Lahore, cinema and childhood: How I long for matinee memories that I never had

When I was growing up in Lahore, cinemas were not respectable, but they were undoubtedly still public spaces
Updated 19 May, 2016 04:20pm

“All cinemas, though, whether ordinary or special, figure in memory as nodal points, centers of attention, people magnets dotted across memory-maps of the landscapes of youth.” — Annette Kuhn


When I was a teenager, discovering politics and beauty and feeling hormonal, we weren’t in the habit of going to the cinema.

My parents would reminisce about their youth spent at the cinema, but when I was growing up, in Lahore, most cinemas had been shut down, and the remaining few were unsafe, unsavory places.

I feel that I missed out on this very important aspect of this meshing of public/private life, where one would go to the cinema on their first date, hold hands, nuzzle into someone’s throat or hair, and at times ignore the exploding kaleidoscope of flashing brightness on the screen to stare transfixed at each other. I read about this, I heard about this, I feel betrayed by my youth because I never lived it. It was never an experience that marked my teenage memories.

The few times that I did go to the cinema: I remember going on a school trip to watch Jamil Dehlavi’s Jinnah.

This was in Lahore in 1998. We went to Sozo Cinema, at Fortress Stadium, where the film was preceded by a water show of what were then known as dancing fountains. It was a water and lights display, one of the rare features of that particular cinematic venue. I remember lining up outside the theater, and the cinema hall being flooded with school girls on that particular day. We scrambled to get good seats, and scuffled over seat placement. No one wanted to sit next to the teachers who were accompanying us on the field trip.


When I was young cinema theaters were divided in ranks of shady and not shady, depending on time and location.


I can’t recall what I thought of the film. We were all expected to like it because the film was supposed to be a Pakistani response to Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, in which M.A. Jinnah was presented as a cold, unfeeling, rather sinister sort of character. Dehlavi’s film was widely anticipated to settle the historical score and redress that insult. I remember that I was moved to tears when Talat Hussain’s character, in the crowd scene, lifts up his arms and shouts “Pakistan Zindabad!” – that scene showed an old, less frail, Jinnah (played by Christopher Lee) apologizing to the masses that were made homeless, and had to migrate across the snarling, divisive border in a migration that was bloody, brutal and senseless.

I also recall the scene where the train pulls up to a restless, anxious crowd of people assembled at the Lahore railway station, who had been waiting for hours to receive their loved ones. It was a long shot from above, moving into a close up shot of the train wheels dripping blood.

And I remember my heart pounding when I saw Indira Varma’s Ruttie appear onscreen, sari-clad, kohl-eyed, be-jeweled. She was so enchanting. Richard Lintern’s mustached portrayal of the young M.A. Jinnah as a sexy lawyer who seduces the young Ruttie was equally thrilling. Until he shaved. His character should never have shaved. They moved between elaborate mansions, and gardens with banyan trees, and in my head colonial India seemed far more aesthetically pleasing than independent Pakistan lived to be.

The other two films that I recall seeing in the cinema were Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (released in 1993, it came to Pakistan in 1994), and Shaan’s film Mujhe Chaand Chahiyay (2000) starring Shaan, Reema, Moammar Rana, Noor, Atiqa Odho and Javed Sheikh.

In the 1980s and 90s in Pakistan cinemas were few and far in between. The Nishat in Karachi was a popular cinema. Photo courtesy: The Citizens Archives of Pakistan
In the 1980s and 90s in Pakistan cinemas were few and far in between. The Nishat in Karachi was a popular cinema. Photo courtesy: The Citizens Archives of Pakistan

I don’t recall much about the cinema or the audience at the time of watching Jurassic Park, but I do remember relishing that moment of watching and enjoying a Pakistani film while watching Mujhay Chaand Chahiyay. I was at the cinema with my mother, my brother, my mother’s friend and her two children. I also recall the screening that ended close to midnight, and the feeling of mingled curiosity and alarm at being in a cinema theater late at night, in the middle of a large crowd of people from socially diverse classes, all enlivened after watching a romantic comedy.

While the name of the theater escapes me, I do recall with clarity that it wasn’t the safest of spaces to be in. Cinema theaters at that time were divided in ranks of shady and not shady, depending on time and location. This fell in the realm of shady, both on account of time and location. The males in our group escorted us to our car without anything untoward occurring, and we drove off towards home, pleased with our adventure.

I never bunked school to go watch a matinee. There was nothing worth bunking school to go and watch. When we did bunk school at times on account of the weather, we would go for a drive in the rain, and land up at a café and smoke sheesha, and sip coffee, and order dessert. Our wanderings didn’t even remotely take us towards the cinema.

The interface for public culture was not mediated through the cinema at that time. There were extended celebrations of Basant to mark the arrival of Spring, the Rafi Peer Puppet Festival took place annually during early December, there would be floral shows, rock concerts, cricket matches, qawwalis, APMC (All Pakistan Music Conference) concerts, theatrical productions at the Alhamra Arts Complex, school plays, endless sheesha smoking at the mini-golf park, lucky Irani Circus. These were a mix of public and private spaces and events that informed a social, cultural existence in Lahore. Some of these events had free entry, or cheap tickets, and others were more exclusive, depending on club membership, or being in the know of certain cultural scenes.


Today we're witnessing the birth of a new kind of cinematic culture. One that features caramel popcorn instead of choc bars, that peddles Coke instead of chai-coffee. It is the homogenization of a global cinematic experience coming to settle in urban Pakistan.


The last few years have seen a spate in cinema construction. Multiplexes have been introduced to Pakistan, and cinema is once again associated with popular entertainment.

The Pakistani film industry is starting to make more films in Urdu, and so far Indian films remain unbanned. There have been technological advances made with digital cinema projection, and a transferring over to digital production as well as distribution.

This is the birth of a new kind of cinematic culture. One that features caramel popcorn instead of choc bars, that peddles Coke instead of chai-coffee. It is the homogenization of a global cinematic experience coming to settle in urban Pakistan. It is exclusive in ways that capitalism is, but also aspirational in ways that capitalism is.

And so, now that cinemagoing is again becoming a trend, and is seen as a respectable and popular pastime, I wonder if school children and college students do bunk afternoon classes to go watch a matinee.


Hira Nabi is a visual artist, researching cinematic culture and spectatorship practices in urban Pakistan