As shopping malls replace “bioscopes”, cinema dies in Bannu


Bannu : Those who go to Melad Park in Bannu city may have seen Gulab Khan sitting in the sun the whole day. His granddaughter Slama, 10, brings him lunch and tea in the afternoon.

When the sun moves across the sky, Gulab Khan follows its trajectory, moving his chair to stay in the sunlight. With his days spent chasing the sun, winters are frustrating for Gulab Khan because the days are short and the sun hardly ever stays at one point for long.

“Don’t go there to him or he will start about the old days again when he used to go to the ‘bioscope’”, said Shafiq Khan, a real-estate dealer with his office close to the park, when I asked him where I could find Gulab Khan.

Gulab Khan, 75, is known to the locals as Kaka, or uncle, a common term used for the elders in the Pukthuncommunity. Kaka still has memories of the city when Bannu was not heavily populated, and most of its buildingswere from the colonial era. Among them were the Saleem Theater and Regal Cinema, built and patronized by the local Hindu population in the early 20th century.

“I used to go to the cinema when I was about 15 years old”, said Kaka, remembering the 1950s. He stared at me, not sure if he should speak to me but when I told him I was a reporter, he relaxed.

“My son, that was a very good time and we, after a long day’s work would apply pomade to our hair, light up our K2 cigarettes and go to watch movies.”

Kaka said it was the only entertainment for the city’s residents.

Bannu today is but a ghost of its former self – a crowded dusty city that is home to the displaced people from the neighboring North Waziristan. A military operation in the North Waziristan has turned the city into a high security zone for fear of the militants escaping through its routes. There is little by way of the relaxed environment that Kaka attributes to the city. Like other parts of the Khyber Pkhtunkhwa (KPK) province close to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Bannu has always been dominated by a conservative population with a religious outlook on life. But that never deterred people from having a little fun, said Kaka. And the only fun in town back then was the ‘bioscope’, the old word for cinema.

According to Kaka, back in the day watching movies was a popular pastime even in a small town like Bannu that today is still treated as the backwoods by the media and mainstream Pakistan. The town was recently in the news for hosting a large portion of the 1 million internally displaced people from the neighbouring North Waziristan Agency, the most troubled of tribal areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The Pakistan army started a military operation in NWA in June 2014 to flush out local and foreign militants from the agency.

“We had so many friends from the villages who would come to the city and stay the night to catch a film at the cinema”, recalled Kaka. “Not just the city dwellers but the youth and elders of the rural population would arrive in the evenings to catch a late night show.”

He said he would routinely inform his friends in the villages in the city suburbs about the new movies playing at the cinemas. Most of these, says Kaka, were old Bollywood.

Bashir Khan, 48, a displaced person from the neighbouring North Waziristan, said he would come to watch movies in Bannu when he was a boy and then go back early in the morning to Mirali, the second largest town of NWA.

“My father did not allow me to watch movies because he thought watching movies would make me lose my faith”, said Bashir. “But still I would come here with my friends whenever I got a chance. You can say I was addicted to movies.”

That was all yesterday. With the entire country affected by militancy and conflict in the wake of 9/11, going to cinema is nomore safe due to frequent threats, bombings and terror incidents. In nearly all major cities of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, cinemas have been turned into shopping malls as people stay away from cinemas for fear of bombings.

Peshawar, the capital city of the province, lost nearly 10 cinemas in less than a decade. Bannu followed in the footsteps, losing the two historical cinemas that were turned into market places.

Manzoorudin, a Bannu resident who used to go to the cinema on regular basis when he was young, says militancy may have caused the cinemas to close down, but it is not the only cause.

“When we lost films with proper stories and films turned into commercial eye-candies, the cine-goers stopped watching movies”, said Manzoor.

“Mostly Pashto movies would be screened in Bannu cinemas but with the advent of 21st century and digital technology that has given people access to all kinds of media, Pashto films remained nothing but song and dance. The Pashto cinema has refused to grow to keep up with competition from elsewhere.”

Manzoor said he used to go to Regal Cinema along with his family but it became impossible due to the obscenemovies screened there and conflict in the region, militancy and terrorism.

He said that though it was the age of digital technology, it had not caused the end of the cinema.

“India is far advanced than Pakistan in digital technology but there are cinemas and their number is growing every day”, he said adding that watching movie on a big screen is an experience that cannot compare to that of a laptop or watching film on a cell phone.

Manzoor said that the Saleem Theater in Bannu was built in 1936 during the British Raj, by a local Hindu resident KaniaLal Singh.

“We could not preserve our historical heritage and now Bannu city has nothing for the recreation of its citizens”, Manzoor added.

Both the cinemas in Bannu have been demolished by owners and shopping plazas raised in their place. Manzoor is of the opinion that legally, no commercial building or market can replace cinema.

Iqbal Hasrat, a playwright and a Pashto poet, said Pakistanis had destroyed the film industry and culture by making films quite opposite to our way of life.

“Have you ever seen any Pashtun girl in a dress she is shown wearing in the films?”,Hasrat asked. He said when vulgarity and commercialism came to cinema, mature cine-goers gave up watching movies.

“Only the loafers would go to the cinema now”, he said.

Hasrat said the downfall of cinema that started in the wake of commercialism was accelerated by the dangers posed by militants.

“It (militancy) was the last nail in the coffin of the cinema.”

Cinema owners received threats from militants, said Hasrat, and the cinemas and owners were targeted.

“In such a risky environment, most of the cinema goers were afraid to go watch movies.”

Hasrat feels that with end of cinema in the city, and indeed the rest of the province, the citizens have been deprived of a very cheap source of entertainment in a place where there is no other spot for recreation.

Whatever the causes of the cinema’s downfall, people like Kaka have no chance of going to a cinema anymore, to stand and cheer when BadarMunir, the late hero of Pashto films, saves a damsel in distress from NimatSarhadi, the villain of the Pashto fims.

With no cinema in Bannu, people remain inside their houses and old-timers like Gulab Khan Kaka chase the sunlight, counting the days of their lives as they, like the youth, don’t know where to go for entertainment.


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