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Cinema opens in disputed Kashmir’s Srinagar city but few turn up

A multi-screen cinema hall has opened in the main city of India-administered Kashmir for the first time in 14 years in the authorities’ push to showcase normalcy in the disputed region that was annexed and brought under India’s direct rule three years ago.

Decades of a deadly conflict, bombings and brutal Indian counterinsurgency campaign have turned people away from cinemas, and only about a dozen viewers lined up for the first-morning show on Saturday, the Bollywood action movie “Vikram Vedha.” 

The 520-seat hall with three screens opened under elaborate security in Srinagar’s high-security zone that also houses India’s military regional headquarters.

“There are different viewpoints about (cinema) but I think it’s a good thing,” said moviegoer Faheem, who gave only one name. “It’s a sign of progress.”

Others at the show declined to comment.

The afternoon and evening shows had less than 10 percent occupancy on Saturday, according to India’s premier movie booking website

The multiplex was officially inaugurated on September 20 by Manoj Sinha, New Delhi’s top administrator in Kashmir.

The cinema is part of Indian multiplex chain Inox in partnership with a Kashmiri businessman.

READ MORE: Cinema returns to India-administered Kashmir first time in two decades

Cinemas to torture chambers

After Kashmiri fighters rose up against Indian rule in 1989, launching a bloody insurgency that was met with a brutal response by over half a million Indian troops, the once-thriving city of Srinagar wilted.

The city’s eight privately owned movie theatres closed on the orders of rebels, saying they were vehicles of India’s cultural invasion and anti-Islamic.

In the early 1990s, Indian forces converted most of the city’s theatres into makeshift security camps, detention or interrogation centres.

Soon, places, where audiences thronged Bollywood blockbusters, became feared buildings, where witnesses say torture was commonplace.

However, three cinema halls, backed by India’s financial assistance, reopened in 1999 amid an official push to project the idea that life had returned to normal in Kashmir. 

Soon after, a bombing outside one hall in the heart of Srinagar killed a civilian and wounded many others and shut it again. 

Weary Kashmiris largely stayed away, and the other hall locked its doors within a year. One theatre, the Neelam, stuck it out until 2008.

READ MORE: Voiceless no more: The Russell Tribunal on Kashmir

Armed revolt 

Indian officials say they are planning to establish cinemas in every district of the region, where tens of thousands have been killed in the armed conflict since 1989.

Last month, Sinha also inaugurated two multipurpose halls in the southern districts of Shopian and Pulwama, considered as hotbeds of armed rebellion.

“The government is committed to changing perceptions about 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, annexed it and brought it under direct control, throwing Kashmir under a severe security and communication lockdown.

The region has remained on edge ever since as authorities also put in place a slew of new laws, allowing non-Kashmiris to buy land and settle in the region, dubbed settler-colonialism by critics, who say the move is meant to cause a change in the region’s Muslim demographics.

Kashmir has been claimed by both India and Pakistan and ruled in parts since British rule of the subcontinent ended 75 years ago and Pakistan and India were born.

Rebels in the India-controlled portion of Kashmir have been fighting New Delhi’s rule since 1989. Most Muslim Kashmiris support the rebels’ goal of uniting the territory, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.

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