An Afternoon at a Pakistani Multiplex

A Plush, Cool Escape Into the Fanciful World of Bollywood

The box office at the Cinepax theater in Rawalpindi, one of Pakistan's few multiplex cinemas. Sales are slow, but managers are hoping that the lifting of a ban on Indian movies will help the cinema rebound.
The box office at the Cinepax theater in Rawalpindi, one of Pakistan's few multiplex cinemas. Sales are slow, but managers are hoping that the lifting of a ban on Indian movies will help the cinema rebound. (By Candace Rondeaux -- The Washington Post)
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By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 21, 2008


The concession stand at the multiplex is out of popcorn. With 10 minutes to go before the previews start, Saman Mushtaq hungrily eyes glass display cases stuffed with candy bars and packages of nachos. One small CineFries and a large drink: 115 rupees, or $1.80, more than half the price of the ticket. But it's worth it, after her two-hour drive from Peshawar to Rawalpindi for the only Sunday matinee playing within at least 100 miles.

It's 12:30 p.m. and dozens of people are lined up outside the Cinepax movie theater, waiting in the unforgiving heat for their first glimpse of one of Pakistan's few multiplex cinemas. About 100 yards away, four towering columns mark the spot where a former prime minister was hanged years ago, casting a long shadow over the theater grounds.

Inside, a slice of America with Bollywood flavoring beckons. Ice-cold air conditioning blasts across the spotless, polished marble floors of the five-screen multiplex. The plush purple stadium seats are slowly filling up, while an Indian raga plays loudly on the sound system.

Mushtaq, a 24-year-old telecom worker who lives with her parents in Peshawar, can barely keep still. In a few minutes, she will see her first Indian-made movie -- a slick thriller-cum-pop opera called "Race," about two pretty girls, two rich brothers and a triple double-cross at a highflying racetrack in South Africa.

"The moment we entered the theater," Mushtaq says, gesturing toward two friends at the concession stand, "we thought we'd never seen anything like this. There has been nothing like this in Pakistan -- that's why we had to come."

Indian movies were banned in Pakistan in 1965, after the two countries fought a war. Crippled by poor production and, more recently, undercut by a burgeoning market of pirated DVDs, Pakistan's film industry appeared to be on the verge of extinction. Box office sales dwindled, and more than 600 movie theaters closed.

But since a government decision in February to lift the ban on the screening of Indian movies, the ailing industry stands poised for a rebound.

Imran Mumtaz, the movie theater's effervescent manager, scans the brightly lighted lobby and smooths the creases in his khakis for the umpteenth time as theatergoers stream in. He has been waiting for the crowds since Cinepax opened to record numbers in October. Ticket sales fell off dramatically after the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto two months later, he says.

"No one has been coming because of the security issues," Mumtaz says. "With the suicide bombers and blasts all the time, no one wanted to come out."

The brainchild of three Pakistani businessmen and an American film industry veteran, the Rawalpindi multiplex is the capital district's first new cinema in years, Mumtaz says. It is one of about 120 that Cinepax plans to open over the next several years, including four in the cultural capital of Lahore and six in the commercial hub of Karachi. While scores of Urdu- and Pashto-language theaters have closed in the last several years, Cinepax is counting on the revival of Indian films in Pakistani theaters to help lift sales, Mumtaz explains.

"Our culture is the same as India's, so these are the movies people want to see," he says. "Religious-wise, we are Muslims. Culture-wise, we are Hindus."

At this stage, the company's marketing strategy is primarily word of mouth. There are no splashy billboards, no movie listings or ads in the daily newspapers here. Too dangerous, says Mumtaz, as he watches a security guard wave a metal-detector wand over one of his customers.

One of the theater's best advertisements, Mumtaz says, is its toilets -- the cleanest in Rawalpindi.

"Their toilets are not even this clean in the U.S. We challenge anybody. You can eat out of our toilets," Mumtaz says with a proud smile.

Mushtaq and her friends make a beeline past the toilets straight to Theater No. 1. They settle into their seats just as scratchy footage of a green-and-white Pakistani flag flutters across the screen to the tune of the national anthem.

Thirty seconds later, the crowd claps and cheers as the screen goes electric white, and then a slick, new, baby blue Mercedes sports car streaks by. After a few quick scenes at the opulent South African racetrack, the main backdrop for the film, a hunky actor breaks into a song as dozens of scantily clad women in cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats dance around him. "Oh, baby. Rock the dance floor. Rock! Rock! Rock! Rock!" A passage to India has begun.

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