“Lahore under Zia was the most oppressive place imaginable. You haven’t seen a dictator like him again. Every Friday, there would be public floggings. Not to entertain, but to instill fear,” recounts Murtaza Kamran[1] as we chat about Lahore and cinema in the 1980s.

“Were the public floggings a kind of spectacle? Did crowds gather to be entertained?” I ask, curious about the ritualistic practice that had come to define Zia’s dictatorship.  “People did go to watch, but it wasn’t entertainment. It was different from lynching in the US south where white people would derive pleasure from, and enjoy watching a black person be lynched. It was also different from public beheadings in Saudi Arabia. In Lahore, there was a deep sense of fear, you knew that you could be up there being flogged, that there was nothing that separated you from the person receiving punishment, nothing could protect you, not race, not class, not religion or sect. It could very easily be you.”

“What counted for entertainment at the time in public spaces?”

“There was really very little entertainment. Depending on class you could seek it out in different ways. There used to be a snooker café in every neighbourhood. Men would congregate there and play pool, hang out. There were parks that you could go to. Of course if you were a man and went anywhere with a woman, you would be hauled up by the police under Zina1 charges. You didn’t want that as a man. As a woman you definitely did not want that. Additionally, there would be the plausible threat of being raped or sexually assaulted by the police, sometimes for men, more so for the women. You most definitely did not want that.”

“Where would you go on a date?”

“There was an intimate geography to Lahore that you had to discover and guard safely and vigilantly. It was, of course, divided by class: for the lower classes, there were the public grounds at Minar-e Pakistan, Shahi Qilla, (Lahore Fort) and the Lahore Museum.

For the upper class they had access to private homes and space. For the middle class there was an entire network of shared secret spaces: you just had to be in the know. There were shops in Fortress Stadium, usually music stores, or Liberty Market, ice cream parlors, even a Bata store—”

“A Bata store?” I cut him off incredulously. “What would you do in a Bata store? Apart from trying on shoes – oh, wait, you mean a room above the store, or in the back or something?”

Murtaza nods slowly. “Yeah, there was a room in a Bata store.”

“You knew the owner, or paid the owner.”

“No payment was involved. You just knew the owner, or someone there, and figured out a system of getting the space for a while. Squash courts were also a place for romance. There weren’t that many courts in Lahore during the late eighties. I had access to a court at that time, and I remember reserving it for a friend once.”

“So you could book a court for say an hour?”

“Yes. One hour of uninterrupted time.”

“It would be kind of exhibitionistic, I mean there’s the glass wall.”

“No, no,” he laughs. “In those days, there were no glass walls, it was like a cell, completely private.”

“So what you were really doing was buying time?”

“Yes. Uninterrupted, private time.”

“Isn’t that true of the cinema as well? You buy a ticket to watch a film, but what you are really buying is time,” I ask.

Murtaza pauses for a minute to consider what I have said.

“Student unions were banned, Zia had banned all types of collectivization. Cinema was the only space where you could be a part of a public, without it being a jalsa (protest rally) or a janaza (funeral). During those days, Indian films had been banned, Pakistani cinema was heavily censored, and film itself had become a transgressive medium.”

General Zia had introduced a new censorship law in the 1979. All films that had been produced prior to the imposition of martial law had had their censorship certificates revoked. In order to continue to be distributed across theaters they would have to apply for new clearance by the censorship board. The fee for the censorship certificate cost Rs. 10, 000 (roughly $5000) in 1979. Mushtaq Gazdar in his exhaustive volume on Pakistani cinema writes:

The ordinance in its immediate consequence proved to be a death warrant for the film industry of the country […] The ignorance of the General and his cronies was evident from the fact that they failed to grasp the simple fact that the banning of all films produced in the last three decades would create a void, break the progress of film making, and pave the way for fortune seekers who wanted to invest in cheap films to make fast money.

The rise of pirated films made available on VHS cassettes, and the general climate of repression following the Motion Pictures Ordinance in 1979 all contributed to the decline of Urdu films, and the increase in production of Pashto and Punjabi films.

“Urdu cinema didn’t just disappear,” Murtaza adds, “it shifted into television.”

The rise of TV drama serials is directly related to the decline of Urdu cinema. The television industry was regarded as respectable compared with the film industry, which was viewed as a place of questionable morality, poor work ethic and low repute.

“It’s the audience that would make the cinema a safe space. Not the film,” asserts Murtaza as he recounts the cinematic landscape of Lahore in the Eighties. “It was the audience, and the timing, and the location. Cinemas were known by the kind of films they played, and the audiences they attracted. For instance, Regal Cinema was known for showing Hong Kong cinema, the Jackie Chan variety with lots of action and a sort of slapstick comedy. Then there were the cinemas that the students would regularly visit. I was at Government College at the time, and I knew that students from Civil Lines College would frequent Moonlight Cinema. If I went there with a few others, we could very possibly get beaten up.”

“Why? What kinds of rivalries existed?”

“It was class-based,” he tells me plainly. “Typically, students from Civil Lines College belonged to a lower social class than GC students, who were not upper-class but were socially more privileged than Civil Lines students. I knew at the time, growing up middle-class in Lahore, not to go to certain cinemas for the matinee show during the week. The cinema would be filled with daily-wage labourers and working-class men on their lunch breaks. If I showed up there, wearing jeans, I would get beaten up. So we avoided that circuit, and that time. My friends and I would go to the cinema for the evening show. We knew that clerks, accountants, officials would all get off work by 5pm or 6pm, and so the evening screening would have an audience made up of this salaried class, which we as middle-class college students would be safe in mixing with.”

I was curious to know more about what other kinds of rules governed cinematic sites. “How did one know where totas (pornographic inserts into films) were being screened? Where and when could one take a date to the cinema? Was it only men who were in attendance? What sort of possibilities did the cinema offer?”

“Due to property disputes over cinemas, a few of them were running in unorthodox ways. Alfalah Cinema, Plaza Cinema, Moonlight Cinema were all officially closed for business by the government due to the stakeholders being embroiled in court cases over rights of ownership.”

How did they continue to function if they were shut down I asked him. He smiled as he explained what he meant by ‘unorthodox.’ Each cinema house would be issued a roll of paper tickets by the provincial government; it would have a stamp of the Punjab Government. It was a way of measuring a sold out show: if the roll was all used up, and no more tickets were left, it meant the house was full. These cinemas didn’t have the official roll of tickets; they would use slips of paper as tickets. They ran the theater unofficially, and so they could program it in varied ways. Often a tota would be spliced into the film. These cinemas were also vulnerable to raids by the police. Being there was really an act of transgression. You were in a space where you shouldn’t be: there was the possibility of watching porn on the screen, and being caught by the police in a raid.

“The police would show up, and laathi charge (baton charge) the audience from time to time,” he explains. Another favoured tactic of the police would be to pick up motorbikes from the parking lots of cinemas, he tells me. “They would pick up some of the nicer looking bikes and take the bikes back to the thaana (police station). They knew that the owners would have to come to retrieve their bikes.” At that point we both knew what remained unsaid. The bike recovery would also be an occasion to extract a bribe, or make an attempt to do so. This was when the upkeep of public morality became a profitable enterprise for the police.

“Would the police enter the cinema?” I ask.

“No, not often. They would usually lathi charge when people were queuing up to buy tickets. It would be easier that way. Entering a darkened hall would be dangerous for the police. They might get beaten up in turn. Although they would switch on the lights as soon as they entered, announcing to everyone in the audience that they would be booked under Zina.”

“Were there ever women present in that audience?” I asked.

He paused and thought about this for a minute. I’m not sure, he responded. He told me that he recalled transwomen. If a (heterosexual) couple was there on a date, that would be respected – it was a strange kind of fraternal space. We were all aware that we were transgressing, so we could be in it together and respect each other’s space. Alhamra Theater was known as the newly-wed cinema, on account of the married couples that would make up the audience.  As I listened to this narrative, I imagined cinemagoers holding on to their nikkah namas (marriage license) as well as their tickets when queuing up to enter the cinema, and the constant anxiety of being coerced into adopting codes of socialization determined by the State.

“What were the ways in which this set of rules could be undermined?”

“There was a cinema that was known for being able to hire transgender sex workers. So you could hire a sex worker and go and watch a film together, and get a blowjob or a handjob. It was behind Akbari Mandi, next to Taxali Gate, it was called Nazir Theater,” he recounts.

I try and map this piece of information onto the contemporary landscape of the walled city where most of the cinemas no longer exist. The structures don’t even exist. They were demolished to make way for other ventures designed to bring in more income, such as marriage halls, petrol pumps, plazas, or parking lots. The remaining few were brought down in the last two decades.  One of the pre-partition cinemas located close to Taxali Gate in the Walled City was called Novelty Cinema. It is fabled that the celebrated director Shaukat Rizvi bought the cinema upon migrating to Pakistan, and gifted it to his wife Noor Jehan. The cinema was renamed Tarannum Cinema, meaning ‘melody’ after the celebrated virtuoso.[2]

The story goes that the cinema was sold by Noor Jehan in the mid-nineties to fund her medical treatment. However, a man called Saleem Jora, who claims to have bought the cinema in the early seventies when it used to be known as the Novelty Theater, disputes that version.

Murtaza tells me about his visits to the bookshop located inside Regal Cinema. I have read about this bookstore, it was located inside the foyer when you entered the cinema. I had seen some cinemas in Havana that had small stores inside selling films on DVDs and film posters, and books. But never in Pakistan.

“The bookstore had detective novels, spy novels, pulp fiction, etc. It also sold fashion magazines.” His eyes twinkle as he describes the ways in which fashion magazines “were practically contraband.” European or American fashion magazines typically would contain nudity, or models showing legs, skin, baring their bodies. In Zia’s Islamized Pakistan, this would be inflammatory content, which could potentially incriminate its reader.

“The book store would only sell the fashion magazines to women and never to men. The magazines were out of sight, stored at the back. I remember women would come in, ask for a few copies of a particular date, or season, and leave with the stash. So it was a safe transgressive space. And that environment followed you into the cinema theater itself – this world of possible transgressions.”

In 2008 there was a bomb blast at the nearby FIA (Federal Investigation Authority) building. The impact of the blast caused the roofs of the cinema to collapse, and it was declared unsafe. Since then the cinema, along with the bookstore have been out of business. Perhaps, now, there is little need for that bookstore. Men and women can buy fashion magazines from various bookstores in the city without having to conceal them from public scrutiny or fear of draconian punishment.

“What were your personal transgressions?” I was curious about Murtaza’s navigation of the city that he was laying out maze-like and thrillingly adventurous in his evocation of the 1980s.

“Alfalah Cinema was the most transgressive that I would admit to. I would never admit to Moonlight Cinema.” He narrates a memory where he was seen entering the compound where Alfalah Cinema was located by a family member who then informed his parents. He was confronted by his mother who berated him for his shameless behavior. “Tum nay aisi wahiyaat jaga par jaana shuru kar diya hai, ab toh cigarette bhi peena shuru kar do gay.” (You have started participating in such disgraceful activities; soon you will start smoking cigarettes as well).

He denied having gone to the cinema, and spun an alternative story to appease his mother.  “I told her that I went to pray at the mosque of the jinns. The mosque happened to be located in the same compound as the cinema theater. This worked as a diversionary tactic, and as expected, sent my mother onto another course of apprehension.”

“Did she think you were possessed?” I couldn’t stop my laughter in that moment.

“In those days, abstinence from cinema was seen a mark of decency, or of measuring moral values. Mothers would staunchly boast of the character of their sons by sharing how their sons never went to the cinema. It was at the time, the contemporary equivalent of saying ‘my son does not drink (alcohol),’ upholding middle class morality in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.”

Murtaza opened the floodgates of his memories and narrated to me the films that he saw, his clandestine visits to the cinema, the elaborate planning that went into those expeditions, and the risks involved in moving through a city stifled by fear and the threat of retribution. I began to understand that the cinema for him was a space that provided a counter site to the constraining measures that his life was being sieved through.

“Cinema for me personally was a space where I could have a conversation that did not involve my parents, or my mother, or the family,” he tells me. “There were things that I watched with the family, in the living room, on television, things like Nishan-e Haider, or Mahabharata, or Ghalib, or Teray Aangan, or other teleplays but then I could go to the cinema, or rent a VHS and that was a conversation that only involved me and my friends, and it was transgressive just because of that. Because in my middle-class family, film as a medium, was not considered to be ‘good.’ So in doing so, it taught me, or it gave me the capacity to be able to resist, that I can have conversations that are prohibited by going to the films, or looking at them, or learning about them, or talking about them.”

“What kind of footprint did cinema leave in the city? Where and how were films advertised?” I was curious to learn the hermeneutics of distribution and advertising during Zia’s regime of enforced Islamization.

“Most of the national daily newspapers had city editions, so there was Jung Lahore, Nawai- Waqt Lahore, and Mashriq. Then there were the local dailies, Awaaz, Jasarat, Taqbir or Vaqt, and these would either be printed in the morning or evening. You could get them for maybe a rupee, or aath aanay,” he racked his memory. “Outside of the front and the last page, which were news columns, the rest of the paper would be advertisements, mostly film ads. Most of it was coloured over, but at times the local evening dailies were not shaded so you could see cleavage, or you could see upper thigh.”

“So the colouring in, or the censorship was happening at the site of production of the news itself?”

“Yes,” he nods as he explains the peculiar penciled-in, blacked-out aesthetic of censorship at work in the film ads. “I had a friend who at the time worked at Jang, and I asked him where these images were censored or who was responsible, and he said GHQ. I believed him!”

“The army?”


Again, there was a pause in our conversation as we realized the micro-management of General Zia’s efforts to control media and popular culture, and a relentless push towards defining Islam as the sole interface through which social interactions and public life were to be mediated.

“What did the colouring look like?” I was thinking of the posters and flyers that I had seen in Lahore, and in parts of interior Punjab, which showed a partitioned female body as a means to achieve censorship. Those posters had blue colour, which seemed to suggest more of a translucent highlighter, and less solid paint, over the neck, cleavage and exposed stomach of the female actor posing in the poster.  “It would be a blackout. So for instance there would be a scene of a woman leaning over, wearing a low-cut blouse, and they would pencil in her neck, and her upper chest, or a woman would be standing up, and doing a thumka and they would colour the upper thigh.”

“To hide the shape?”

“To hide the shape. They were clothed most of the time, so what happened actually was that the semantics of it, the interpretation of it would be more salacious than the image itself. Your eye only saw the coloured bits, so the more coloured bits meant there’s more to cover up. So you go to that screening because regardless of the totas that may be spliced in, the actual film would have more bare flesh.”

I was struck by this very specific decoding, and indexical reading of the doctored image into the visual possibilities that the film offered. The visual pleasure that the film offered was intrinsically linked to the female body on display for a consuming, desirous, objectifying male gaze. During the 1980s, female spectatorship at the cinema steadily declined and all male audiences became increasingly common. Cinemagoing as a popular pastime and as family entertainment was starting to erode.

“Do you get the logic of that?” Murtaza probed. “It’s deeply ingrained in us how to read a female body as available.”

“When did you first start noticing this?” I asked him.

“It was always there when I started noticing, so from 1984 onwards it was there. There were two types of ads that would get this treatment. One was the foreign film category, a James bond film for example, which would have a femme fatale character, but there weren’t a whole lot of James Bond films, so most of the films that got this treatment would be the Pashto films. Pashto films were the most heavily censored, and the visuals were heavily marked up,” he pauses here for a minute.

“I didn’t actually ever go to a Pashto movie, but later on, during the mid-1990s, you could buy compilations of scenes from Pashto films from Hall Road.”

“What was the format? On VHS?”

“This is the early CD-Rs. This was in 1996. I remember visiting Hall Road at that time, and noticing that the chotas, the young guys who would go get chai and mind the shop, were all Pathan. This was probably the cheapest form of labour you could get. So the Pashto compilations were sold separately. Mostly it would be qawwali, at the front of the store, but then you would have to ask,” he laughs as he admits to the source of his knowledge. “The reason that I went in 1996 was because I really wanted to locate a print of Haseena Atom Bomb. It was obscure and hard to find, for obvious reasons. It was completely off the radar. When I would ask for it, I would be met with silence, so then I would say it’s Badar Munir, which was code for ‘Pashto movies,’ which in turn was code for ‘you’re looking for really, really healthy women gyrating.”

“Was that also a code for totas?” I was intrigued by all this coding/decoding and the construction of a lexicon of avoidance, which nevertheless served as an effective means to communicate.

“These were not totas. It was not porn. These were dances; they were very, very sexually explicit, or very suggestive dances. I think that in our sensibilities within the eastern language of cinema, these would be something like schlock movies. So, something like the Italian horror movies, known for a capacity to shock the audience as well as titillate, except there wasn’t that much blood. I remember the camera zooming into the crotch of the female actor, as she would thrust her crotch forward, into the screen, and then the camera would swing –”

“Tilt up?”

“Tilt up and show her breasts.” Murtaza started mapping out what I was imagining, the trajectory of a jerky, and staccato, deliberately bold camera.

“She was clothed, I remember. The image was extremely jarring. The camera would move a lot in the Punjabi films from the eighties and nineties. It’s a lot of zooming in and out. They wouldn’t cut, the camera would just keep filming, whipping from frame to frame,” he gesticulated with his hands, moving them back and forth to create a restless, swiftly changing camera frame.

“The aesthetic of the Pashto films was different from this. At times they wouldn’t even show the full body in the frame, it would just be a close-up of the butt. All you would see would be a woman’s posterior.”

“Doing what? Dancing, hanging out?” my curiosity was piqued.

“Walking, dancing, hanging out, it was zoom zoom zoom, for instance in a park, a woman walking, so there would be a lot of back and forth,” he used his hands again to expand and collapse depth, miming the camera.

“Were there rape scenes?” I asked.

“Yes,” he paused here for a second. “Have you seen Haseena Atom Bum? It’s the truest picture of Zia’s Pakistan that I know of. The plot involves the gang rape of a woman on her suhag raat (wedding night), which then evolves into a female revenge fantasy. The movie sets up the plot as such that the rapists are driven to this because of drugs. Heroin addiction was insane at the time in Pakistan. Enormous amounts of heroin were flowing from Afghanistan into Pakistan, alongside the refugees. All over the city streets, you would see people with needles and this became an actual middle class horror story. In my own family, I knew four people who had become addicts: two of them died, and it took decades for the other two to recover. And, with this being Pakistan, just like now with terrorism, you couldn’t name the thing – you couldn’t say this is heroin addiction, let’s stop it.”

“What was the language that was being employed? What kinds of smoke screens were in place?”

“The word was ‘nasha.’ And nasha was such a benign thing, you drink a glass of bhang and that makes you a nashai, you smoke a little bit of hash and that you are a nashai, but jacking up on heroin is not nasha. It’s so much more. So, the plot of Haseena Atom Bum develops, as the Badar Munir character becomes a kind of avenger angel, on horseback, killing people who were drug dealers, with a gigantic syringe. Musarrat Shaheen and Badar Munir’s characters intersect, as they are both hunting down some of the same people, killing them in different ways. Badar Munir’s way of killing was through stabbing them with the enormous syringe, and her revenge were all centered on castration. She castrated all of the men who had raped her, in different ways. I think you can probably find it on YouTube now. That duo of Badar Munir and Musarrat Shaheen became the most popular duo for Pashto films. There was no nudity involved, but it’ was extremely salacious. It was commonly understood that this cinema is primarily being targeted at, and received by Afghans and Pakhtuns. So as a Punjabi middle class kid, we might perhaps have been interested in seeing Punjabi films, but we would definitely not go to a theater to watch a Pashto film, and it wasn’t just an issue of language.”

Haseena Atom Bum was not a film that I encountered on the cinematic landscape whilst growing up in the 1990s. I did find images from it on postcards in the 2000s, which were meant to highlight the kitschy, excessive pathos of Lollywood as a film industry,” I told Murtaza as I racked my own memories of how the cinema was positioned in my adolescent life.

“Was this at Hotspot?”

“Yes, of course, yes.” I replied. The Hotspot was an ice cream parlor, which was started in an abandoned railroad trailer in Islamabad. It had film posters of all shapes and sizes, and ice cream flavor scribbled in coloured chalk on blackboards at the front of the store.

It became a chain, and I encountered the delightful swirls of homemade ice-cream alongside the cinephilia of the owner, Omar Khan, in the venue that was opened in Lahore during the late 1990s.

“That was my introduction to Lollywood aesthetic as something excessive and loud and jarring, bursting forth, unapologetic and unrestrained with florescent colours and an ample display of fleshy body parts.”  In a sense this was the relocation of a Lollywood sensibility from the old city to the suburbs. It was a relocation of semantics and of aesthetic, a time capsule of popular culture and entertainment being offered to bourgeoisie youth who frequented the ice cream parlor, but had rarely, if at all been to single-screen cinema theaters now falling in disrepair, to view a Punjabi film.   We consumed the images printed on post cards, mugs, t-shirts just as we consumed the ice cream.

It became hip because it was no longer current, nostalgia and absence together create a robust loss of the past. We consumed the Lollywood memorabilia as something detached from us, as something to be visually studied, mocked at, laughed about, but never as something that possibly was connected in any meaningful way to us, and our lives, and our artistic choices. We move through the many iterations of the city that we live in, discarding its past with ease, and embracing polarities of ourselves and our desires and longings manifested in the economic and social flows of this city.



[1] Zina Ordinance in Pakistani law, enforced under Hudood Ordinances by General Zia in 1979, referred to “fornication and adultery and zina bil jabr (rape)” where you could be tried and punished for committing zina.

[2] Noor Jehan, popularly known as ‘Madam’ in Lahore, was also known as Malika-e-Tarannum (Queen of Melody).



This work was published in the Coldnoon Cities (Mapping the Metropolis) Vol II, as part of the Coldnoon journal.


Hira Nabi

Hira Nabi

Hira Nabi is a visual artist and filmmaker who lives between New York and Pakistan. She is a graduate student at The New School, where she is researching cinematic culture and spectatorship practices in urban Pakistan.