Young voices on Kashmir

Oral History: Blurred-Memories of bygone Cinemas in Azad Kashmir

30th September 2020 | Komal Raja
I grew up in Azad Kashmir where cinema was non-existent. Thought of the region without a cinema never struck me as hard as it did this morning. Reference to the cinemas popped up while building an argument in one of my research papers about how the public spaces and socio-political activism in AJ&K are inter-related. I had always presumed that AJ&K has never had any cinemas. Well, to confirm my assumption I wrote to one of my knowledgeable and responsible research informant, Mr. Tariq Farooq, a senior minister of AJ&K. I was sure he would say there are/were none but to my surprise he replied, “There were many cinemas in every district of AJ&K till 1990. After that none of them existed due to many reasons but there is no ban imposed [on cinemas] in AJ&K.”

Since I was born in 1988, I had no direct experiential memory of the cinemas in AJ&K. However, I could not let go of the newly popped up topic and more importantly the guilt of not knowing anything about the cinemas that once existed in AJ&K. This led me to leave my work station and brainstorm and research about cinema stories of Azad Kashmir. Consequently, I was able to successfully knock on one of my childhood memory stores where I could find the fragments of a story shared by our grandmother, mentioning a cinema. In order to recollect the memory, I spoke to my Nano [grandmother] in Poonch, Azad Kashmir on a video call and asked her to tell me the story again.

She struggled to recall the course of events in the story which brought smile on her face. She shared that “it was the occasion of the wedding of Pahpa (her elder brother) and the family went to Thub Jagir (A village in Dadyal, Mirpur) from Muzaffarabad to get the bride. After the Barat ceremony, we (groom’s family) decided to stop over in Mirpur city. Later in the evening, Pahpa (groom) took me (Nano), his newlywed and Chachi (her mother) to watch the film, ‘Dayar e Peghambran’ in cinema. During the film, it started raining in one of the scenes and all of a sudden Chachi became agitated and said, ‘Ya Allah, we should run home, the clothes that I put outside for air drying must be wet by now.’ Pahpa told her, Chachi it’s raining only in the film”.

A ha-ha with a Wow for Chachi-my great grandmother! This story was told across the family for generations to highlight the importance of the simplicity of the people in olden days. But thankfully, it had a reference to a cinema which boosted my morale to dig more into the topic. I started my research and amazingly enough, even Google-the present day “all-answering” mortal, did not have any detailed information other than sufficing to the count of total cinemas in AJ&K. Using the modern-day modes of communication, with this little information, sitting in the second biggest city of Germany; I started approaching the people of Azad Kashmir who were young in 70’s and ’80s. The online snowball rolled across the globe and here is what I got in the form of oral history-cum-blurred-memories of the bygone cinemas in Azad Kashmir.

The appearance of cinemas in the land of Azad Kashmir started in the late 1950s and ended in the late 1990s. There were total 10 to 11 cinemas across the region. Most of the cinemas existed in Mirpur, Kotli and Muzaffarabad. There was none in the Poonch division. The cinemas of every region had their own distinct characteristics the information about which I gathered in the form of memoirs from different people belonging to different districts of Azad Kashmir.

In order to peep into the development of cinemas in specific historical circumstances in AJ&K, let us start with Mr. Bangash’s input, who is currently living a retired life in Harrow Middx, London. He was a former lecturer in Government College, Muzaffarabad and later worked as the Managing Editor of Mashriq, Urdu newsweekly magazine published in London, after moving to the United Kingdom in 1967. He shared:

‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. The city of Muzaffarabad was struggling after the war of liberation, 1947. The cease-fire was announced in January, 1949. Before this, life in Muzaffarabad city had come to standstill. Most of the houses of the Hindu population of the city were burnt, and Hindus and Sikhs living in Muzaffarabad were repatriated to India. Similarly, Muslim refugees from Jammu and Poonch who had migrated to Pakistan, left the refugee camps in Jhelum & Mansar to settle down in Muzaffarabad city. People who were compelled to leave the city and move to Ghari Habibullah, Mansehra, Abbottabad, Murree, Rawalpindi, started returning to Muzaffarabad soon after the cease-fire. It was a ghost town in 1949, 50, 51. The refugee families were allotted the burnt & half-burnt houses of the city. During 1955, an evacuee property of a Hindu family who had already left Muzaffarabad was turned into a cinema.’

This Cinema was originally allotted to Raja Sikander as told by his son Raja Tariq Sikander belonging to Muzaffarabad. He told that the cinema remained with his family for a few years till its roof, made of wooden trusses, fell off due to snowfall. The collapsed roof stayed there for many months and its machinery was shifted to their house which remained there for a year or so, till the death of his father in 1965.

Mr. Tariq further shared that before coming to their possession, the cinema was run by Mr.
Muzaffar-a non-state subject, who also owned a Cinema in Mansehra. It was also heard during those days that the premises was originally not that of Cinema but a Gurdwara which was later converted to Cinema with the investment of money by Mr. Muzaffar and the support of local administration as there was no source of entertainment in the small city.

He added, “I am not aware how was it allotted to my father, maybe to provide a cover to Mr. Muzaffar by allotting it to some state subject as after allotment to my father also, it remained under his operational control, till its roof fell due to snowfall. I am not aware of the financial arrangement between my father and Mr. Muzaffar. Then, Sheikh Rashid sb. purchased the premises from my family and machinery from Muzaffar sb. Muzaffar sb. used to bring movies from Mansehra through the bus to Muzaffarabad where cinema houses were in more advance level.”

Furthermore, I gathered that Mr. Shiekh Rasheed initially operated the Cinema without any roof on its hall during summers and probably because of this reason, he had named it ‘Moonlight Talkies’ and then later when he got the proper roof constructed and his residence built behind the Cinema building, he started calling it ‘Neelum Cinema’.

Sheikh Rashid was a refugee from Poonch who settled down in Sethi Bagh, Muzaffarabad and opened his grocery shop through which the entire family survived. All the grocery items used to come from Rawalpindi. Sheikh Rashid developed contacts with the film distributors who used to exhibit the films in Pindi cinemas and later started exhibiting the films in Neelam cinema. Young students and families started going to this cinema where Indian and Pakistani films were shown. Films like ‘Barsat’, ‘Jugnoo’, which were already popular, were exhibited. The roof of the cinema was made up of hay and cane. During the stormy and rainy weather, the movie service would stop.

Mr. Tariq concluded the conversation as “After 1965 and 1971 wars, Indian films were boycotted by the public at large. Sheikh Rashid, through his efforts, managed to upgrade Neelam cinema to a reasonable standard, starting from scratch. This cinema provided entertainment to the youth population of Muzaffarabad who had no other source of entertainment as there was no television service available in Azad Kashmir in those days. The only source of entertainment was listening to Radio Ceylon, and Pakistani songs on Radio Pakistan as well as Azad Kashmir Radio.”

Taking the route from Muzaffarabad to Mirpur, let us stop over at Kotli. Zakaria Shaz, an eminent Urdu and Pahari poet and a lecturer in Government Degree College, Kotli while talking about the comprehensive details of cinemas in Kotli told me that there were three cinemas namely Talkies Cinema, Relax Cinema, and Kashmir Mehal Cinema. Talkies was the oldest cinema whose owner was Saith Abdul Rehman of Mirpur and his son, Aman, locally famous as Billu, was the in charge of the cinema. Talkies was located on ‘Mandi road’ which nowadays is owned by the Pakistani Army. The building was located exactly at the place where contemporarily a café named ‘Sip and Chat’ is run by the Army. He said Talkies introduced and set the trend of film watching for the people of Kotli. “The best Pakistani Urdu and Punjabi films were shown in it and that’s how it played a vital role in developing the sense of aesthetics and taste for good movies in the common people. It was frequently visited by the families of Kashmiris and sometimes some army personnel would also visit the cinema with their families.”

He shared that he could not forget the first film, “Aat Khuda da Wair” that he watched in Talkies cinema in 1967 with his (late) elder sister and two cousins. Moreover, he could not recall the exact date of the accident when the Talkies caught fire for some (unknown) reason and everything in it was burnt into ashes. The owner rebuilt the cinema at Pindi road, Kotli and it served there for a few more years until mid-1990s when it was closed forever. Mr. Shaz also confirmed that “the basic structure of Talkies’ building still exists on the Pindi road in Kotli but there is a workshop of cars in it. The current generation does not even know that the place they visit to get their cars fixed once served as the most favourite cinema of the Kotlians.”

The other cinema Relax was situated near Shaheed Chowk, Kotli. Its owner’s name was Chaudhary Dilawer who belonged to village Dhamhol. It was also run by his son who is now a disciple of the famous Gulhar Shareef, Pir-Khana of Hazrat Sadiq (R.A). Mr. Shaz while recollecting his youth memories shared that “The Relax cinema was built like a professional cinema. It had halls, galleries and box offices. It was the most beautiful cinema in Kotli. I used to go there secretively and on my way back, my elder brother would be waiting for me to scold and beat me but I never gave up on watching movies in cinemas. I still remember the film ‘Dukh Sajna Day’ in which Sudhir and Firdous played the roles of hero and heroine. One of its famous songs, ‘saanu nehar wale pul tay bula k’ was sung by Madam Noor Jahan.”

The third cinema in Kotli was named as Kashmir Mehal. It was owned by Dr. Siddiqui who belonged to Balleya Mohalla. It was started in the 1970s and was also run by Siddiqi sb.’s son. It was closed by mid-90s. Now, the famous shopping centre Siddiqui Plaza in Kotli has replaced that cinema. According to Mr. Shaz, “although the main reason of the end of cinema in Kolti was VCR but there was also another reason i.e., the arrival of Hazrat Pir Sadiqqui R.A at Gulhar Shareef who was a spiritual person. His influence changed the atmosphere of Kotli and the local people, especially the owners of cinemas, turned into religious people and got indulged in religious practices. From among the owners of the cinemas, only Aftab Malik is still alive and he serves as a disciple at Pir Khana these days.”

After getting the details about cinemas in Kotli, I headed towards the next station i.e., Mirpur. I posted a question about the cinemas in Mirpur in one of the Whats App groups that comprised of people from Azad Kashmir and England. Two Raja brothers, Raja Imdad Ali (senior) and Raja Mehmood Ali (junior) from Mirpur were members of the group. They are contemporarily settled in the UK, the former working as an independent worker and the latter as a National Executive at the Royal Mail in Birmingham. I asked them to share their experiences and memories associated with cinemas. It took them a while to refresh their memories of childhood and young-hood.

Junior Raja shared that “until I left Azad Kashmir, Pakistan in March 1990, there were three cinemas in Mirpur known as Akas, Relax and Al-Mughal. I still remember that I watched the first film of my life, “Lakhon men ek’ in 1970 in cinema with my sisters and a maternal uncle”. The Elder Raja added with a lifted eyebrow that counting Paramount cinema too, there were four in total. The Junior Raja recalled and shared with a chuckle in his tone that after years, he was proud rather than ashamed of confessing that he used to go wagging from the school and would often sneak secretly into the cinema which later on, of course, the senior Raja would come to know and scold him about.

Furthermore, the Senior Raja told that “some cinemas did exist in our society for entertainment. The cinemas in Mirpur were quite famous. They had big halls, a gallery and separate box offices for ladies which families used to book in advance. Our families were fond of watching films in cinemas. That was the peak time of Pakistani film and entertainment industry. So, we would also know the names of famous actors and actresses.”

Going incredibly nostalgic, he shared the list of the names of popular actorshe could recall. Nadeem, Shabnam, Babra Shareef, Zeba, Muhammad Ali, Sultan Rahi, Mustafa Qureshi and Anjuman were included in his catalogue of memories about the film stars. In Raja’s point of view, the reasons for the closing of cinemas in Mirpur could be rooted in the “after-effects of Gen Zia’s Marshal Law period in which the concepts like ‘Mard-e-Momin’ and ‘Mard-e-Haq’ were famous, and the practice of offering prayers in mosques and having Friday as off day were imposed in the society. Movements in support of Afghan jihad and Kashmir jihad were launched all over Pakistan whereas AJ&K was made the base camp of these Jihad movements which also resulted in a ban on displaying Indian films in the region after 1965 and 1971 wars”.

Additionally, the late 70s is also marked as the start of the downfall of the Pakistani film industry. He also added that one of the reasons for shutting down of cinemas was the financial crisis. The local people of Mirpur who run the cinemas, had moved to England as ‘Mangaitars’ [on marriage visas] and consequently, the cinema business went into loss. So, the buildings of cinemas got converted into Marketplace Plazas. There were two more cinemas located at Jarri Kas and Chakswaari. The one in Jarri Kas was for the Army only and I could not find any details about Chakswari cinema.

Besides the information about the existence, location and practices related to cinemas, an interesting fact that I came to know was about the way of advertising the shows and movie schedules prevalent those days. The advertisement for the cinema shows would go viral on loudspeakers fixed on an auto-rickshaw. The rickshaw would roam into the streets announcing the names and timings of the shows in cinemas. The practice of announcing the time and venue of events, on a car or rickshaw, still exists in Azad Kashmir but the announcement calls nowadays are for socio-political processions and protests instead of invitations for movie shows in the cinema.

Komal Raja

Komal Raja is a resident of Hajira, Poonch, Azad Kashmir. She did her M. Phil in Psychology from Government College University, Lahore. Currently, she is pursuing a doctorate in Social and Cultural Anthropology from Ludwig Maximillian University, Munich, Germany.

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