Pakistani Cinemas: Burning in Flames! – Exclusive for Dawn Online

The feature in this post is the unedited copy of the article that ran on Dawn.com at 25th September 2012. It reads a little different I thought it was meant to run as an op/feature, rather than a news story. My bad. Published copy is featured at the end of the post with Dawn’s link.

Header-Cinema

Forget Rationale Some Men Just Want to See the World Burn!

By Mohammad Kamran Jawaid

As one side of free-speech backing world gauges Muslims for their xenophobia against an imprudent parody designed to bait incense, we give them another reason to doubt our rationality. Our present to a generation now migrated to high-speed internet, media and geo-tagging: the destruction of cheap cinematic entertainment.

Emotions overflowed Friday when angry protesters’ spark burned down nine of Pakistan’s already limited cinema houses. The act was relentless, and perhaps premeditated.

Charred by smoke, whelmed by feral flames, each cinema’s management stood outside for hours, watching tens of millions in irreparable damage mount, cent by cent. Their lively hood was being broken and vandalized.

This insanity, for lack of a better word, was inspired by an insulting parody of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), which spawned – apart from global outrage and protests – a lack of comprehension from international media, and political indifference.

Back home we are a proud Islamic country, rallying in voice and spirit. Officially shutting down YouTube (as if it was a pornographic website), our demands are simple: condemn the video, acknowledge its offense.

Our people, hot-headed by the notion of Islamism, had a better idea: Crash, burn and plunder!!

The casualties of war: In Karachi, they are Nishat, Capri, Prince, Bambino (on M.A. Jinnah Road, Saddar) Gulistan (Landi) and Crown (Maripur). In Peshawar, they were Firdaus Picture House, Shama and Capital Cinema.

But cinemas – especially the three prominent ones on M.A. Jinnah Road – have always been easy targets, irrespective of their allegiance and accommodation for protestors, (government or otherwise) or Islamic adherence.

Nawab Hassan Siddiqui, Manager of Nishat cinema told me during our long conversation the following day: “We are always ready and willing to support”. “The cinemas were closed from the last four days. We had erected a sign, signifying our commitment and fidelity to the protest. We took down movie posters and publicity – in fact, we support all Islamic events. For example, we close our cinemas from the 8th of Moharram-ul-Haram to the 12th” he said.

Mr. Nawab had rung me up late in the evening yesterday, after their meeting with local cinema owners. The result of the meeting: despair, near-defeatism and maybe resurrection. One thing is certain. They do not expect any government support to kick in –– at all.

“Government support? I hope so”, said Farrukh Rauf, Director of Karachi’s Capri Cinema in a later conversation. “They should start with an apology first. So far there has been none”

Prince (2)

Security negligence was a major factor that day, and the lack of law enforcement presence encouraged the attacking mob to ransack the already vandalized buildings.

“They totally failed to respond, when the mob attacked” Mr. Rauf said. “The plundering went on for at least three to four hours. I was standing there, and there were no police or rangers anywhere”. “(The attacking mob) tore open our safes, took our cash.

“When we start repairing it would go up to Rs. 10 to 30 million”, he said. “We have to repair our ceiling, the cinema screen – which costs 10 to 15 million by itself. We have to buy new sound systems – we have around 12 speakers, and every speaker costs 100,000”

Neither Nadeem Mandviwalla, CEO of Mandviwalla Entertainment, which manages Karachi’s Atrium Cinemas and owns Nishat Cinema since 1960’s, nor Mr. Rauf had an absolute figure on losses. Mr. Mandviwalla however said that “the losses should go into Crores – maybe in 10 to 15 Crores”.

Mr. Nawab tells me that “Nishat and Prince are nearly razed to the ground. Capri and Bambino have (substantial) losses. And they will need urgent funds – at least in tens of millions – to even start their process of restructuring”.

Were the cinemas insured? I asked Mr. Nawab. “They were”, he said, “but limited insurance will not cover any substantial losses”.

Mr. Mandviwalla has a better question: “will the insurance money (even) kick in?” he wonders. “Right now, it is too early for (concrete) answers”, he says.

Burning one cinema down is one thing, but burning six in Karachi has a nefarious ring to it.

Did it look like a planned attack, I asked Mr. Rauf. “(It) certainly looks that (way)”, he said, and then added that could have been: “(a) specifically targeted arson”.

When I asked him if he anticipated anything like this, he said, “(limited aggression) happens, on and off, since the last 30-40 years. (However, we were never attacked in) a planned way like this. There was nothing to infuriate them – except themselves”.

Mr. Mandviwalla blames the government for their insensitivity to 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 center”, he said. “(and still the) government allows every protest to pass M.A. Jinnah Road. Protesters often throw rocks; take down glassed windows and doors at Nishat’s entrance. Today, they stormed in and burned it down. And let me tell you, even after this episode, the next procession will still travel via M.A. Jinnah Road”

Mohsin Yaseen, Manager Marketing of Cinepax Rawalpindi, validated Mr. Mandviwalla’s point. When I asked him if Cinepax saw any excitement that day, he said “On our end, it was just a peaceful rally. Nothing outrageous happened”, but then again “(The people) weren’t interested in bulldozing. It only happened in Karachi because the government allowed them to go through M.A. Jinnah Road”

Mr. Yaseen denies that Punjab’s provincial government provided any additional security.

With an estimated count of 30 odd high profile screens in Pakistan, the country’s cinema culture faces near desolation.

“(Figuratively speaking), we only had, what, 15 cinemas? They’ve taken down five. Now we have 10”, says Mr. Mandviwalla.

The odds are staggering when you compare bustling metropolises. “You have over 1200 cinema screens in Mumbai. In Karachi, which equals to Mumbai in population, you have maybe 12 screens”, says Mr. Rauf.

But then again, the Indian government gets substantial revenue from Box-Office window taxes.

“They should encourage, rather than discourage”, Mr. Mandviwalla said about Pakistan’s government.

“If they did not encourage television, we would still be stuck with PTV. The government has been looking away from 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.

Mr. Yaseen thinks so too. “The least they should do is to allow concessions on import. Right now, we pay a 35 percent 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, Mr. Yaseen says, the government has banned acquisition of outdated equipment.

There was a genuine chuckle in Mr. Mandviwalla’s voice when I ask him about government support, especially for this incident. “It would be a miracle if that happened”, he said.

On a larger scale, “Government support does not mean that they start producing cinemas or movies”, Mr. Mandviwalla points out. “Government support means they create a protected environment for you. They produce policies and incentives. Governments do not run cinemas, rather they initiate incentives. They enable an environment to attract private investment”.

“We’re already doing what we can individually”, he adds.

Mr. Nawab highlights a lesser thought of aspect in this conversation. “What was built once cannot be built again”, he said of the damage. “(But) look at the side-effects. About 250 people will lose their jobs. You have people from every walk of life, from cinema employees, to small business owner – like those who had burger joints who in front of the cinemas”. What would they do now? he asks.

“For those working in the cinema line there really is no alternative”, he says.

But there is – at least for the audience. The procession did not attack any of Pakistan’s multiplexes. Call it single-screen cinema’s instant iconographical identification as the major exhibitor of movies – or, maybe just their bad-luck.

As a cinephile, I love movies. However, a regular ticket to an expensive multiplex is out of my reach. A family of four would roughly spend near Rs. 2000 on tickets. With transportation and pop-corn costs, the amount would be near Rs. 3-to-4000.

Was this incident the end of economical cinema for the masses?

Mr. Mandviwalla, Mr. Yaseen and Mr. Rauf think so.

“If you go to Atrium, you’ll find it full. 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 Mr. 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”.

Nishat and Capri had “Barfi!” playing the last time I checked. Bambino’s recent rise to fame was with the notorious “Jism 2”, the Bollywood film starring U.S. adult-film star Sunny Leone.

Will these cinemas return, I wondered.

“Capri and Bambino will restart in three months’ time”, informed Mr. Rauf. “The screen, walls and seats are almost destroyed”, however “the projector survives”.

So wouldn’t it be a sensible business call to build a multiplex out of the rubble?

Mr. Rauf says making one is 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 talking ground realities”

Mr. 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 Mr. Yaseen, “It will be the biggest mistake of (investment) to restructure a cinema at M.A. Jinnah Road. But it’s not just about cinemas. Saddar is a business center, and shops and business get ravaged, when people mob-up”. There’s high risk there, and running a multiplex is expensive business.

However despite this incident, cinema owner are not backing out of the game yet. In Karachi, Atrium and Cineplex survive, and in October, Cinepax launches four screens in Karachi at Ocean Towers, Do-Talwaar, Clifton.

Does cinema survive, despite un-called for extremism in Islam’s name? Yes it does.

Is it battered? Yes.

Do the bruises hurt? Immensely!

Is there a doctor in the house? No.

Will it survive in the future? Only Allah knows.

The writer is the Senior Film Critic for Images on Sunday and Dawn.com. He loves movies and hates extremism, illiteracy, uncalled for rage and slapdash propaganda. Follow him on Twitter.

The published version of the article can be read by clicking here

At Dawn.com it looks like this:

CinemaBurning-DawnCopy

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