Going to the Movies

Sep 2014

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As Pakistani cinema struggles to resuscitate itself, the older cinema houses continue to remain derelict and burdened with debt. Simultaneously, just as the older cinema houses are being demolished or closed off, plans are underway to build multiplexes, and theaters inside shopping malls for a new kind of cinematic experience, moving these newer theaters outside of the historic cinema districts and into spaces usually classified as bourgeois, upscale and central to modern urban development. Within this general narrative, another chronicle has made itself known.

During the past few years, cinema houses in Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar have been razed to the ground with alarming rapidity.  Burnt down by angry mobs (jaloos) with destruction as their sole agenda, these crumbling cinema houses have become the victims of sentiment gone awry. What are the motivations behind the systematic destruction of cinema houses in contemporary Pakistan? If cinema is to be understood as part of the public sphere, then what does the usage of public space tell us about the history of a people?

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[schedule=’2014-10-15′ at=”00:01″]While the recent attacks have targeted the older cinema houses, they appear to be less motivated by financial concerns and bring forward an entirely different set of concerns. In this particular instance, cinema houses are made to stand in for much more than just the films, which they screen to audiences despite enormous electrical power failures. Cinema houses are made symbolic by virtue of the influence that they can wield, and the control over culture that can be acquired through this medium. However, this form of hyper-representation has been excessively detrimental to the continued existence of cinema houses. They bear the brunt of aroused public emotion set alight by international events such as the Danish cartoon controversy in 2006, and more recently, viral videos defaming Islam such as “Innocence of Muslims” hosted on YouTube in 2012. Angry mobs besieged cinema houses as a result protesting imperialism, and safeguarding Islam.

The apparent question to ask would be why cinemas are being targeted with such single-minded violent intent – is it the seemingly offensive nature of the content being shown? Is it that these films are giving offense, and incurring the wrath of many, or a few? It is difficult to imagine what it may be: the overzealous censorship board in Pakistan has not left much room for films to cause offense—or even excite. It is possible however that the final versions that are screened in cinema houses differ significantly from the edit given to the censorship board to acquire a certificate to screen. Yet, this alone cannot explain the outbreak of protests against cinemas.

Sitting at the cinema

In fact, part of the issue may be the act of going to the cinema house itself. How people sit at the cinema, whom they sit next to, how they relate to others in the dark of the theatre are all things that construct public space and re-calculate the usual norms of gender, class and ethnic segregation. In short, the act of simply going to the cinema and sitting through a film can have a deep effect on social norms and can, therefore, create more of a spectacle than what is being screened. This act can, then, can cause more offense than the film itself. The anthropologist Brian Larkin has examined this phenomenon in the context of colonial Nigeria where the construction of cinema theaters in colonial Kano created a series of controversies as social norms around gender and racial divisions were disrupted. Larkin’s book, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria, maps this struggle over the cinema — a technology that was also considered religiously questionable in Nigeria. An Islamic cleric, interviewed by Larkin, observed that cinema was un-Islamic because of its content as well as the its effects. In the first instance, the cleric declared, cinemas could lead audiences astray because they played Indian films with beautiful non-Muslim actresses that could arouse men and corrupt their hearts. The second issue — equally significant — was the openness of cinema houses to all genders violated the Islamic separation of the sexes.

Similarly, the assumption that there is a rift between practiced Islam and the cinema was also articulated in South Asia, in particular in Pakistan. Shortly following Partition, the Pakistani Ministry for Industries released a statement saying, that, “In principal, Muslims should not get involved in film making. Being the work of lust and lure, it should be left to the infidels.”Despite the official statement, the cinema industry already had deep roots, effectively rendering cinema an integral part of social activity and the public sphere in the newly independent Pakistan. As the twentieth century progressed however, the cinematic culture declined, and a majority of cinema houses faced looming bankruptcy. Out of the 84 cinemas that were operating in the 1970s, fifty-five have been razed. Most were converted into marriage halls, parking lots, and shopping plazas. While Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government had regarded cinemas as sites of public utility, the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq that followed in the 1980s facilitated the demolition of cinema in its desire to implement a new public, religiously-inflected morality. A few of the older cinemas have since been renovated and retain their purpose and place as theaters. Recently, the cinema houses Shabistan and Prince on Abbot Road in Lahore were renovated by its management and now have 3D screens, and refurbished seating. Owners of these theaters are thus weaving together nostalgia and modernity together to sell a movie ticket to would-be audiences.

The cinema house as a space in Pakistan, as in Nigeria, continues to be marked by these colonial struggles. Significantly, it has been characterized as an unruly and disreputable space, a consequence of the fact that it had historically served as a site that challenged existing social ordering and hierarchies. The cinema hall was “a thoroughly modern addition to public life, not simply in terms of its technological apparatus but in its re-ordering of social space,” the scholar Adrian Athique reminds us in his study of Indian cinema. That struggle haunts the aura of the cinema as it is perceived and experienced even today.

A morality play

Cinema houses draw their moral aura from the activities and reputations of their surrounding neighborhoods. The old cinema district in Lahore is not located far from the red light area. Historically, pimps would often proposition cinema goers, and the area in itself would serve as a pick-up spot. In his ode to Lahore, Pran Nevile writes that, as a young boy, he, and some male companions, were propositioned by a pimp who claimed that he conducted much of his business close to the cinema houses, as it was less precarious for the clients. Nevile elaborates further on the connection between Heera Mandi, the popular name for the red light district, and cinema, by establishing the advent of the cinema in the 1930s as a breakthrough for the courtesans of Heera Mandi to display their talents in the cinema industry. It is fabled that a lot of the actresses and playback singers can locate their origins in Heera Mandi. This narrative found strong resonance in the general public, affecting how people engaged with cinema, shaping a strong opposition to those who wished to join the industry. It also called into question the moral character of those who remained part of it, initiating a debate within the public sphere, as well as in private quarters, as to the respectability and good standing of those associated with the industry. The cinema industry in Pakistan, and in more recent times, the entertainment industry, have been unable to disassociate from this labeling of loose morals and a lack of honor tied to this profession.


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Moreover, the construction of multiplexes, and auditoriums outside of the historic cinema districts have helped consolidate class divisions between the audiences that frequent these cinemas and the audiences that consume cinema in the old theatres. Class segregation brings with it gender and ethnic stratification. Cinema, as a form of entertainment, is cheaper in the old theatre houses where tickets cost half, and at times a quarter of the prices at which tickets are sold at the newer multiplexes. This does not necessarily make access to cinema more democratic, as fewer women frequent the cheaper cinema houses, compared with the newer ones where (upper and middle class) women feel safe in entering with other women, without the need for male escorts.

If cinematic entertainment is not egalitarian, neither is the violence directed at it. In both Lahore and Karachi, the old cinema houses in the cinema district have come under threat and under direct attack. This does effectively limit entertainment options and leisure activities for a specific class. The relatively newer multiplexes have been spared the same fate. The fact that some of these theaters are housed in shopping malls, country clubs and have excessive security possibly serves as a deterrent against warding off would-be attackers. The audiences at these theaters are mostly upper-class and upper-middle class. Callous logic suggests that the loss of life or damage to property at these theaters might incur far more serious consequences than the destruction of the older theaters, serving audiences with less political agency.

To locate cinema houses on a map of volatile neighborhoods, and where the possibility of strikes and riots are, might provide additional insight into which cinema houses are targeted, and which are left unscathed. It is of course, the cinema houses located in the cinema district, which in both Lahore and Karachi is located close to the old commercial center of the cities, alongside consulates, and government offices – all of which are prime areas for jaloos.

What is a jaloos? A jaloos is a procession of people taken out on the streets in a semi-organized way, either to commemorate an event, or to protest and perhaps stage a sit-in or cause a blockade. In September 2012, following the YouTube release of the film “Innocence of Muslims,” the Pakistani government, which was overwhelmed by the outpouring of emotion and anger that the film caused conceded to demands made to issue a public holiday. September 21st was declared a public holiday, ‘yaum-e ishq-e rasool’ a day given over to celebrate the love of the Prophet Mohammed, as the title literally suggests. This day was marked by a jaloos being taken out, mostly peopled by lower-middle and lower class males, in various parts of the country after Friday prayers to protest the film. The ensuing demonstrations led to violence, bloodshed, and a severe loss of property as cinemas were razed, automobiles on the streets were burnt, and state property as well as private property was damaged. Six cinema houses in Karachi were gutted on that day, including Nishat, Capri, Prince and Bambino in Saddar, and Gulistan and Nargis in Quaidabad. A cinema located on Toghi Road in Quetta was set ablaze. Firdous Cinema was destroyed in Peshawar, and Shama was set aflame, and Capital Cinema was attacked and the screen was set on fire. Some of the cinema houses in Lahore’s cinema district also came under attack and were ransacked.

Similarly, Bambino Cinema in Karachi was burnt five times, as reported in the news coverage of that day. Police and fire fighters attempted to beat the flames the first four times, but the mob persisted till it finally razed the cinema to the ground. Interviews with those present on site indicate that there was theft alongside arson. “Yahan gharib hi gharib ka sab se bara dushman hai,” (The poor man is his own worst enemy) commented Saeed Shiraz, a cinema marketer, in an interview with the local press. “They took the name of the Prophet (pbuh) but did the work of the devil,” shared Kaiser Yousuf, the owner of a small mobile phone booth on the ground floor of the cinema. As long as the status quo remains unchallenged, cinema and Islam will remain mutually exclusive, and cinematic culture will remain vulnerable to threats and attacks, making attending a film screening a potentially life-threatening event in the worst of instances.

The unchecked destruction and censorship of culture in Pakistan, as illustrated by the ransacking of cinema houses, provides insight into the nature of power and moral authority in contemporary Pakistan. Certain constituencies do not view artistic venues and art as worthy of being safeguarded; rather they see them as sites of brash, illicit, volatile behavior that, if unchecked, could lead to moral degradation. Imagined as potential spaces for the creation of such new habits, artistic spaces then become inherently unstable and vulnerable to destruction. This should trouble us all, for cinema offers us a “substitute for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires,” as expressed by the film theorist André Bazin. One wonders where we will be without it.[/schedule]

Hira Nabi works with audio, and moving images. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in media studies at The New School. 

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For further reading

Larkin, Brian. 2008. Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham: Duke UP.

Gazdar, Mushtaq. 1997. Pakistan Cinema, 1947 – 1997. Karachi: Oxford UP.

Athique, Adrian. 2011. “From Cinema Hall to Multiplex: A Public History.” South Asian Popular Culture 9(2): 147 – 60

Liang, Lawrence. 2005. “Cinematic citizenship and the illegal city.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Volume 6, Number 3.

Nevile, Pran. 1993. Lahore: A Sentimental Journey. New Delhi: Allied.[/schedule]


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5 Responses to Going to the Movies

  1. […] Going to the Movies | Hira […]

  2. […] cinema. Rabea Murtaza  contemplates memory and motherhood in Pakistani cinema, and Hira Nabi discusses the aura of the cinema, and why some find it so threatening. And, Aasim Sajjad Akhtar delivers a […]

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