation than a place for an evening out. Coils of barbed wire surround the building, and gun-wielding soldiers stand guard behind sandbag bunkers.
The popcorn machine has been switched off. The snack bar serves only cookies, potato chips, tea and cold drinks.
Few people come, fearing the possibility of a bombing or the wrath of the militants, who still oppose movie theaters.
Employees, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the privately owned theater gets a subsidy from the government, which still wants to make Srinagar appear normal.
The theater owner and government officials declined to comment.
A generation has grown up in Kashmir without ever visiting a cinema hall -- something incredibly rare in a country with the world’s largest moviemaking industry and where passion for films runs deep.
On a recent day, Mohammad Abdullah Lone, 21, entered the Neelam to watch “Aag,” or “Fire.”
He was awed.
“It’s my first experience watching a movie on the silver screen,” Lone said. “But I wonder whether movie theaters are all like this.”
Most Kashmiris watch movies at home, on DVDs or satellite television. Some 2,000 new subscribers sign up every month for satellite TV, local operators say.
That’s more bad news for the Neelam.
“I don’t know how cinema will survive here in these conditions,” Mohammad said.
He counts one statistic as the most depressing: Since the theater reopened eight years ago, not a single family has come together to see a movie.