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June 12, 1999

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The Rediff Special/Amberish K Diwanji

Showbiz signals Srinagar's return to normalcy

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Normal is as normal does. If this yardstick is applied to Srinagar, it must be said that the state of Jammu and Kashmir is fast returning to normal.

Take, for instance, cinema houses. Broadway, a theatre near the cantonment area, reopened on August 6, 1998, allowing the citizens of Srinagar a chance to view Kareeb. It was after nine long years that theatres in Srinagar had been thrown open to the general public.

Later, on April 16, 1999, another theatre, Neelam, opposite the state secretariat in the heart of the city, also threw its doors open with Hum Aapke Dil Mein Rehte Hain. Neelam, which was built in 1976, had shut down on December 27, 1989.

The magnitude of the gesture should be seen in the light of the fact that armed militants had termed movies "un-Islamic" and banned them from being shown in the valley. Srinagar then boasted of nine theatres, while the towns of Sopore and Baramulla had two each and Anantnag, one. All of them were forced to pull down shutters, and a couple of them, including Broadway, were even burnt down. Only theatres in Jammu remained unaffected.

Now the crowds are returning, albeit slowly. There are three shows a day -- 1000, 1300 and 1600 IST. As one can make out, there is no night show, the last show getting over by 1900 IST, which in summer is still light.

"Too many people are not yet coming to the theatres. In fact, out of our 250 seats, only about a fifth are occupied at a given time. Only on Sundays are the crowds bigger," said an executive working at Broadway, who did not wish to be named.

But Neelam's owner Hemant Kumar, who is known as Chittoo in Srinagar, took a more optimistic stand. "The fact that people are coming to the theatres is in itself a great sign," he declared. "I have been coming to the valley all through the 1990s and the change is beyond words."

He agreed that more often than not the shows are only partially booked, but added, "I have had two to three house-full shows, all on Sundays. And these will increase."

Chittoo, who is also a film distributor and has been in the trade for 25 years, insisted that he had faced no threats from any terrorists after reopening his cinema house, nor was he worried. But the threat of militancy still looms.

All visitors to the theatres undergo a physical search, including with a metal detector. Bags are thoroughly examined and women are employed to frisk female visitors. High walls surround the theatre compound and policemen stand guard behind sandbags and hastily constructed pickets around the buildings, their guns cocked, ready to blast away.

With a wave of his hand, Chittoo said the police at Neelam were present to actually guard the secretariat, which is just 100 metres away! But the Broadway executive admitted that the police are needed to ensure that nothing goes wrong.

Young men make up most of the movie-going audience. Women visiting the theatres can be counted on the fingertips. "Only 10 to 15 per cent of the audience comprises women," said the Broadway executive.

According to one of the female guards at Neelam, the women in the audience comprise not university girls but "women who are engaged or about to be married", usually with their fiancÚ. "Many of these girls also come here to meet their boyfriends or get to know the men they like," she added.

Chittoo said the movie-going crowd is mostly in the 18-35 age group.

But it is unlikely that all nine theatres in Srinagar will reopen. The threat this time comes not from terrorists but from cable piracy. Jammu and Kashmir comes under the East Punjab wing of distributors, and usually movies are received three to four weeks late. In today's world of cable television, that is suicidal. For instance, Neelam is now showing Soldier while Broadway is showing Silsila Hai Pyaar Ka, both released months ago.

"I have met the chief minister and soon the state will launch a project to catch the cable and video pirates," said Chittoo. For the bankrupt state, piracy means a loss of much-needed revenue.

Yet, even Chittoo realises that ending piracy is virtually impossible. "The pirates' network here is so good that movies released in Bombay on the Friday matinee show are available here at night. For instance, I saw Sirf Tum on cable the day it was released in Bombay. Even Jalandhar takes more time," he lamented.

The Broadway executive said their plan is to build a multiplex, complete with a restaurant and a small shopping area. "That is how theatres in other cities have beaten cable piracy. But unless more people start turning up, our plan will take time," he said.

Proof of the damage caused by cable is seen in the fact that most of the audience now comprises lower-class people, besides students from all strata. "I have not seen anyone from the gentry come to the theatres because seeing a movie on cable is much more affordable," he said.

With tickets priced at Rs 40 and Rs 50 per head, going to the theatre is expensive for a people who have just begun to earn money on a regular basis once again.

Are the tastes of Srinagar any different in this day and age of fragmented likes and dislikes? According to Chittoo, the people of Srinagar prefer action and romantic tragedies. "Social theme moves will be a complete flop here," he said.

The movies that have done well in recent times are Daag, Ghulam and of course, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Yet, this does not indicate star preferences.

Chittoo claimed that the most popular stars in Srinagar are the three Khans (Shah Rukh, Aamir and Salman) while the most popular heroine remains Madhuri Dixit with Karishma and Kajol sniping at her heels.

If that is good news for La Dixit who's been slipping down the ratings in recent times, it is even better for Sanjay Dutt. The Broadway executive insisted that Dutt is also immensely popular. "I don't know if it was because he was jailed and suffered so much, thereby striking a chord with the people here who too have gone through a harrowing decade."

After that tough decade, one can well say that a small step to a movie house is a giant leap for normality.

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