Cinemas: The lost identity of Karachi
Most younger people do not realise that till the late ‘80s Karachi was not only an important player in the Pakistani film industry but also a magnet for cinema houses. Those were the good old days when were no terrorist attacks, target killings were unheard of, and large parts of the city of lights used to remain buzzing through the night. Cinema offered the perfect escape route from the dull fare offered on state television in the form of news
With 72 cinemas in Karachi alone, the business of entertainment was thriving. Sadly, the decline soon set in and one by one and cinemas began to call it a day and close their gates to the people.
The cinemas in Karachi were spread like a web throughout the city and were not concentrated in a single nook or corner of the metropolis. People from different areas had different cinemas for themselves. As the popular Lollywood song went, “Bandar road say Keamari tak” all you could find was a series of cinemas. Starting from Naz cinema, previously known as Radhay , there were Eros, Rivoli , Kohinoor and then if you moved towards Saddar you could find Mayfair, Lyric, Bambino, Paradise, Rio and Rex cinema which stands today as the Rex shopping centre.
Nishat and Bambino still survive, with only Nishat maintaining its past glory and occasionally getting housefuls. Nishat also serves as a screening space for the Kara film festival. Being one of the oldest of cinemas, Nishat was inaugurated by the late Fatima Jinnah and has played host to a number of foreign dignitaries. Similar was the case with Bambino cinema, which entered the scene a little later. It was the first cinema to support a 70mm projection screen, with “Lawrence of Arabia” screened for the first time for General Ayub Khan .The dancing lady that used to glow all night on the Bambino billboard is still fresh in the memories of cinema enthusiasts. Incidentally, the cinema was owned by Hakim Ali Zardari, the father of President Asif Ali Zardari.
If you moved further ahead along Bunder Road you would find Light House cinema (now synonymous with second hand clothes), Jubilee and Ritz. Following the road towards Juna Market, there used to exist Kumar cinema, Noor cinema , Noor Mahal and the very well-known Nigar cinema. Moving towards Shershah, you could see Delight and Raj Mahal cinema. Delight still exists but seldom works as a cinema. Nayab, Regent and Novelty used to be the hub of entertainment for the people of North Nazimabad, Alif Laila for the people of Baldia town, Khayyam in PECHS, and the list goes on and on. Prince was one of the last cinemas to be opened in the late ‘70s and brought with it the trend of modern English movies.
Cinemas in Karachi were not just cinemas; they were community centres and the only places, apart from mosques, where people used to congregate in large numbers regularly.
However, by the late ‘70s the decline of cinemas in Karachi had begun due to a combination of factors. One reason was the emergence of the puritan regime of General Ziaul Haq with its strict censor code. Another was the rise of the VCR. Between 2002 and 2006, 51 cinemas had closed down in Karachi to make way to shopping plazas and apartment blocks. .
Nawab Hasan Siddiqui a renowned name in the film distribution and exhibition business and the person behind the continued maintenance of Nishat cinema shares with Kolachi the journey from the good to bad and even worse days of cinema in Karachi. “The people who haven’t seen post-partition Karachi don’t really know why it was called the city of lights,” he says nostalgically. “The billboards on the main Bandar road and Keamari were decorated so beautifully that as soon as you entered the centre of the city your spirits would light up. Just passing through the line of cinemas was an experience in itself,” Nawab told Kolachi.
He further added that there used to be a tram service that passed along most central cinema houses so that if you found a ‘houseful’ board at one cinema, you could just continue to sit in the tram and reach the next one, at a cost of just five paisas.
Nawab was of the opinion that one can live without cinema and the arts but cannot progress without them. Cinema is the backbone of your social and even economic progress because at the end of the day, it is also an industry and it can lead to heavy financial returns.
Talking about the sudden downfall of cinemas and the death of cinema culture, Nawab believed that it is not as much of a mystery as is portrayed. The decline of the cinema industry, in his view, was due to the same factors responsible for the decline of other industries in Pakistan: lawlessness.
“In Pakistan, everything is leading to one thing and that is lawlessness and that is the case in the film industry as well,” Nawab told Kolachi. He said from 1947 till 1965, Indian , Pakistani and English films were screened in most cinemas at the same time, and there have been times when Pakistani films had given others tough competition. He gives the example of, Anwar Kamal’s Qaatil, which starred Musarrat Nazeer, which made Dilip Kumar’s Sangdil flop in the cinemas of Karachi. Similarly, Nadeem’s Ainaa ran for three consecutive years at cinema houses in the ‘70s and yet we were getting ‘housefuls’ every other day.
“But since 1965, the flow of Indian films stopped in Pakistan and our own industry professionals could only keep up the good work till the early ‘80s. This was the time when pornography entered cinemas in Karachi, as the owners had nothing else to exhibit,” Nawab told Kolachi. Gradually, Urdu films stopped being produced in large numbers with Punjabi cinema becoming the dominant force.
He explained that in the ‘80s came the trend of the so called ‘Tottay’, where a few seconds of porn films were attached in the screening reel. Eventually, families began to desert cinemas and the original film’s market became subservient to the porn inserts, especially in smaller cinemas. Khalid Butt, a leading Karachi-based film producer, narrated what happened with his film in Karachi. “The Indian film Virasat, which had Tabu and Anil Kapoor was originally made in Tamil and it was a very universal story. So I used the same story and made it in Punjabi by the name of Jaagir. I spent more then 50 lacs on that film, and it couldn’t do business so I sold its rights to a local cinema house for 80 grand. Now if you go to that cinema, you will find Jaagir written in a small corner on the billboard and the title Jaagir ek raat ki all over the poster,” Butt told Kolachi. Apart from that Sohagan got converted to Sohagan ek raat ki, and Anjaan changed to Anjaan Haseena thi.
Speaking on the entry of porn films in cinemas, Nawab said, “A cinema is basically a collection of four walls which gives the people entering that big room something to laugh at, something to think about and something to cry at. But if there is nothing that can be shown in that room, to sustain your business you need to try every alternative. Those who can, let their cinemas be converted into shopping malls and marriage halls and those who cannot, just improvise.”
However, he believes that the cinema owners and the audience are also responsible for the cinemas being converted into malls and halls, as the quality of projection and cleanliness in cinemas is not the same as it was in yesteryears.
“There used to be a cinema in North Nazimabad. It had no bus stops nearby and yet it used to get full houses in the 9-12 slots. In films like Andaleeb and Umraao Jaan, the upper balcony used to be filled with women and children. The staff, the environment and even the food and snacks - everything contributed to the healthy environment of cinemas.
As far as the business of cinema is concerned, Nawab believes that piracy and the growing number of DVD shops is the root cause of all evils. “There are around 80 working cinemas in all of Pakistan and 37,000 DVD shops. Trust me that a DVD shop in Clifton earns more in a day then we do in a year. When ask who is responsible for this, there is no answer but the government,” Nawab told Kolachi.
But things may be changing for the cinema industry. Since Taj Mahal came to Pakistan as a ‘gift’ for General Pervez Musharraf, Indian films were finally allowed to come to Pakistan. Since 2006, no cinemas have closed down in Karachi, and instead 12 new movie halls are being erected in various areas.
“Indian films are definitely a ray of hope for us and the film loving masses of Karachi. That is why so many new cinemas are being made. But the way our government policies are changing, no industry can survive as no future plans can be made,” Nawab told Kolachi.
The massive business done by the Pakistani film Khuda kay liye is a beacon for cinema owners, and for filmmakers suspicious of the opening up to the Indian market. That film competed with and beat 10 big films that included Die Hard 4 and Awarapan. It proved that a well-made Pakistani film can compete with the biggest in the marketplace, as in the past. But since 2009, nothing similar has happened and voices calling for a ban on Indian films continue to haunt cinema owners in Karachi.
List of cinemas closed down in Karachi
9) Alif Laila
30) Shah talkies
The cinemas of Karachi have a distinct culture and history of their own. Despite their rapid demolition, they remain a part of the golden memories of a whole generation. Ghulam Mohammad Baloch, who lives in Baldia Town, has been part of the cinema business for the past 40 years now, from serving at the ticket counter at Hakim Ali Zardari’s Bambino cinema, to being a part of crew of the Nadeem and Shabnam classic Ainaa and now serving as the lineman for the past 25 years at Nishat cinema. Baloch has seen it all.
Recalling his memories of the golden days of cinema, Baloch told Kolachi that every weekend there would be massive traffic jams on the main Bandar road and there were specific people designated to manage the long queues outside cinemas. “It was not the increasing number of vehicles that was a problem but rather the increasing number of people in the queues. You can easily imagine how it was when 500 people or more stood expectantly waiting to buy tickets outside cinema halls,” Baloch told Kolachi.
Recalling the golden days of Bambino cinema, he said that it was the elite of cinemas. First of all it was located in Saddar, a posh part of Karachi back then and secondly epic films like Guns of Navarone and later Indiana Jones were screened there which brought droves masses of people to the cinema.
What he regrets today is that the job of a lineman in a cinema is not of much use. When you only have a handful of people, they don’t need to be managed. “A lineman is a very delicate post in a cinema. He doesn’t only manage the queues but he has to make sure that the people are ushered in properly, and the ladies and kids don’t face much of a hassle. Today, I just open the gate and they make their way themselves,” Baloch told Kolachi, with regret in his voice.
In the heyday of cinema, Baloch remembers quite a different situation. He fondly recalls one memorable incident back in the ‘70s. It was 10 am and he and the other staff were cleaning the cinema when he saw three women with kids sitting in the waiting area of the cinema. They had a huge kitchen utensil with them. When he inquired, “Baji Tum idhar kia kar rahi ho, show teen baje hai,” (“why are you here so early. The show begins at three”), the women replied, “Hum Nazimabad se jaldi aagaye hain. Baad mein ticket nahin milta hai. Hum khana idhar hee khaayenge aap bhi kha lena,” (“we have come early as we have travelled from Nazimabad. We were afraid we wouldn’t get tickets later so we came early with our lunch. Do join us!”). And that day not only did Baloch have lunch with them but also got them free soft drinks.
Baloch adds that such incidents make him recall the bond and trust people had in cinemas and the cinema staff. “I guess it was some kind of blessing at that time. I even remember women leaving there children in the cinema and telling us to take care while they did some shopping from Saddar.” However, having served the family of the current president of Pakistan for more then a year at Bambino, it was the saddest moment in Baloch’s life when he went to meet President Asif Ali Zardari at Bilawal House and after making him wait in sun for four hours, he was asked to leave.
“When I used to work at Bambino, the family of Hakim Ali Zardari, my boss, used to live on the sixth floor of Bambino chambers. As I used to be at Bambino 24/7, I was a part and parcel of their family gatherings,” Baloch told Kolachi.
When he was part of the cinema staff at Bambino – quite a respectable job back then – Asif Ali Zardari was in Cadet College Petaro. Later, he used to study at some college in Soldier Bazaar and often used to come to the cinema with his friends. But after he married Benazir Bhutto, the protocol he got was very elaborate and he never saw the Zardari family there again. Baloch left Bambino cinema and joined Nishat.
Apart from Baloch, Rasool who has been working as the parking in-charge of Prince cinema for the past 22 years, lives from hand to mouth now. Since the golden days of cinema, the number of cars that he guarded has just kept on decreasing.
“Things have gotten better in the past three years, but not like they used to be. The number of people coming to cinemas has increased of late but the respect that the people had for cinema and the respect that cinema had for people have both been lost,” Rasool told Kolachi.
He is of the opinion that when people used to come and park their cars at the cinema, he detected a certain amount of enthusiasm and excitement. Women and kids used to dress up, the fathers had to take time out, and above all, despite the ticket costing only a few rupees, everyone coming to the cinema had a certain amount of responsibility and respect towards the 70mm screen. They wanted to cherish every moment of the cinematic experience.
Baloch was waiting for people on the third day of Eid for an Urdu show of The Expendables and all he could do was to force people to bring in their bikes into the parking area and ask for Eidi.
No matter how the condition of cinemas has deteriorated and how much better they were before, there are small signs that cinema might once again become a viable industry. The presence of a cellular phone company at local cinemas, to promote ticket lucky draws via sms, is a ray of hope that some investment may make its way to cinemas. The representative of the company is not disappointed by the response. “We put this stall up every week on weekday and we get around 80 text messages, which may not sound like a lot but is better then we expected,” the company representative told Kolachi.
Better still, ever since Indian films have made a comeback, cinema owners all over Pakistan have invested over Rs 50 crore to revamp their declining premises, and some are even thinking of opening new cinemas and multiplexes. At least Ghulam Rasool and Ghulam Mohammad Baloch, among many other veterans of the trade, will keep their fingers crossed and hope cinema in Karachi is on a verge of a new dawn.
Ghulam Mohammad Baloch