Inside Kabul’s theaters
By Danish Siddiqui
I believe that sometimes you learn about a city and its society from its local cinemas and the genre of films they choose to screen.
Coming from the heart of the Indian film industry in Mumbai, popularly known as Bollywood, I had no idea what to expect from the cinemas in Kabul. I had several questions on my mind. Did families go out to watch films or was it only a getaway for men? Is watching films at the cinema as popular as it is in other parts of the world? What kind of films entice the Afghan cinema-goer?
There are only half a dozen cinemas in the whole of Kabul. Most of the theaters like Cinema Park and Ariana Cinema were destroyed during the civil war and were later shut down by the Taliban who had banned, among other things, going to the movies. Now every theater has three films shown every day with the first one starting at 10a.m.
Bollywood films from India, Pashto films from Pakistan and occasionally dubbed Hollywood films are played in Kabul’s theaters, but the genre of film is always the same; Afghan movie fans love action films. At every cinema I shot and interviewed in, action films ruled the roost.
The owners of all the cinemas told me Afghans loved Indian films but due to piracy were not able to screen the films, which usually hit the markets within days of their official releases.
For me, it was a treat to be inside the cinemas and watch the inhabitants of the otherwise disturbed city sneak away a few moments of fun. At such times, they seem to forget the outside world and the tensions therein. For them, it’s a different Afghanistan inside the theater.
The cinema-goers smoke inside the theaters (hashish is very common), talk on the phone, clap and whistle at songs and action scenes, while some catch a few winks in the middle of it all!
On Fridays, which is a weekly holiday, the staff have to lock the gates of Cinema Pamir, as there are too many people for the show. I watched as everybody rushed inside to get the best seats the minute the gates opened. Some who couldn’t find a seat sat under the screen while the rest squatted on the floor.
It was a little difficult to photograph the cinema-goers, as nobody wanted to be caught inside the theater (at the time, cinemas were still treated as taboo). A lot of my pictures had to be deleted as the cinema-goers noticed I had photographed them and were not really happy about it. Some even imagined the infrared light from my camera to be a bomb!
Despite all of this, I caught a lot of people completely engrossed in watching the films. During my entire shoot, which lasted five days, I saw only two women clad in burqas watching a Pashto film on the first floor of Cinema Pamir. I wanted to photograph them but the owner didn’t allow me, as its against Afghan culture to photograph women.
From this experience I’ve learned the same thing again – be it the posh cinemas of a metropolis like Mumbai, the open-air theaters in villages, or the cloistered cinemas of Kabul – Films are an escape from reality that various cultures and nations enjoy.