Cinema opens in Kashmir city after 14 years but few show up

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — A multi-screen movie theater opened in the main city of Indian-controlled Kashmir on Saturday for the first time in 14 years as part of government efforts to show normality in the disputed region that has was placed under the direct control of India three years ago.

Decades of deadly conflict, bombings and India’s brutal counter-insurgency campaign turned people away from cinemas, and only a dozen viewers lined up for the first morning show, an action flick from Bollywood « Vikram Vedha ». The 520-seat hall with three screens was opened under elaborate security in the Srinagar High Security Zone which also houses the Indian Army’s regional headquarters.

« There are different views on (film) but I think that’s a good thing, » said film buff Faheem, who gave only one name. « It’s a sign of progress. »

Others on the show declined to comment.

The afternoon and evening shows had less than 10% occupancy on Saturday, according to India’s leading movie booking site

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

After Kashmiri militants rose up against Indian rule in 1989, launching a bloody insurgency that was met with a brutal response from Indian troops, the once thriving city of Srinagar withered. The city’s eight private cinemas have closed on orders from the rebels, claiming they are vehicles for India’s cultural invasion and anti-Islamic.

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

However, three cinemas, backed by government financial aid, reopened in 1999 amid an official push to project the idea that life had returned to normal in Kashmir. Shortly after, a bomb attack outside a hall in the heart of Srinagar killed a civilian and injured many others and shut it down. Weary Kashmiris largely stayed away, and the other ward closed within a year. A theater, the Neelam, resisted until 2008.

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

« The government is committed to changing perceptions on 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 placed it under direct control, throwing Kashmir under a severe security and communications lockdown.

The area has since been on edge as authorities also introduced a series of new laws, which critics and many locals say could alter the demographics of the area.

Aijaz Hussain, The Associated Press


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