When violent mobs took to the streets across Pakistan last Friday, they unleashed their rage – meant to be targeted at a man living thousands of miles away in a foreign land – at any property, vehicles or goods belonging to their own people in their own country. As emotions and anger overflowed, protesters burned down nine of Pakistan’s already limited number of cinema houses. The act was relentless and, perhaps, premeditated. The vandalism was inspired by a film depicting an insulting parody of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), which spawned global outrage and protests.
As the decades-old cinemas were charred by smoke and whelmed by wild flames, the management stood outside for hours, watching damages worth tens of millions rupees mount – cent by cent.
In Karachi, the cinemas targeted were Nishat, Capri, Prince, Bambino (located on M.A. Jinnah Road in the Saddar area) Gulistan (Landhi) and Crown (Maripur) and in Peshawar: Firdaus Picture House, Shama and Capital Cinema.
Cinema houses– especially the three prominent ones on M.A. Jinnah Road – have been easy targets for protestors, irrespective of their allegiance (government-owned or otherwise) or adherence to Islamic holidays.
“We are always willing to support peaceful protests,” Nawab Hassan Siddiqui, manager of Nishat cinema told Dawn.com, a day after the protests. “The cinemas had been shut for the last four days. We had erected a sign signifying our commitment and fidelity to the protest. We took down film posters and publicity – in fact, we respect all Islamic holidays. For example, we close our cinemas from Muharram 8 to 12,” he said.
Following the protests, cinema owners met to discuss the plan of action. One thing was for sure: They are not expecting the government to offer any support.
“They should start with an apology first. So far there has been none,” said Farrukh Rauf, director of Karachi’s Capri Cinema.
Security negligence was a major factor behind the destruction as little to no presence of law-enforcement agencies encouraged the attacking mob to ransack the already vandalised buildings.
“They failed to respond when the mob attacked” Rauf said. “The plundering went on for at least three to four hours. I was standing there and saw no police or rangers anywhere.”
According to the owners, the attackers soon turned into looters as they broke open the lockers and did away with the cash.
Losses worth millions “When we start the repair work, the costs are likely to go run between Rs. 10 to 30 million,” Capri’s Rauf said.
“We have to fix our ceiling, the cinema screen – which costs 10 to 15 million rupees on its own and buy new sound systems – we had 12 speakers, and each cost Rs.100,000.”
Nadeem Mandviwalla, CEO of Mandviwalla Entertainment, which manages Karachi’s Atrium Cinemas and owns Nishat Cinema could not give an absolute figure on the losses, which he said could run into tens of millions.
“Nishat and Prince have been nearly razed to the ground. Capri and Bambino have suffered substantial losses. And they will need urgent funds – at least in tens of millions – just to start the process of restructuring,” Nishat’s manager Siddiqui said.
While the cinemas are covered by insurance, owners believe it will not be enough to cover the costs of reconstruction and resurrection.
“Will the insurance money even kick in? Right now, it is too early for concrete answers,” said Mandiwalla.
Lack of government support Burning down one cinema is one thing, but attacking six of Karachi’s most popular cinema houses can be suspected of being a pre-planned activity.
“It seems like a specifically-targeted arson attack,” Rauf said.
“Limited aggression has been seen on and off over the last 30 to 40 years. However, we were never attacked in a planned manner like this time.”
Mandviwalla blamed the government for its insensitivity towards the already dwindling cinema industry. “If you ask me, the burning that day was a license for people to storm, burn and destroy,” he pointed out.
“M.A. Jinnah Road is a business centre and yet the government allows every protest to pass through it. Protesters often throw rocks and take down glass windows and doors at Nishat’s entrance. This time, they stormed in and burned it down, but even after this episode, the next procession will still go through M.A. Jinnah Road.”
Mohsin Yaseen –marketing manager of Rawalpindi’s Cinepax – validated Mandviwalla’s point: “The rally was quite peaceful and we didn’t suffer any major losses as the protestors here weren’t interested in bulldozing. It happened in Karachi because the government allowed them to go through M.A. Jinnah Road.”
However, Yaseen was quick to point out that the Punjab government did not provide any additional security.
With an estimated count of 30 high-profile screens in Pakistan, the country’s cinema culture faces near desolation.
The odds are staggering when the number of cinema houses is compared with the size and number of bustling metropolises. “There are over 1,200 cinema screens in Mumbai. In Karachi, which equals Mumbai in population, there are, maybe, 12 screens,” Rauf, Capri cinema owner, said.
However, it may be unfair to compare the two metropolis’ cinema trends due to the sheer size of the Indian film industry and the fact that Indian government receives substantial revenue from box-office window taxes.
“The Pakistani government should encourage the industry”, Mandviwalla said.
“If they did not encourage television, we would still be stuck with PTV. The government has been ignoring the cinema industry for the last 30 years. If you sincerely want to rebuild cinema culture in Pakistan, then the government should come forward and start giving initiatives to cinema owners,” he said.
Yaseen agreed. “The least they should do is to allow concessions on import. Right now, we pay a 35 per cent duty on products. In a bid to support cinema, we should be allowed to buy old equipment in the market – at least until we can get our cinemas up and running.”
For reasons unknown, Yaseen said, the government has banned acquisition of outdated equipment.
According to Mandviwalla, government support should translate into a protected environment, policies and incentives. “Governments do not run cinemas, they initiate incentives. They enable an environment to attract private investment.”
Cinepax’s Nawab highlighted losses that go beyond the cost of the cinemas. “Around 250 people will lose their jobs. People from every walk of life, from cinema employees, to small-business owners – including those who ran burger joints at the cinemas – earned their livelihood here.”
“For those working in the cinema line there really is no alternative,” he said.
No cheap alternatives For the audience, however, there remain limited alternatives, albeit more expensive ones. The processions did not attack any of Pakistan’s multiplexes. It may be down to single-screen cinemas’ instant iconographic identification as the major exhibitors of movies.
A regular ticket at an expensive multiplex is expensive when compared to what cinemas like Capri or Nishat would cost, making film-lovers wonder if the attacks have brought an end to economical cinema for the masses. Mandviwalla, Yaseen and Rauf agree.
“If you go to Atrium (multiplex), you will find it filled to capacity. People in Pakistan have a 24-hour memory. This incident has eliminated cinema for people who cannot afford a Rs.500 ticket. But despite this, cinema is still the cheapest form of entertainment in Pakistan”, said Rauf.
Looking at the ticket window at both Prince and Capri was a harrowing moment. Prince, which sits between Nishat and Capri on main M.A. Jinnah Road, had been closed since summer because of property dispute and litigation. Their last movie was “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.”
“Capri and Bambino will resume showing films in three months’ time,” revealed Rauf. “The screen, walls and seats were destroyed, however, the projector survived.”
In such a scenario, would it not be better to build a multiplex out of the rubble?
Rauf said building a multiplex is still more expensive.
“Let me put it this way, to be standing at a high-risk location like this, Rs.50 million is probably not worth it. I am portraying ground realities.”
Mandviwalla, whose Nishat suffered total obliteration, said “First of all, we still have to decide if we are going to rebuild Nishat. Whether it’s going to be a multiplex or not, that question will have to wait.”
According to Yaseen, “It will be the biggest mistake, investment-wise, to restructure a cinema on M.A. Jinnah Road. But it’s not just about cinemas. Saddar is a business centre, and shops and business get ravaged, when people mob-up.” There’s high risk there, and running a multiplex is expensive business.
Despite the horrifying experience, cinema owners are not backing out yet. In Karachi, Atrium and Cineplex survive. In October, Cinepax will launch four screens in Karachi at Ocean Towers, Do-Talwar (two swords), Clifton.
The author is a film critic for Images on Sunday and Dawn.com.