Crackdown on militants revives KP cinema

By Adeel Saeed

Moviegoers enter Picture House cinema in Peshawar October 19. Big-screen entertainment in KP is coming back after a slump caused by militant attacks on provincial cinemas in 2014. [Adeel Saeed]

Moviegoers enter Picture House cinema in Peshawar October 19. Big-screen entertainment in KP is coming back after a slump caused by militant attacks on provincial cinemas in 2014. [Adeel Saeed]

PESHAWAR -- For movie lovers in Peshawar, going to the cinema became an evocation of better times after religious extremists attacked cinema houses and threatened filmmakers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The terrorism took place between 2007 and 2014.

Now, with the restoration of peace thanks to military Operation Zarb-e-Azb and on-going security operations against militants and their facilitators, the film industry in KP is showing signs of revival at a rapid pace.

The army began Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan in June 2014. It continues today.

In February 2014, a series of grenade attacks shook Shama Cinema and Picture House in Peshawar, killing 20. The attacks frightened many residents into giving up film-going.

Militants also threatened the lives of filmmakers, artists and musicians during their reign of terror in KP and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) between 2007 and 2014.

The terrorism drastically reduced the production of local films, leaving movie lovers in a state of uncertainty about the future of cinema culture and big-screen entertainment in KP.

Boom in local film industry

In the past two years, however, the situation has started to take a positive turn, industry insiders say.

Now hundreds of film buffs are contributing to a boom in the local film industry by fearlessly watching their favourite films in Pashtu, Urdu and English, said Peshawar cinema owner, film producer and actor Shahid Khan.

"Our business has shown significant improvement after betterment in the security situation, and the number of cinema visitors is increasing each day," he told Pakistan Forward.

Before the launch of military Operation Zarb-e-Azb in 2014, KP show business produced only six or seven films annually, which played to houses filled only to 30 or 40% of capacity, he said.

"We stopped filming in scenic locations in KP because of fear of attacks on actors and other team members," Shahid said.

That grim picture is now history.

"In the past two years, a record number of Pashtu films have been produced in KP," he said.

In 2015, the KP industry produced about 16 Pashtu-language films, he said. This year, working at the same pace, the industry has produced nine films and plans to release five more before December.

"Extremism ... set back our region's film industry, but it failed to shut down this source of entertainment," Shahid said.

In Peshawar in recent years, the number of cinemas has fallen from 15 to 7, but film culture is intact and the public is enjoying big-screen spectacles, he said.

Film industry needs government, private support

Industry insiders are arguing for ways to strengthen their business.

The KP government needs to take interest in the film industry so that the private sector will step up as well, Peshawar film director Arshad Khan, who has steered more than 80 Pashtu-language movies, told Pakistan Forward.

"The industry needs official patronage, and the government should construct new cinema houses equipped with the latest technology," he said.

The KP government and film buffs alike are concerned that neglect of the province's film industry could lead to its extinction, he said.

Statistics throughout KP show the pressure of real estate speculation -- not just of terrorism -- on cinemas, as developers seek to build lucrative shopping malls.

Since 2007, Mardan, Nowshera, Abbottad and Bannu districts in KP have lost all their cinemas to real estate manoeuvres, he said.

The public, emboldened by progress in defeating terrorism, is coming back to cinemas, and the KP government has a responsibility to improve films' and cinema houses' quality, Ehtesham Toru of Peshawar, president of the Cultural Journalists Forum KP, said.

"Cinema culture is very much intact and cannot be eliminated through intimidation by religious extremists," he told Pakistan Forward.

"But," he continued, "it also needs support in shape of a peaceful environment, technological advancements and quality improvements for attracting people, especially the new generation."

The KP government should establish cinemas in all housing societies (neighbourhoods) to provide recreation, Toru said.

Cinemas provide healthy entertainment, unite society

"Cinemas are a source of healthy entertainment, and militants targeted them to destroy places where the people could gather," said Khadim Hussain of Peshawar, an educator, political analyst and scholar of indigenous culture.

Cultural activities and entertainment facilities are essential to uniting the public, he told Pakistan Forward.

"The extremist elements wanted to break people's unity" and that is why they targeted cinemas and filmmakers, he said.

"The cinema culture is showing revival, a good sign that reflects the restoration of peace in our society," he said.

Hussain called on the authorities to capitalise on these gains and create legislation, proper governing bodies and academies to improve films and to attract larger audiences.

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