Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – After a gap of 23 years, cinemas have returned to Indian-administered Kashmir with the opening of a multiplex in the main city of Srinagar.
Manoj Sinha, the New Delhi-appointed governor of the disputed region, on Tuesday inaugurated the first multiplex in the scenic city, with Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha being the inaugural fare.
The government said it plans to establish cinemas in every district of the region, where a popular rebellion against India’s rule has killed tens of thousands since the 1990s.
“The government is committed to change perceptions about Jammu and Kashmir, and we know people want entertainment and they want to watch movies,” Sinha told reporters as he opened the 520-seat hall, part of Indian multiplex chain Inox in partnership with Kashmiri businessman Vijay Dhar.
“Cinema is in our blood because my family owned a known Broadway Cinema which was closed in the 1990s,” Dhar told Al Jazeera. “We realised there is no source of entertainment for the youth and we took this initiative. We want to bring new technology into Kashmir.”
Indian-administered Kashmir had dozens of cinemas until an armed rebellion against Indian rule forced their closure in the early 1990s. Many of these complexes were turned into Indian security camps and fenced with razor wire. Others became shopping complexes and hospitals.
In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government brought India’s only Muslim-majority region under its direct control by scrapping its special status.
Since then, a series of laws and policies have been implemented there which the government claims will bring development to the region after decades of armed strife. But the residents say the moves aim to change the demography of the region.
As public screenings of films returned to the region after decades, many Kashmiris recalled the old times.
“Watching movies in cinemas was the craze and we would desperately wait for hours to get a ticket. There would be a huge crowd,” 60-year-old shopkeeper Muhamad Ashraf told Al Jazeera.
In 1998, the regional government offered financial assistance to some cinema owners to revive them. The few cinemas that opened were forced to shut down either due to attacks by suspected rebels or a poor response by the residents amid the conflict.
In one such incident that year, a bombing occurred when the Regal Cinema, Srinagar’s oldest and the most famous, was reopened. The blast in the city’s busy Lal Chowk area killed a civilian and wounded many others, sending shockwaves through the valley.
Dhar said two other cinemas in the city – Broadway, owned by his family, and Neelam – were shut down due to a lack of footfall. Many Kashmiris say the poor response was due to heavy security inside the theatres. Srinagar’s last cinema hall closed in 1999.
“Those were good times when families would go to watch movies. I lived in Anantnag in South Kashmir where even Hollywood movies were screened,” Kashmiri writer Bashir Dada told Al Jazeera.
“Till the 1980s, things were fine. All the films released (in other parts of India) were also shown here. Dilip Kumar was a favourite among people,” he said, referring to the iconic Bollywood actor who died last year.
Sinha, the governor, on Sunday also inaugurated two multipurpose halls in Shopian and Pulwama districts, hotbeds of armed rebellion in the region.
The government is also wooing Indian film producers to again shoot their movies in the picturesque Himalayan valley where hundreds of Bollywood films were shot after the invention of colour cinema in the 1960s.
Last year, the government also announced a policy to promote Indian-administered Kashmir as the popular filmmaking destination it used to be.