Setting fire to our dreams

Talat Aslam
Sunday, September 23, 2012

KARACHI: Intoxicated by a strange kind of love, they attacked policemen, ransacked banks and shops and looted ATMs. All other possibilities exhausted, they moved on to set fire to our dreams.

Capri, Nishat, Bambino, Prince… by the time the mobs were through on Friday, they had reduced the dreams and memories of generations to ashes. But what worth do memories and dreams have before a mob equipped with petrol, matches and a determination to do the right thing for a righteous cause? They say a brave new country, purged of its sins, will emerge from these ashes. But while we wait for this utopia, a sentimental ode to what we have lost is our due.

After all, one of those smouldering heaps of ash and rubble was where some of us caught our first magical glimpse of Waheed Murad courting Zeba, saw Aina for the fourth consecutive time, watched the Guns of Navarone boom at us in our balcony seat and got to know a man called Bond — James Bond.

It may be a temple of vice and decadence for those with dreams of a brave and pure new world, but for far larger numbers it was the venue of their cousin’s first disastrous date or the place where your uncle got that coveted ‘first day first show’ ticket for Lawrence of Arabia or where you bunked off from school to sneak a clandestine view of Heer Ranjah.

Many of these magnificent landmarks tipped their hats to known architectural styles like art deco, others to mock 1950s versions of Mughal palaces or, in their last flourish, created a bizarre indigenous style that was the forbear of Shaadi Hall Baroque

Seeing the heart-breaking sight of these temples to our most vivid fantasies in ruins, it is hard to believe these cinemas were once such an integral part of this city’s social life and culture. In the ’50s and ’60s and through to the late ’70s, grand premieres, with generals and prime ministers duly in attendance, were held here as lesser mortals jostled to catch a glimpse of Shamim Ara, Neelo or the first couple of Pakistani cinema, Sabiha and Santosh. Starlets and glorified extras rubbed shoulders with the celebrity great and good just in case someone noticed them as did the sad men touting unsung scripts for that sure-fire golden jubilee hit.

Cinema owners found themselves basking in the associated glamour, and even our president’s rise into Karachi’s high society was a legacy of his father’s connection to Bambino, one major casualty of Friday’s wanton violence.

Few of a certain generation can forget Bambino’s titillating neon sign of a gyrating woman that became an emblem for Karachi’s swinging sixties. Nor will they forget the Sheedi bouncers at the door urging excitable teenagers to call down and form queues in their distinctive Lyari accents. And no one will forget those shady life-saving men shadowing you mumbling ‘black, black, black’ under their breath. But all this was not to last. In a society where innocent pleasures have become a sin, what did we expect?

It is a miracle that these cinemas survived unscathed for so long. Bunder Road has long been the venue of choice for most rallies, demonstrations and riots for generations. Yet, miraculously, even the angry people who filed past to protest in the thousands virtually every other day perhaps had a grudging respect for part of their city’s heritage. Sadly, the looting, pillaging mobs on Friday had no such qualms.

Already, these magnificent monuments to happier times had been fed a steady doze of slow poison. The same impulse that had set fire to them had already been at work since the late ’70s. The cinemas had already seen the elite and middle classes abandon them in droves through the ’80s as wave after wave of censorship, puritanism and self-righteousness led to a steady decline of quality cinema. The elite found solace in other forms of entertainment and the middle classes rediscovered television and fell in love with their video players. Cinemas were soon no go areas for families and women, and the once-lavish halls failed to maintain themselves and attracted mainly poor migrant men and some young college boys out for an adventure. Like any business, the cinema adapted to the new clientele with added doses of violence and innuendo. Punjabi and Pashto potboilers soon filled the vacuum as Anjuman and Sultan Rahi continued to attract a new audience into the 90s.

The surviving cinema halls soon began to be demolished across the country. Their owners found the prime property they stood on far more lucrative for building garish shopping plazas to cater to the nouveau riche created by Gulf money than to support an industry in decline. There were once as many as 120 cinemas in Karachi and its suburbs but the numbers had dwindled to barely 35. Of those, the ones in the heart of the city numbered only a handful. Today, there is virtually nothing left. To add insult to injury, the mobs also set fire two two suburban cinemas, in Landhi and Quaidabad, where factory workers once found solace from their taxing jobs.

As the better off lamented the decline of standards in Pakistani cinema, a new ghetto emerged. It echoed the wider class divide accentuated by the steady decline in public spaces where all classes could mingle and of the public university and the missionary school where it was once possible to meet students of every class and religion on an equal footing. Just as people of all classes once shared the same classrooms, the cinema hall, with its lesser class divide between the dress circles and the front-bench, was still a place where the rich and poor shared the same roof. But not any more. The classes now rarely mingle, just one of the many reasons why we saw what we did on Friday.

Ironically, many of the burnt down cinemas, particularly Nishat, had invested a lot of money in recent years to improve the quality of the venue. With the return of Indian films to our screens, the crowds and middle class families returned and many owners were finally concluding that running a cinema was not quite the dead loss that it once seemed to be. The success of the Atrium multiplex not so far away was another positive incentive to invest. Many owners were once again thinking of pumping in money into their cinemas. But it was not to be. The mobs rampaging on Bunder Road on Friday had other ideas.

Once upon a time we would hope that Friday night was just a long dream sequence from a Nadeem-Babra film from which we would wake up to live happily ever after.

We could once pray that Shabnam would wash away these men with guns in a torrent of tears, or Anjuman would lure them to her side with a deadly thumka. But Muhammad Ali can appeal all he likes to some mythical judge sahib to come to our rescue or Sultan Rahi can wield his deadly gandasa to wipe out injustice all he can. But we are deluding ourselves with silly fantasies. And fantasies are now a sin.

There is no one out there to hear our lament for these fallen buildings. No one, not even the fire brigade, will come to our rescue any more. The dream is over, the bubble of the Pakistan we knew has burst.


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