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After more than two decades, movie theaters reopen in Indian-controlled Kashmir

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

For the first time in two decades, movie theaters have reopened on the Indian side of Kashmir. That's a Himalayan region divided between India and Pakistan. Cinemas were forced shut there during a 1990s insurgency, and now the Indian government says it has restored calm. And reopening cinemas is one way to demonstrate that. But in Srinagar, going to the movies is very different from elsewhere in India. Raksha Kumar reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Excuse me, ma'am. Here's popcorn.

RAKSHA KUMAR, BYLINE: Young Kashmiris who've never set foot in a cinema grab buckets of popcorn...

(SOUNDBITE OF POPCORN POPPING)

KUMAR: ...Before they sit down to a newly released Hindi action film in a plush multiplex.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing in non-English language).

KUMAR: The movie itself is the same as in other theaters across India. But the experience of actually walking up to the theater here is far from normal.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HONKING)

KUMAR: You go through a police barricade and an army barricade, and it has a small window through which a policeman with his gun can kind of peep out and see who's coming into the theater.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HONKING)

KUMAR: Security forces have good reason to be here because on the same day this multiplex reopened...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Yet another terrorist attack, a joint party...

KUMAR: ...Militants launched an attack in a neighboring district. Kashmiri separatists have fought Indian security forces for more than 30 years now. Some of them want an independent territory; others want to become part of Pakistan next door. Someone who has lived through all of this is Vijay Dhar. He's 81. His family has owned movie theaters here since the 1960s, including Srinagar's famous Broadway Theater.

VIJAY DHAR: Broadway had the best sound in the country.

KUMAR: But in 1989, militants declared all cinemas un-Islamic, ordered them shut and attacked ones that stayed open.

DHAR: We had a bomb blast in the theater, and I think in 1993, they burnt it.

KUMAR: Kashmir used to have about 15 movie theaters. All of them had to close their doors. Some of them became malls, others became hospitals, but many of them are just heaps of bricks, a still sensitive reminder of Islamist militant attacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALL TO PRAYER)

KUMAR: It looks like a very old, 30-, 40-year-old building, just the shells of which are left. There are two layers of barbed wire. There's one policeman who is standing right close to the dilapidated building, and what they're guarding is Kashmir's first cinema theater, which used to be called Kashmir Talkies and later, the Palladium.

SANJAY KAK: I remember as a young boy, if you were sitting in the balcony and watching the film, you usually watched it through a pall of cigarette smoke.

KUMAR: Documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak says Kashmir had one of the first theaters in all of India. So many Bollywood movies have been filmed here. But he wants the Indian government to prioritize other things first. Three years ago, it cancelled Kashmir's constitutional autonomy, flooded the streets with troops and cut off the internet. Since then, things have not returned to normal. So Kak sees the reopening of cinemas as a propaganda stunt.

KAK: Opening a multiplex at a time when every other public space has been choked up, whether it's the media, whether it's campus life, all of that is shut down. Civil society is not able to operate. So what exactly is going on?

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

KUMAR: (Inaudible).

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

KUMAR: Back at the multiplex, security guards are frisking everyone who comes in. Kulsoom Gulzar hasn't been to a theater in Kashmir since she was a child.

KULSOOM GULZAR: I used to go with my uncle there (speaking Urdu).

KUMAR: Now she's brought her 5-year-old niece, Ayra.

GULZAR: (Speaking Urdu).

KUMAR: Gulzar says she doesn't think it's against her religion to go to a theater, and she doesn't see it as a political stunt either. It's just entertainment, she says.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, non-English language spoken).

KUMAR: Does it bother her to watch a violent action film after all the Kashmir has been through?

GULZAR: (Speaking Urdu).

KUMAR: She doesn't have much of a choice, she says, until cinemas open with more options.

For NPR News, I'm Raksha Kumar in Srinagar, Kashmir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Raksha Kumar