PESHAWAR – The half-lit room smells strongly of hashish. On the screen, a woman wearing too much make up and a clingy, provocative outfit sways her hips suggestively. The audience, made up exclusively of men, hoots and whistles. The music stops and the onscreen action starts to heat up. The crowd loses all its inhibitions. The whistles turn into hoarse moans and the chairs start to vibrate intensely.

The location is Peshawar, the capital of the most conservative province of Pakistan, and the men are watching a porn film, right under the nose of the religious political parties, the Taliban and the government.

In this province and, in particular, in Peshawar, the music shops and cafes are often the targets of bomb attacks by religious extremists. Advertising boards that show women are regularly torn down. But surprisingly, in this repressive climate, adult cinemas still manage to prosper.

“Every showing is full,” says Lala Fida Mohammad Khan, a former movie producer who got out of the conventional film business because “no one wanted to watch clean films, they don’t sell anymore.” Mohammad Khan now manages a small cinema in Rawalpindi, a town near the capital Islamabad.

“Everyone knows what goes on in the cinemas. We organize three screenings every day. On Sundays there is even one in the morning. During the Aïd-el-Fitr festivities [which mark the end of Ramadam], we increase the number of showings to five,” he remarks.

But this freedom has a price. Mohammad Khan explains that cinema owners must pay hundreds of thousands of rupees in bribes to protect themselves and prevent their businesses from being shut down by the authorities.

In Peshawar, the Shama cinema belongs to the Bilour family. Some members of the family belong to the Awami National Party, a left-wing party with secular tendencies that holds a majority in the province. “They had three cinemas, one of which was attacked several years ago,” said Mohammad Khan. “They then turned two of them into shopping centers, and the one that’s left shows pornographic films.”

Nostalgia for the golden age of “Pollywood”

The town as a whole has just nine movie houses left. And according to Aijaz Gul, a film critic, they all show adult films – except one, which is owned by the Pakistani air force. Since the Taliban established themselves in the region, two cinemas have been attacked from the street and several cinema owners have been held for ransom. “They had to pay enormous sums to be freed, but they have still not abandoned their profession.”

“Pollywood,” the Pashto language film industry that produces these movies, has always been known for its erotic and pornographic content “even though other genres of films used to be produced as well,” says Aijaz Gul. The industry slumped over the past couple of decades following a peak in the late 1970s. Scriptwriter Younus Qiyasi has about 20 films to his name, but he decided to give up filmmaking in the 1980s, after “vulgarity and obscenity had become its trademark features.”

Mohammad Khan remembers Pollywood’s golden age nostalgically. The screenings would sell out days, or even weeks in advance. And most importantly, women were also amongst the cinema-goers. “There was of course a strict separation between men and women, but at least the women went,” he recalls. But now, with this type of film, even if it’s not porn, no woman would dare to enter the semi-darkness of the Peshawar cinemas.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Mirjee