By Zia Ur Rehman

Sep 26, 2012

KARACHI – Mobs torching Pakistani cinemas September 21 shocked not only industry insiders but also the country’s art fraternity.

The owners of some of the cinemas set ablaze by protesters denouncing an anti-Islam film termed the act barbaric and sought compensation.

In Karachi, protesters torched the Capri, Nishaat, Prince, Bambino, Gulistan Takes and Nigar cinemas, while in Peshawar, they stormed the Shabistan, Shama, Capital and Naz cinemas. The Karachi cinemas were destroyed; the Peshawar ones damaged.

“We have shut it down … whenever we were asked,” said Zafarullah Khan, manager of the Gulistan in Karachi, referring to requests by militants to close. “There was no point in attacking cinemas, which were closed five days prior to September 21 in (sympathy with the) protest.”

Police officers respond after the Bambino cinema was set afire September 21 by violent protesters. Organised crime and banned sectarian groups are suspected of being involved in burning six Karachi and four Peshawar cinemas that day, their owners said. [Zia Ur Rehman]
The arson not only financially harmed the cinema owners but also threatened their employees’ jobs, Khan told Central Asia Online.

“The demonstrators would have painted a much better picture of Pakistan to the world had they proceeded peacefully, but instead, the miscreants resorted to damaging the property of their own Muslim brothers,” said Nadeem Mandviwala, chairman of the Pakistan Film Exhibitor Association (PFEA) – Southern Zone.

“We, the cinema owners, have not calculated our losses yet, but it is in billions of rupees,“ Khan added.

Police September 22 made 104 arrests in connection with charges of arson against public and private property during the September 21 action, they said.

Major setback for industry

Cinema owners and cultural activists termed the destruction a major setback for the Pakistani cinema industry.

Cinemas in Pakistan have been hurt by the availability of films on CDs and DVDs, said Tarek Memon, a Karachi-based show business analyst, adding that declining business has forced many owners to replace cinemas with other commercial ventures.

Developers in recent years already have converted 31 Karachi cinemas to shopping centres and apartment buildings, he said.

Peshawar movie-goers have recently mourned the loss of the Falak Shair, Metro, Palwasha and Ishrat cinemas – all shopping centres now – while the other local cinemas struggle to survive.

An employee September 22 surveys the damage at the Gulistan Takes cinema in Karachi. People are calling the arsons that affected 10 theatres across Pakistan at attack on art and culture. [Zia Ur Rehman]
The riots were another devastating blow to cinemas that had only in the past few years begun to see viewership rebound after decades of decline, Memon told Central Asia Online.

Historic cinemas attacked

Some of the cinemas attacked were not economically feasible, but the owners kept them running as a tribute to Pakistani heritage, Mandviwala told Central Asia Online.

For example, the Nishaat cinema was opened in 1947 by Fatima Jinnah, the sister of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of the Pakistani state.

“Since its inauguration, no one had attacked this cinema,” – until now, said Nawab Hassan Siddique, Nishaat’s owner.

Similarly, the Bambino cinema, inaugurated by then-president Ayub Khan in 1968, was home to the first 70mm projection screen in Pakistan.

“September 21 will be remembered as a black day for the Pakistani cinema industry forever,” said Memon, blaming the day’s violence on the “Taliban mentality” that invariably opposes art and culture.

“The government should establish a commission and provide compensation to the cinema owners,” Mandviwala said. “It will require exhaustive rebuilding efforts to get them up and running again.”

Banned militant outfits, criminal gangs allegedly involved

Organised criminal gangs and banned sectarian groups are suspected of torching and destroying the cinemas, cinema owners charged.

“Those who caused the damage were not merely protesters but criminals,” alleged Chaurdry Farrukh, owner of the Capri cinema, who said the protesters came with tools to remove expensive goods like air conditioners, indicating the vandalism was planned.

Most of the attackers came from banned sectarian groups, contended Nishaat cinema employee Afzal Sheikh.

Mandviwala, on behalf of PEFA, urged the government to ban processions on MA Jinnah Road as they could prove disastrous for property owners along that road.

Torching cinema condemned

Cultural circles have condemned the attacks on cinemas in Pakistan and called them an assault on art and culture.

Blaming cinema halls for a video created by bigoted individuals in a western country is complete madness, Express Tribune wrote in its September 23 editorial.

Cinemas and theatres are a vital form of entertainment anywhere and attacking cinemas was an attempt by Taliban-minded elements to stop the masses from accessing entertainment, said Riaz Hazarvi, a Pashtun tele-film director and scriptwriter.

Militancy in Pakistan already has dealt a blow to the film industry and recent attacks were the second blow to the industry, Hazarvi said.

Violent protesters who invoked the name of Islam clearly violated Islamic preaching, said Dilshad Bhutto, president of Pakistan Secular Forum.

“It seems the protesters are more interested in looting and plundering public and private property, which has nothing to do with showing love for the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH),“ Bhutto told Central Asia Online.