For over a month, Prince Cinema — one of Karachi’s oldest picture houses — has been in the process of being razed to the ground. According to the billboard placed outside the gate, it is set to become the new home for a high-rise building called ‘Prince Icon’.
Walking through the rubble towards the main cinema screen, it looked like the last five minutes of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 classic Jurassic Park — cranes and bulldozers were placed in a similar position like raptors and T-Rex getting ready for a final battle.
The cinema which was initially built around 1972-74 by Thariani & Co. became talk of the town with its stadium-style seating and a maximum capacity of 1,100 to 1,400 people. One of the first films screened here was an Italian Western called Sabata (1969).
According to Atrium Cinema’s Nadeem Mandviwalla, when the cinema first advertised it was opening, it claimed that they had the largest screen in Asia.
“I think the screen was 90x100 feet. It also had stadium-style seating — before this we had tiers, circles and galleries. It was also the first cinema which was centrally air-conditioned,” he said.
“In those days, people didn’t go to the cinema to watch movies. They went to look at the cinema. And Prince was something else. Prince and Princess (a smaller cinema on the property) ruled for eight to 10 years. All international films would show here first. I, myself, saw the Man from Hong Kong (1975) here. It was a unique cinema,” he added.
Prince Cinema to be replaced by high-rise ‘Prince Icon’
Interestingly, Mr Mandviwalla explained, the cinema used to be owned by two families based in South Africa. “I remember Malik Lakha, who was in charge of operations, he used to meet my father so I had interacted with him a bit. I cannot remember the name of his partner who eventually left the business because his family did not want to move here etc,” he said.
“Eventually the cinema shut down because of a court case and then the 2012 attack where it was set on fire along with Nishat, Capri and others in Karachi and Peshawar,” he added.
Trip down memory lane
Before shutting down, Prince was the place to be. Ali Khan remembers spending every rupee of his pocket money watching Star Wars and Indiana Jones over and over again.
Mr. Khan, who now lives in Canada, said that he went to watch Star Wars on first day and first show with his pocket money in 1977. He remembers how Darth Vader’s raspy voice sent chills down his spine. While he developed a Star Wars obsession, Gibran’s mother did not have a good time at the cinema.
His mother, Farah, remembers going to watch a film at the cinema sometime in 1978 when her father had a heart attack.
Talking to Dawn, he said: “When she was in college my nana had a heart attack and required an emergency surgery. So while he was recovering in hospital, family friends of ours decided to take her to Prince to take her mind off things. They were like jo bhi ho, at least it’ll be a distraction. Unfortunately it was The Exorcist, and to this day, she can’t watch it without getting a panic attack.”
Kanwal Ahmed of Soul Sisters Pakistan remembers going to watch Jurassic Park with her whole family. “I was really scared in one of the scenes and had to close my eyes,” she said.
While many went to watch the latest international blockbusters such as Star Wars, Baby’s Day Out, War of the Worlds, Mariam Ali says she went with her friends to watch Haseena Atom Bomb at Prince.
“It was fun. It was normal to stand on your seat and dance every time a song came on,” she said.
Speaking to Dawn over the phone, a representative at Prince Icon claimed that the property would be used for a commercial plaza and cinema. However, he added that nothing had been finalised yet as it depended on the lease.
Prince Icon will be the second high-rise building on this strip of M.A. Jinnah Road. In the last decade there has been a sharp increase in high-rise buildings in the city. However, in 2017, the Supreme Court had imposed a ban on construction of high-rise buildings in Sindh.
Last year, the apex court retracted its earlier decision to ban construction of buildings with more than six-storey in Karachi and ordered that new high-rises can be erected in accordance with the law.
According to architect Arif Belgaumi, Karachi needs high-rise buildings to respond to the high cost of land and to address the demand for housing and work space.
“However, that does not mean that we allow high-rise construction everywhere. High density areas are zoned by first providing adequate infrastructure to support higher population, not just in terms of roads and utilities but also the essential institutional infrastructure, such as schools, parks, markets, mosques and hospitals etc,” he said.
“How it impacts an area like M.A. Jinnah Road depends on how we wish to see it in the future. Stretches of the road have different characteristics. The closer you get to the port the narrower the road and richer the architectural heritage. Further away there may be room for high-rise construction,” he added.
Architect and heritage consultant Marvi Mazhar believes that it is imperative to have mapping sorted for densification — where you can clearly say that this is an area for high-rises, this is a low density or residential block.
“You have to define the city through a master plan to say that this is a commercial area and this is residential…otherwise there is haphazard development,” she said.
According to Dr Mansoor Reza of NED University, the idea for building these high-rises and densification existed since a decision was made to turn the city into an economic hub.
“I think that there is no harm in densification if it is done properly because the arguments backing it up are valid. However, when these concepts are implemented here, nobody looks at things like power supply. In many instances, you will notice that PMTs are installed much later. In the same way, in residential areas, gas is an afterthought — the building comes first,” he said.
Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2019