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Cinemas have reopened in Kashmir after 2 decades — but few moviegoers are showing up

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The lobby of the new multiplex movie theater before afternoon screenings in Srinagar, on Oct. 1.

SRINAGAR, India — Huge movie posters showing muscle-bound Indian action stars adorn the newly built Myoun INOX Cinema multiplex in southern Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir's largest city.

Inside the four-story building, young Kashmiris grab buckets of popcorn before taking their seats to watch Vikram Vedha, a new Hindi-language cop-vs.-gangster action film.

The big-budget movie is a hit across India. But in Indian-administered Kashmir, Oct. 1 marked the first time a film was screened in a cinema in 22 years. And on opening day, only a few dozen moviegoers have shown up.

Among them is Ummi Kulsoom Gulzar, 32, whose uncle used to take her to the movies in the city when she was a child.

"I brought my 5-year-old niece today," she says with a smile. "To keep the legacy going."

But there is nothing ordinary about going to the cinema in Indian-administered Kashmir. Just to reach the cineplex, people need to pass through a police checkpoint manned with heavily armed officers. Then they are then frisked at the theater entrance for bombs and weapons. Only those who've bought tickets online ahead of time are allowed in.

Although Kashmir — famed for its idyllic scenery, snow-capped peaks and lakes — was a popular setting for Bollywood movies, cinemas here have been on the front line of an insurgency that has inflicted pain on this Himalayan region for decades.

Now, after decades of unrest, the Indian government is claiming that it has restored calm in Kashmir. Supporters say reopening cinemas — three so far, with seven total planned — is one way to show that. But government critics dismiss the move as little more than a propaganda stunt.

The region has a long and troubled past. Since India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947, they've fought three wars over Kashmir. India currently controls about two-thirds of the region; Pakistan, the rest. The nuclear-armed neighbors still disagree over its boundaries.

For the past three decades, an armed insurgency claimed tens of thousands of lives as it fought India's rule. New Delhi blames Pakistan for backing separatist militants — an accusation Islamabad denies. Some of the separatists want an independent territory; others want to become part of Pakistan.

Vijay Dhar, 81, a co-owner of the new Srinigar multiplex, has lived through the years of violence. His family has owned movie theaters here since the 1960s.

But in 1989, militants declared all cinemas un-Islamic, ordered them shut — and attacked ones that stayed open.

"We had a bomb blast in the theater," he says of one of his family-owned properties. "They burned it."

In 1999, his family reopened that theater but later had to shut it due to the lack of audience.

Kashmir used to have about 15 movie theaters — all of them were forced to close their doors. Some of them became malls; others became hospitals. Many are still heaps of bricks — blown up by the militants.

For 70 years, until 2019, Indian-administered Kashmir held a special status. A clause in India's constitution gave the region autonomy. But in 2019, the Indian government ended that autonomy. It flooded the region with more troops than ever before and cut off the internet.

Now, three years later, the troops are still there. The mood in Srinagar remains tense, and many residents — who do not want to be named for fear of governmental reprisals — say that things are far from normal.

Documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak, whose 2007 film examined militancy and state repression in Kashmir, says civil society has been crushed and the opening of the new cineplex is an effort by New Delhi to portray to the world that all is normal in Kashmir.

The government helped cinema owners open up again, by issuing permissions and providing them with security. The multiplex was inaugurated by the administrative head of Jammu and Kashmir.

"There is something slightly bizarre about all this attention being focused on a commercial multiplex in a place which is riven by violence," Kak says.

Srinagar's main mosque, the Jamia Masjid, had been shut for over a year, Kak says. In such a situation, with restrictions in a Muslim-majority region on praying in a mosque, he says, the cinema "cannot be seen as having any significance in the life of the people of Srinagar or of Kashmir in general."

One of the biggest challenges facing the owners will be drawing audiences to keep the business going. The new cineplex plans to show three films a week in its three movie halls. Across India, movie houses face stiff competition from home viewing, especially since the pandemic began.

"I'm [a] movie buff and this business is something I am doing from the heart," says Dhar. "If it works, it works."

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