Karachi's Nasheman Cinema, surviving against all odds

"The building’s shape is a riddle. We will see if you can figure it out at the end."
Published May 6, 2015

“The building’s shape is a riddle. We will see if you can figure it out at the end”

Driving towards Nasheman Cinema on a bright sunny day in April, our last expedition to find the Crown Cinema had ended in shock and disappointment when we found debris where once the façade stood, a sense of anxiety thus prevails as we make our way to one of the oldest cinemas in Saddar.

While driving from a narrow Saddar street to Nasheman Street, the first thing that catches my attention is the cinema’s peculiar structure.

There is ample parking space inside the compound which is rare for a cinema in Karachi. As we step out of the car I can see a few people chatting around the ticket area. Happy to show us around, they take great pride in the cinema which turns out to be quite well planned and aesthetically pleasing.

The inside hall is decorated with a dazzling false ceiling, psychedelic flooring and colourful posters. There are two entrances to the main hall and a disinterested ticket checker sits on a chair outside. A fire extinguisher is installed on one of the walls and a canteen is setup in a corner.

The cinema, despite dwindling number of visitors, has all the amenities of a functional one.

The usher at the cinema offers us to visit the first floor: A wheelchair-friendly staircase leads it's way to the top. It's carpeted and there is a mirror installed on one end, reaching all the way up to the roof.

The side wall is encompassed with a mural painting which depicts a scene from folklore, I can identify Sohni making her way to Mahiwal on an earthenware pot.

The first floor is as classy as the ground floor. From a circular window, I catch a glimpse of children playing cricket in the street. There is another canteen on the top floor which is equipped with cigarettes, drinks and bun kebab amongst other things.

Colourful posters adorn the walls, there is a waiting room for women on one end but it has been shut for many years since the families stopped visiting the cinema.

We step inside the gallery; it is pitch dark and a Pakistani film from the 90s is screening as matinee show. The usher claims that more than a dozen people are present inside the hall, but we cannot not see anything in the darkness. I, however, can see the light coming from projector room. The usher's eyes are well accustomed to seeing in the dark as he follows my gaze. He asks us to follow him to the projector room.

A small alley leads us to the staircase which leads up to the roof. The usher says that the residents of the adjacent building often throw garbage on the roof.

We slowly walk towards the projector room and the first thing I see is a fire extinguisher near the door.

Inside, two 35mm projectors are installed and a technician is busy switching dials here and there. There are photos of him with his kids pinned on a sound control box. He shows me how the projector works and tells me that they are made in Lahore and the company still sends its technicians in case of malfunction.

As we walk out and look at the street from the roof through narrow openings in the facade. Here I question the usher about the peculiar shape of it. He smiles and tells me to solve the riddle by looking at it from a distance. We walk all the way to the compound’s gate.

I take a closer look at it again. It is curved at all four sides. The first floor window makes an eye for sure. The entrance to one of the side alleys makes space for a mouth. It must be a mammal, I think to myself.

“Is it a whale?”, I ask the usher. He has a heartily laugh. “It’s an elephant”, he says dramatically.

Of course it is an elephant. Two bases make two front legs and the curved entrance to the alley makes the trunk.

I want to ask him more questions. The typical ones about the owners; do they have the financial muscle to keep the cinema going?

The gradual decline of Pakistani cinema, the changing landscape of Saddar, the influx of pirated DVDs and the rising costs of running a cinema.

But more or less, I already know the answers. The usher will not have much to add that will make me hopeful of the survival of Nasheman cinema.

Nasheman Cinema with its peculiar façade is an aesthetical undertaking. It reveals a few things about its owner: They have been cinema enthusiasts and Nasheman must have been a dream undertaking for them.