December 10, 2007 / 3:26 AM / in 10 years

Braving violence, Kashmir's lone cinema plays on

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - From behind sandbag bunkers in a run-down building in Kashmir’s main city, dozens of gun-wielding soldiers closely watch passers-by.

Fortified with a razor wire fence, visitors to the building are frisked and subjected to a security drill fit for a sensitive military installation.

Welcome to Neelam cinema, the only operational theatre in Kashmir where Muslim separatists fighting Indian rule banned cinema halls, wine shops and beauty parlors as un-Islamic once the revolt began in 1989.

In the face of fear, Neelam draws only a handful of viewers.

“It is an unusual day when more than 30 people turn up for a show,” 60-year-old Noor Mohammad, an employee of Neelam cinema told Reuters, pointing to the empty rows of seats.

“People think the situation in Kashmir is still fluid and the large security presence in the cinema makes it more vulnerable.”

With cinema audiences down to a trickle following the militant ban on films, Indian security forces converted four of Srinagar’s eight theatres into makeshift camps and interrogation centers.

But, locals say, in an attempt to showcase “normalcy” in the region -- whose scenic mountains, meadows and streams were once integral to Indian film shoots -- the Indian authorities helped open three halls, including Neelam, in the late-1990s.

The militants responded with a grenade attack on one of them that wounded dozens of movie goers and prompted two halls to close down immediately.

The show, however, goes on in Neelam Cinema; at times for as small a group as just eight people.

Even, low ticket prices, the latest hits or heaters to beat the winter chill haven’t attracted the crowds to the 400-seater hall.

“Most of the times the show is being played for ten-to-twelve people,” said Mohammad Ayub, another employee of the theatre.

“I am sure this cinema will also close down soon, I don’t know what keeps it going.”

A subsidy from a government keen on projecting normalcy keeps Neelam afloat, according to government officials who refused to be named. The owner of the cinema hall declined to talk.

Even though violence in Kashmir has declined considerably after India and Pakistan, who claim the region in full but rule in parts, launched a peace process in 2004, people are scared to go to the cinemas.

“Anything can happen anytime in Kashmir, why should we risk our lives for a movie we can see at home on television,” Mohammad Saqlain, a 22-year-old student, said.

For entertainment, most Kashmiris turn to cable tv, which too has been banned by militants several times since the revolt that officially has killed over 42,000 people began. Human rights activists put the toll at 60,000 dead or missing.

“Unless India and Pakistan reach a solution on Kashmir and peace returns fully, opening of cinema halls is impossible,” Imtiyaz Ahmad, the owner of another cinema hall, said.

“So we have decided not to open the cinema till complete peace prevails.”

Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee and Sanjeev Miglani

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