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Silent era back in Valley
Last running theatre now shut

Srinagar, Dec. 12: The picture has gone out of the Valley.

Srinagar’s only operational cinema, Neelam, has been quietly shut after struggling to pull in the crowds over the years.

The closure might turn out to be a big embarrassment for the Omar Abdullah government, which had been publicly pushing for the re-opening of other closed cinemas banned by militants in 1989 but couldn’t even ensure the survival of the lone functioning theatre.

After Omar’s father Farooq, who is a Union minister, angered separatists and religious leaders by advocating the reopening of the cinemas and liquor shops, The Telegraph visited the only “operational cinema” on Saturday, only to find it shut.

“The cinema is closed and there is no longer any screening of films here,” said CRPF sub-inspector D.N. Dubey, who is in charge of the cinema’s security. Owners of the hall refused comment.

A former employee said the cinema had never been a profitable venture since it was reopened in 1999 and had to be shut a few months back. “The owners had leased the cinema to a Jalandhar-based group. The hall had never seen a full house and, on most occasions, only a handful of people turned up. There was hardly any money to pay even the salaries of employees,” he said.

At times, the employee added, there were only four to five viewers in the hall that can seat around 500.

The Neelam resembles more a security camp than a theatre and the authorities have not withdrawn the bunkers around it, apparently to give the impression that the cinema is still functional.

Neelam was one of only 12 cinemas in Kashmir that was still screening films after the rest had closed in the early years of militancy following threats from separatists, who say movies spread immorality. They were soon occupied by security forces, who turned the theatres into makeshift camps.

Three of them Broadway, Regal and Neelam (all in Srinagar) reopened after then chief minister Farooq Abdullah offered them sops in the late 1990s. The rest are either still occupied by the forces or have branched out into other ventures.

Broadway, located in the cantonment area of the army’s 15 Corps headquarters, functioned for some time before it closed down for lack of viewers. The Regal closed the day it opened after a militant attack that left one person dead and several injured.

Neelam was the only cinema that had been operating since 1999. Dozens of viewers had a narrow escape when militants attacked the hall on September 7, 2005. Two militants and a policeman lost their lives but the cinema, close to the heavily fortified civil secretariat complex, continued to operate.

A businessman who runs a shop outside the hall said it functioned, though with breaks, during last year’s summer unrest. “But people who wanted to enter would slip inside only after doubly ensuring they had not been spotted by anyone they knew. How do you expect them to enjoy a movie when they are scared of even entering?” he said.

Hall attack

Pakistan-based militant group Jamiat ul Mujahideen today said its attack on a Kashmir minister last night was a retaliation to Union minister Farooq Abdullah’s call to reopen liquor shops and cinema halls in the Valley.

Militants attacked state law minister Ali Mohammad Sagar last night at his ancestral residence in Srinagar’s old city. One policeman died in the attack and three were injured.