In the theatre of normalcy

Opening cinema halls in defiance of militants or separatist hardliners, even under security, should be a matter of prestige if not priority. Namita Bhandare writes.

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Farooq Abdullah is not a man I always agree with. When he suggests that India would be better off as a ‘controlled democracy’, I roll my eyes. When he sacks his brother for disparaging Rahul Gandhi, I am perplexed. But when Farooq Abdullah says he wants cinema halls (and liquor shops) to open in Kashmir, I find myself in complete agreement.

Let’s keep liquor shops out for now (after all Gujarat is also a dry state). But no movie halls? Kashmiris have been denied the pleasure of the big screen since the late 1980s when outfits like the Allah Tigers forced movie halls to shut down and Asiya Andrabi’s Dukhtaran-e-Millat marched through Srinagar ensuring that none operated. Journalist Harinder Baweja recalls a time when visiting the state’s public gardens was banned. Even now, she says: “There is nothing for young people to do. Psychological problems are rife because there is no outlet for them.”

And yet, this is not the 90s when militancy raged, the army responded and human rights violations were reported. This is 2011, the close of a year that has chief minister Omar Abdullah insistent on the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Afspa) and politicians declaring a return to normalcy citing as evidence of the absence of stone-throwers and presence of tourists.

Can a state claim to have returned to normalcy when movie halls remain shut? Farooq Abdullah says he wants movie halls (and liquor shops) to reopen to ‘get more tourists’. It’s a misplaced reason. Movie halls must open because normalcy goes beyond the uneasy quiet of the streets. Normalcy must include parks and picnics, shopping and restaurants, movies and popcorn. Movie halls must open for the people of Kashmir, not for the tourists who will come and go.

The loonies have responded. Asiya Andrabi says she will not allow Kashmir to turn into a ‘prostitution centre’. For Jamaat-e-Islami, movie halls and liquor shops are the source of ‘obscenity, immorality and imprudence’. And Hurriyat chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani wants a fatwa. Within and outside the state, the political establishment has neither denounced this reaction nor supported the demand. Farooq stands isolated. Even the chatterati, so prickly over censorship elsewhere in the country, is silent on this gag order.

Kashmir and movies have a long and sentimental relationship. One report claims that over 90 films were shot in the state between 1960 and 1990. Kashmir repaid that love; at one point, there were 18 theatres in the Valley alone. Movie-going in Kashmir, as in the rest of India, was a way of life, one of the cheapest forms of entertainment.

Perhaps that is the problem: there are those who don’t want Kashmir to be bracketed with the rest of India. Perhaps normalcy is a dirty word to them. Perhaps there are too many vested interests that would rather see young people throw stones than watch Rockstar (partly shot in Kashmir) in a movie hall. Many will remember the reopening of Regal cinema in 1999 when a grenade went off and the hall retreated into closure. In 1997, Broadway cinema reopened only to shut down due to slow sales — few were brave enough to venture in.

For Geelani & co, the opening of cinema halls is an instance of ‘cultural aggression’ by the government. A few months ago, an effort to host a literature festival in the state failed when Kashmiri writers (who live outside the state) objected to an ‘apolitical’ festival in a politicised state. Now the Commissars of Public Morality will decide how Kashmiris must entertain themselves — or not.

This a government headed by Farooq Abdullah’s son. Opening cinema halls in defiance of militants or separatist hardliners, even under security, should be a matter of prestige if not priority. There was reason to cheer this past week when CRPF troops vacated the Firdous theatre in Srinagar’s old city after having occupied it for close to 20 years. The challenge now is to reoccupy Kashmir’s theatres, returning them to those they belong to: the people of Kashmir.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal

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