A dingy cinema hall goes dark and many in the male-only audience light hashish joints. The faint images projected on a low-quality screen are further blurred by clouds of smoke. This is one of the mere 10 cinemas still functional in Peshawar city. As Khyber Pakhtunkhwa battles the stigma of terrorism, cultural activities too continue to take a hit; this is particularly noticeable in the provincial capital.
Cinema can have a profound impact on a society. It can be used as a tool for entertainment and for education. A small minority in Peshawar recognises this. To explain the importance of cinema, journalist Sher Alam Shinwari looks outwards. “In all developed nations, even libraries have a mini cinema or theatre to educate and entertain the people,” says Shinwari who is working on the promotion of cultural activities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Indeed, to many, a cinema is a sacred space, but not everyone sees it that way.
Fear and debauchery in Peshawar
Cinemas in Peshawar have largely been reduced to venues where men – and even young boys – go looking for a good time at regular screenings of blue films. Owing to the exhibition of these films, going out for a movie is not a family outing in Peshawar. When asked if varied audiences would come in if cinemas played Hollywood and Bollywood films, in addition to Pashto movies, Shinwari is skeptical: “The environment and current setup of cinemas would never attract more people, especially families”.
Many see these cinemas as a malice to society. In the militancy-hit province, cinemas have frequently come under attack. Three back-to-back explosions rocked the city’s Shama Cinema – infamous for showing pornography – in February 2014. The attacks killed at least 13, leaving 19 injured. In the same month, another blast at the Picture House Cinema situated in Kabuli Bazaar, killed, at least, three and injured 30 others.
Despite the security concerns, the low-priced movie tickets continue to attract drivers, labourers and bus conductors to cinemas. Looking to decompress after a tiresome day of work, they frequently also use drugs in the auditoriums. Along with perpetual insecurity, these activities add insult to injury. How then can families enjoy these screenings, asks Shinwari.
Back to the future
Shinwari remembers the late 1970s as an amazing era for the emerging Pashto film industry. Eminent Pashto-language writers, producers, directors, actors and actresses had given Pashto films a prominent place in the world of cinema. These films were shown throughout the country before the industry crumbled due to terrorism and the lack of investment. As the situation deteriorated, so did the quality of the Pashto cinema.
The journalist recalls that visitors from Afghanistan and other areas of Pakistan would never leave Peshawar without watching Pashto films. There was, he believes, a deliberate effort which aided the decline of the film industry while Ziaul Haq was in power. In the 1980s, he says, the standard of Pashto movies fell; soon obscenity became synonymous with Pashto cinema.
No cinema for Peshawari women
A cursory look at Pashto cinema, with item songs full of latkas, jhatkas, and actresses gyrating to music, makes it clear that these films are created with a male-only audience in mind. With cinema out, Peshawar doesn’t have many entertainment opportunities for women.
To address this, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s tourism department has started a series of cultural activities for women. A female-only festival was recently arranged in the Hayatabad Township of the city, and attracted a large crowd.
But Zeenat Bibi, a working woman, stresses that more needs to be done and the lack of a proper cinema where families can go is a big shame. “Families would definitely go [out to cinemas] if they were of the same standard as [Islamabad’s] Cinepax Cinemas,” she says.
Away we go
Going to the movies means different things to different people. For some in Peshawar, it means travelling outside their city to catch the latest flick. Waqas Khan, a local from Buner district, now residing in Peshawar, has regularly made such trips. “I used to visit Islamabad once a week to watch a movie,” says the young man.
Peshawar’s old single-screen cinemas have fallen in disrepair. Watching films here is a markedly different experience from seeing one at a modern multiplex. The single-screens cannot compare to the cinemas in Rawalpindi and other major cities in the country. Many cinemagoers, therefore, opt to attend screenings outside Peshawar. Another reason for this is that the relatively well-off folks in Peshawar seek out Bollywood and Hollywood pictures, which do not play in Peshawar's theatres. The only films screened in the city are Pashto, which are considered to be of a poor standard.
Iftikhar Khan, who works at a not-for-profit news organisation, too travels outside his city to watch American and Indian films. Despite being a native Peshawarite, he has never set foot inside the city’s cinema halls. His choice of theatres is in the federal capital.
He recognises that not everyone has this option: “The poor and even the middle class cannot afford to travel to Islamabad to watch a single movie. [Which can] cost over Rs2,000, including travel and a meal". He is, however, willing to pay this price for a joyful cinema experience. Iftikhar further states that the security of cinema halls in Islamabad and Rawalpindi is an added advantage.
Waqas laments over the current state of cinemas in the city, “Had there been a well-equipped cinema here, I would never go to other cities and spend thousands of rupees for watching movies”.
Dawn of the dead
In the wake of operation Zarb-e-Azb, the security conditions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have improved. This may well positively impact cinemagoing within the province, breathing new life into the local industry. Pashto film producer Fayaz Ahmad is already noticing a positive trend. The number of cinemagoers has increased by up to 50 per cent, he estimates.
However, lack of a proper cultural policy by the government would continue to be a hurdle, interjects Shinwari. In the past, the former Awami National Party government had been able to get a cultural policy passed from the provincial assembly but failed to implement it. Since the party was in the crosshair of terrorist attacks because of its progressive and liberal approach, they had to lay off the vigour required to bring the policy to light. Even the present Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government is still struggling in this respect.
Shinwari believes that financiers are ready to invest in establishing large cinema theatres. The better security conditions are also encouraging for the citizens of Peshawar to go out and watch films with their families. What’s missing is a quality cinema house. With government support, the multiplex could arrive in Peshawar soon; it’s just a matter of time.
Header photo by the author