Photo by Malik Achakzai/News Lens Pakistan
Photo by Malik Achakzai/News Lens Pakistan

Quetta: Balochistan’s metropolis used to be a point of attraction for the rural people who visited it from far flung areas. In addition to shopping and other activities, these people watched movies in the famous cinema houses scattered all over the city. Factors such as the deteriorating security situation, terror attacks and sectarian violence have razed the cinema business to a negligible size.

Gigantic hall of Imdad cinema is empty; only seven people can be seen scattered around hundreds of unoccupied seats watching ‘Yarana’ (friendship), a Pashto movie.

The simultaneous terror attacks on public spaces across the country have reduced the number of moviegoers. Before the present situation manifested itself, hundreds of people would visit cinema houses to watch movies but things are not the same anymore as lesser people can be seen at cinemas

“We would sell 800-1000 tickets for each show, now you see around 7 men purchasing tickets,” said Abdul Qadir, the ticket boy at the entrance of Imdad Cinema, while showing the ticket-book to News Lens Pakistan.

Once a frequented place for entertainment, ‘Capri Cinema’ in Pashtunabad was burned down by infuriated religious students from local madrassas as a demonstration against the NATO attack on Afghanistan’s Taliban regime just after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Maulavi Mehboob, 38, a religious scholar who graduated from a well-known Madrassa in Quetta says, “Islam does not allow one to watch moving pictures of men and women. Seeing another person’s body parts for entertainment is no doubt a sin.”

“I went to the cinema when I was a student in college. I was forced by my friends to watch the movie ‘Titanic’. I felt as if I was committing the biggest sin,” says Nasir Ahmed, 36, now a researcher in Linguistics at University of Balochistan.

His discomfort stemmed from the beliefs taught to him by the village’s local religious scholar who said, “When one goes to the cinema for watching a movie, his ‘faith’ does not follow him/her. It waits outside, and only accompanies you once you are out of the cinema.”

Ahsanullah, 25, visits the cinema once a week. He says, “Although, I have a laptop, TV and cable network connection at home, watching a movie here [cinema] has its own flavour.”

“There is no guaranteed safety anywhere, whether it is a tea stall at the bazaar or a playground, so why refrain from visiting the cinema too?” he asks.

One of the cinema owners, requesting anonymity for security reasons, told News Lens Pakistan that a car parking just a few meters away from the cinema earns 1000% more. He said, “You know the building erected on this piece of land is worth millions of rupees and cinema is no longer a viable business in Quetta. Very few people visit these halls because the Government does not support the film industry and cinema houses, hence we are forced to shut them down and change our business.”

He says people are hesitant and scared after the terror attacks on public gatherings around Quetta which caused hundreds of casualties in the previous years. Therefore, no one is willing to visit cinema houses.

The peak of the Indian film industry attracted youths from Quetta and Peshawar to watch movies in the cinema houses of Kabul, the Afghanistan capital. Haji Murtaza Khan, 70, says, “We would go to Kabul to watch Indian and Pashto movies because we had no Indian movies in our own cinemas. Those were the peaceful years; we enjoyed every aspect of life. We would go to Kabul in groups and nobody felt bothered, neither us nor the Afghans.” Today every phase of life has become tasteless because when there is no peace, there will remain no life. Who will care about watching movies then?

He said that newspapers are full of news about bomb blasts, terror attacks, target killing and sectarian violence that scares everybody. Death can catch up with you anytime because the militancy is bred all around us, he added.

“After the invasion of USSR in Afghanistan the war of two greater poles ‘right and left’ fought in the region. Nobody knew about the Mujahideen or the Taliban before 1970-80s. On one hand were the ‘communist extremists’ and on the other hand we had ‘religious extremists’. Peshawar and Quetta were used as base camps for these forces therefore new ideologies invaded our peaceful society,” said Aziz Khan, 68, a senior citizen of Quetta.

He recalled that the society was in peaceful harmony even in the 1960s. “We had bars, cinemas and even registered brothels in Quetta city. They all vanished gradually due the collision of political ideologies, communism and hard line religious extremism which was fueled by petrodollar funding,” he added.

As entertainment institutions for the public, the cinema houses of Quetta have valuable potential to be converted into shopping malls. Just a year ago a cinema house named ‘Asmat Cinema’ is now replaced with a shopping mall that has hundreds of visitors every day.

While talking to News Lens Pakistan, Sanna Ijaz Khan, an expert on culture and Chief Executive of the Gandhara Organization for Culture says, “Cinema is not only a sector of entertainment, it actually adds to educating the masses while providing them with entertainment at the same time.”

She said, “In Pakistan, the provinces of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have been in constant conflict since the past decade. Entertainment in the form of cinema is a need of time. The Pashtun society is having its men separated from women; there are no other ways of entertainment so the only entertainment they can have is through cinematography. I would say that a cinema can serve as a ventilator for our traumatized society.”

Suleman Raja, Chairman of the Mass Communication Department University of Balochistan, said, “Families would visit cinema houses in Quetta and the film industry was not in a stagnant condition. “World’s latest technology first in the form of VCR, then CD and now USB and online streaming have taken up the cinema’s role. With such devices, one can watch a complete movie for Rs.30 only.”

Government of Pakistan should promote the film industry as Pakistani youth have a lot of creativity and potential. “We can watch the movie is ‘Waar’ which is really interesting. The movie shows that our film industry has potential and is not dead yet, it just needs a revival,” he added.

Suleman does not subscribe to the view that people have abandoned the entertainment industry due to the looming threat of ‘militancy’. He said the people of Balochistan are eager to watch shows and recently thousands of people including youth and families took part in Quetta Festival enthusiastically.

He further added that cinema houses should be supported and refurbished with new technology as then the cinema will attract masses like it did earlier. “If we do not support our own film industry, the Indian cinema will take roots in our society while our own cinema scene will suffer. Both federal and provincial governments should focus on local cultures and local languages such as Pashto, Punjabi, Sindhi and Balochi,” he said.

Rahat Cinema was burned when the Shiite Hazaras carried out a demonstration after sectarian militants killed several Shiites in 2003. The authorities did nothing to rehabilitate the structure and the cinema house has now been converted into a nursery.

Nazir Khan Panezai, 56, a resident of Quetta, says, “We had nine cinemas in Quetta. They are no longer visited with the same enthusiasm and love as before because the people fear being attacked by the militants.”

Badar Khan, Economist in Chief Minister’s Policy Reform Unit Balochistan told News Lens Pakistan, “Cinema is both provides a refreshing change of scene but its role in the Pashtun society is limited due to religious extremism; which teaches people not to listen to music or see others’ faces as moving pictures.”

“Development of the cinema industry can help bring about tolerance and prosperity that would result in peace and harmony amongst the masses while also boosting development in the far flung, underdeveloped areas. An improved law and order situation would attract investment and it can become a booming economic sector,” he added.

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