When art imitates life
By: Peerzada Salman
Charlie Chaplin is perhaps the most quoted film personality in the history of moviemaking. One of his famous lines about art (read: life) is: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long shot.” There is a semblance of truth in this observation. When the news of the torching of Capri, Prince, Nishat and Bambino cinemas blared out from television sets on Sept 21, perhaps the scale of the destruction, from a long shot, had not been ascertained. It could not have been determined.
A few days after the incident, on visiting Nishat Cinema, or Prince for that matter, on M.A. Jinnah Road (formerly Bunder Road) the tragedy hits you with unspeakable force. The place that countless people, mostly belonging to the underprivileged class, used to come to see and hear stories told through the camera’s eye has become a story itself. And a heart-wrenching one at that!
The entire Nishat cinema hall has been turned into a huge pile of rubble as if hit by a powerful earthquake. The iron frames of the ceiling stick out of the rubble giving the impression that a superhuman villain has yanked them out of the ceiling, turned and twisted them in anger. Smoke still wafts out of the first floor, which is completely charred, and the smell of burnt wood suffocates you if you stand there for more than a few minutes. Everything has been reduced to ashes. Terrible!
Capri, Nishat, Prince and Bambino were not cinema houses in the traditional sense of the phrase. They were an integral part of our culture and post-independence history. They may not have been constructed before 1947 but they were a continuation of the artistic and cultural trends that the Pakistani nation took pride in till the late 1970s. All the nostalgic stories that you hear about peaceful and clean Karachi cannot be told without mentioning these entertainment facilities. Today, they are covered by soot you can only see in a nightmare.
Four days after it was set on fire Prince Cinema looks ravaged. Blackened wood, broken grillwork, damaged wiring and cracked walls make it a perfect setting for a ‘60s art house film, except the days of art house cinema exist no more. The entrance to the building is knocked down, and a giant film poster lies upside down on the pavement. There is a rope tied from one corner to the other of the front portion, signalling that entering the destroyed premises will not be welcomed.
As you try and lift the rope or duck under it to enter the structure a thirty-something man who has a limp, which he seems to be carrying since birth, comes forward and gives you a menacing stare. If you come across as educated, he won’t make any hostile gesture. But if you look like a miscreant and peep into the cinema, he will wave his hands in a manner suggesting ‘you step inside… you do so at your own risk’. Despite being unable to walk into Prince, you can see that a wall poster of Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible in Urdu is untouched. The rest is in a shambles.
Bambino Cinema on Garden Road has a shamiana covering the main entrance. You hop up a bit and look into the building through the iron grilles and discover no different situation. The property is badly damaged. For some strange reason, those who harmed the cinema forgot to or ignored the few film posters on the outer wall of the cinema hall. One of them advertises the Indian film ‘Singham’, starring Ajay Devgn in the role of a principled police officer.
Capri Cinema on M.A. Jinnah Road has suffered the same fate.
Film historian and journalist Shahinshah Hussain says: “According to the record that I have, Nishat started to run films in 1949.
I don’t know when it was built. In 1949 Fatima Jinnah inaugurated the cinema and the first film which was shown here was ‘Doli’ (Indian movie). On July 10, 1953 the first Pakistani (Punjabi) film titled ‘Shehri Babu’ was screened. It starred Inayat Hussain Bhatti and Soran Lata and was released by Niazi films. It ran for three weeks. On Aug 7, the same year, ‘Mehbooba’ (with Santosh Kumar as the main character) was shown. Other than that Bengali films were a regular feature along with English movies. ‘Ben Hur’ ran for a long time.
“Capri Cinema was opened in 1968. It generally showed English films. Classics like ‘Where Eagles Dare’ and ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ have been screened at Capri. Of the Urdu films Pervez Malik’s ‘Mehmaan’ (1977) was a big hit.
“Prince was inaugurated in 1974 and it was known for its English films. The first one to be screened here was Sabata.
“Bambino was constructed in 1963. Gen Ayub Khan saw ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ at Bambino. Bhutto sahib inaugurated it. Pakistani classic ‘Aaena’ (starring Nadeem and Shabnam) ran for a record 48 weeks continuously at this cinema,” says Mr Hussain.
Nishat Cinema Director Nawab Hasan Siddiqi believes the cinema was inaugurated on Dec 25, 1947 by Fatima Jinnah. Architect Mukhtar Husain says: “The burning of the cinema houses has further restricted entertainment opportunities for citizens. In terms of what can be done now, the extent of damage needs to be examined and these structures have to undergo a testing process, only after that can anyone determine if they can be rebuilt or not.”
Rebuild, revisit, redo, and rework, reform… These are the words that Pakistani society is now trying to get accustomed to. And yes, one more: relearn.