By Khalid Bashir Ahmad
The beginning and the end of cinema halls in Kashmir is linked with the turmoil it has witnessed for about nine decades now. During the early 1930s, when Kashmir was passing through an uncertain situation following the massacre of about two dozen unarmed civilians on 13 July 1931 and the consequent public revolt against an autocratic rule, a Punjabi speaking Sikh businessman built the Valley’s first cinema hall, the Palladium Talkies at the city centre, later named as the Lal Chowk. In 1989, when armed insurgency started in Kashmir and a militant outfit, the Allah Tigers, ordered closure of cinema houses and liquor shops in the Valley and grenades were hurled at some movie theaters, all of them were shut on 1 January 1990. The State Government’s efforts to reopen cinema halls, linking it with the return of normalcy in Kashmir, did not materialize albeit a short lived success when three movie theatres in Srinagar reopened in 1999 but quickly shut down in the face of grenade attacks resulting in the death of at least one person and injuries to many. Today, most of the cinema halls are either converted into commercial centers, including one into a hospital, or occupied by paramilitary forces.
The cinema in Kashmir is essentially the story of the Palladium Talkies started in 1932 by Bhai Anant Singh Gauri, who – unknown to most for his philanthropy – donated over 50 kanals (6.19 acres) of land to the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), Srinagar in 1978. An acknowledgement to this huge gesture is the Institute’s Ward No. 4 named after him and dedicated to the treatment of urology patients. A letter of gratitude signed by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the then Chief Minister and the man behind the construction of the SKIMS, on 14 January 1978 welcomed the donation as coming from “a great family of our State which is known for their numerous acts of philanthropy.” Bhai Anant Singh’s grandson, Manmohan Singh Gauri claims that the Palladium Cinema was the oldest movie hall in north India and would screen Hollywood movies before these were released in Delhi which did not have a good market for English films then. “We had the privilege of hosting a meeting of a leading Hollywood film producing company, the 20th Century Fox”, he reminisces. The cinema also held variety shows. In 1940, for instance, it held Mumtaz Shanti Variety Show whose first day’s proceeds it gave to the War Fund. Shanti was a famous film actress of 1940s.
The Palladium Cinema was Kashmir’s big leap in the entertainment arena. It was run by the Kashmir Talkies Ltd. One of the first movies, if not the very first, screened at the cinema was the India’s maiden sound picture, Alam Ara, released in 1931. Directed by Ardeshir Irani, the film had Master Vithal and Zubaida in lead roles with Prithviraj Kapoor as a supporting actor. In October 1947, when Kashmir was pushed into a never ending tumult, the Palladium Cinema was screening Kismet, the first blockbuster in Indian cinema, featuring Ashok Kumar and Mumtaz Shanti. The screening of the film had begun on 10 October 1947. After Maharaja Hari Singh ran to Jammu for safety on 26 October in the wake of Tribal Attack on Kashmir and the arrival of Indian army in Srinagar, the Palladium Cinema became the hub of the Emergency Administration headed by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, and his Peace Brigade. Many adjacent hotels and other buildings were also used as offices of different wings of the Administration. In front of the cinema hall, the red flag of the National Conference with an image of a plough fluttered on an iron pillar about 30 feet high. Later, during G. M. Sadiq’s Government (1964-71) the flag was removed. However, during the long Plebiscite Movement, Holy Relic Movement and other political agitations, a protestor would climb the pole to unfurl a black flag. It was in front of the cinema in 1948 that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India, made a solemn pledge to Kashmiris of holding a plebiscite to determine the future of Kashmir once the situation was normalized. Whether the screening of films was temporarily halted in the Palladium Cinema is not known. However, the cinema screened Kasam, featuring Prem Adib, a Kashmiri origin actor, and Najma, from 16 November 1947. Adib was one of the top actors of the early 1940s. The screening of the film was extended to 30 November, after which films Taj Mahal and Man ki Jeet were screened. The earliest and the longest serving gatekeeper of the Palladium Cinema was Muhammad Abdullah of Dalgate. The Palladium was burnt in a major incident of fire in 1993 which consumed many adjacent buildings also. It could not be rebuilt due to a dispute over the land lease and the gutted building was taken over and used by paramilitary forces as a security camp. Within the collapsed four walls of the cinema hall different species of plants, especially Himalayan Horse Chestnut, grown over the years have turned into huge trees. The Government in 2017 announced that the site would be developed as a heritage museum.
The inauguration of the Palladium Cinema was soon followed by the opening of the Regal Cinema in Srinagar by Bals, another Punjabi speaking family whose progeny, Rohit Bal, is a leading fashion designer of India today. The Bal siblings – Amresh Bal, Prakash Bal and Mahinder Bal – owned two more cinema houses of the same name at Gulmarg and Lahore, and run these under the banner of the Universal Pictures Ltd. The Regal Cinema at Srinagar was the only theatre which had a bar also. The Annual Administration Report for the year 1940-41 talks about two cinema halls in Srinagar as “one caters chiefly for Europeans and educated Indians and the other provides amusement chiefly to Indian audiences”. The Regal Gulmarg was a summer time talkie situated near the Gulmarg Club where only Hollywood movies were screened for the Europeans who thronged the hill station during summers. The dilapidated wooden building of the cinema collapsed under the weight of snow somewhere during 1970s. The Palladium and the Regal cinemas were connected with landlines with phone numbers 252 and 138, respectively.
In 1935, one S. D. Puri applied for grant of land for construction of a cinema hall, third in Srinagar. The Revenue Minister recommended to the Prime Minister allotment of 2 kanals of land to the applicant near the Police Station Kothibagh on the assurance that educational films for school going boys and girls would be screened in the proposed cinema hall twice a week. However, the proposal faced opposition, both within and outside the Government. Within the Government, it was feared that crowds of people of all sorts passing the adjacent Zanana Palace (abode of the widows in the then ruling family, now Government College for Women) on way to the cinema hall every evening and returning in batches late at night, “the road may not maintain its desired respectable appearance.” There was public outcry also against setting up of a third cinema hall in the city. On 11 March 1936, a telegram sent to the Prime Minister by both Muslim and Hindu subjects informed him that due to the current trade depression and unemployment the existing two cinema halls were proving harmful for the people, and urged him to reject permission to “outsider exploiter” for construction of a third cinema hall in Srinagar and “save His Highness’ loyal subjects from ruination”. The issue was agitated through the Press also. The daily Martand, owned by the Yuvak Sabha of Kashmiri Pandits wrote against starting a third movie hall in Srinagar. In its publication of 30 November 1935, the newspaper cautioned that “a third cinema hall will reduce to extremity a people already depleted of their resources by the existing cinema halls”. Ultimately, the State Council decided to reserve the land for Government purposes and the question of construction of a Cinema Hall was “automatically quashed.”
There were others also who saw ‘a great educative and moral value’ in the cinema and focused on the need for good selection of movies. That year, a body named Cinema Reform Association was formed to ensure, among other things, reduction in rates and fair selection of movies for exhibition. The Association comprised Ramsaran Das Malhotra as President, Fazal Ahmad as Vice President, Mr. Nishat as Secretary and Yiba Rafiqi as Joint Secretary. The Association was “of the opinion that Cinema Industry has a great educative and moral value & that open competition alone can provide good treatment, reduction in rates and fair selection of pictures.”
By the end of 1930s, there were only two cinema houses in Kashmir- the Palladium and the Regal. However, in early 1940s, the Bals were permitted to construct another movie hall, Amresh, named after one of the three owner siblings, behind the then existing Regal Cinema that stood where the Bata Shop at the Regal Chowk exists today. The Bals used the upper floor of the Amresh Cinema as their residence. In 1950, the ownership of the Regal and the Amresh cinemas changed hands from the Bals to Bakhshi Abdul Majid, brother of the then Deputy Prime Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad who later became the Prime Minister of the State in 1953. The two cinema halls were purchased for a sum of Rs. 1, 50,000. By 1956, three more cinema halls had come up in Kashmir including the Samad Talkies, Sopore, the Regina Cinema, Baramulla and the Nishat Talkies, Anantnag. Those days, cinema halls were required to send to the Government a quarterly statement of gate collections. During the second quarter of 1956, the Palladium Cinema made a collection of Rs. 64, 367, the Regal Cinema Rs. 47, 347 and annas 6, the Amresh Talkies Rs. 48, 529 and aanas 14, the Regina Cinema Rs. 12, 688 and annas 2, the Samad Talkies Rs. 1836 an annas 4, and the Nishat Talkies Rs. 5231 and annas 10.
On 28 December 1963, a day after the mysterious theft of the Holy Relic at the Hazratbal Shrine, an infuriated mob set ablaze the Regal and the Amresh cinemas for alleged involvement of the Bakhshis in the sacrilegious act. When the situation normalized, the owners sought permission of the Government for reconstruction of the two gutted cinema halls. However, the permission for reconstruction was granted only for one cinema hall following which a new Regal Cinema was constructed at the site of the Amresh Cinema. It was then the largest cinema hall of Kashmir with a capacity of 1340 seats, almost equal number the Regal and the Amresh had together. The cinema was inaugurated in 1967 with the Raj Kapoor movie, Around the World in 8 Dollars. On the first day, the roof of the entry to the ticket counter collapsed under the weight of the people who had climbed over it to obtain tickets for the late night show. Many of them sustained injuries. It happened to be the auspicious Shab-i-Baraat, the night when Muslims believe Allah writes the destiny of the people for the coming year, and many people believed the accident was caused due to ‘disrespect’ shown by cinema-goers to the sacred occasion. For two decades after the commencement of the Amresh Cinema, Srinagar had no more movie halls until 1964 when the Shiraz Cinema was inaugurated in the heart of the old city at Khanyar. The first three cinema halls were located in the uptown area of Lal Chowk. The Shriraz opened with Sangam, a Raj Kapoor-Vijayanti Mala-Rajindra Kumar starrer, that drew huge rush of people.
The decade of 1960s saw rapid expansion of cinemas in Kashmir. After the Shiraz Cinema, the Broadway Theatre was opened at Sonawar in May 1965 with Shammi Kapoor’s Jaanwar, and the Neelam Cinema at Suthra Shahi near the Civil Secretariat in 1966 with Dil Diya Dard Liya featuring Dilip Kumar and Waheeda Rehman. The Neelam Cinema was originally built by Gauris as the Jai Hind Talkies but the building was acquired by the Government to use it as coal storage. After sometime, it was auctioned and its new owner opened it as a movie hall. Bhai Anant Singh Gauri had another cinema house, the Regina, built on the present Maulana Azad Road which was also taken over by the Government for the Transport Department. The Regina was built in 1945-46 and the Jai Hind Talkies in 1946-47. Soon, Kashmir was engulfed by turmoil in October 1947 and opening of the two new cinema halls was put on hold. However, when the situation somewhat stabilized, the Government refused cinema license to Gauri in either case, allegedly to save Bakhshi Abdul Majid, owner of the Regal and the Amresh from any competition in regard to his two cinema houses. The building of the Regina Cinema was acquired by the Government on 7 January 1953 for Rs. 1, 10,000. On 22 November 1949, Majid applied for license claiming that he had taken the Jai Hind Talkies on lease and intended to run it as the Shalimar Pictures. Later, he stepped back arguing that “it was not the policy of the Government to grant any more licenses for cinemas.” In the meanwhile, Gauri approached Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad, who was now the Prime Minister, for issuance of license but without any success. The matter lingered on till 1961 when the Government acquired the building. Between 1946 and 1948, residents of the locality also objected to running a cinema in the building, pleading that a mosque, a girls’ school and a Muslim graveyard were nearby. The then District Magistrate, M. A. Shahmiri, too had pointed out the undesirability of a cinema there. The denial of cinema licenses to Gauri for safeguarding business interests of his brother formed part of the charges of misconduct against the former Prime Minister, Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad, investigated by a Commission of Inquiry appointed by the Government on 30 January 1965.
Following the opening of the Neelam Cinema, the next movie hall inaugurated in Srinagar was the Khayam Cinema, at Muniwar opened on 2 December 1968 with the Hollywood war movie, The Dirty Dozen. It was the first cinema hall in Kashmir with a 70 mm screen. Next in the line were the Naz Cinema opposite the Huzoori Bagh, now Iqbal Park, and the Firdous Cinema at Hawal, which were inaugurated in 1969. The Firdous Cinema opened with Tumse Achha Kaun Hai, a Shammi Kapoor and Babita starrer. The cinema was thrown open on 13 April on the Baisakhi festival. For the next 14 years, the Firdous was the last cinema hall to come up in Srinagar before the inauguration of the Shah Cinema at Qamarwari in October 1983.
Besides these 9 regular cinema halls in Srinagar, there were few run by the army where civilians also were allowed entry. One such cinema, Badam Kutir, was located at the Sadar Bazar in the Badami Bagh Cantonment. Another was an open air projector-and-a-screen facility at the Tattoo Ground. Jalaluddin Shah, a geologist by profession who has a remarkable memory of developments taking place in Kashmir since 1960s recalls that on 9 August 1965 when the Tattoo Ground was attacked by the alleged infiltrators from Pakistan, the cinema was showing the movie April Fool with actors Biswajeet and Saira Banu in pivotal roles. Next day, Batamaloo, an adjacent congested locality, went up in flames. Outside the city of Srinagar, there also were cinema halls in Anantnag, Baramulla and Sopore towns and in 1980’s a cinema hall at Kupwara was also started. A 1946 archival document mentions existence of a cinema hall each at Pahalgam and Anantnag without mentioning their names. In all probability, the Anantnag cinema was the Nisaht Talkies which was an old structure when it got burnt in 1982 at a time when Hindi movie Surakhsha, feauring Mithun Chakarvarti, was screened there. In 1985, a new theatre named Heevan Cinema was inaugurated in the town. Other cinema halls included the Regina and the Thimaya (an Army cinema hall) at Baramulla, the Samad Talkies and the Kapara Theatre at Sopore, the Zorawar (another army cinema hall) at Pattan, and the Hazari Theatre at Kupwara. In 1989, when cinema was banned in Kashmir, there were at least 15 functional cinemas in the Valley, 9 in Srinagar city alone.
Khalid Bashir Ahmad is an author, poet and a former Kashmir Administrative Services (KAS) officer.