Shooting Shoot-'Em-Ups in a Tough Town

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Aryn Baker for TIME

A poster for a Pashto action movie.

Bakht Munir knows porn when he sees it. He scans a display of DVDs, and jabs a finger at one that depicts man and a woman, their faces perilously close. "That's a porno," the 43-year-old fruit vendor shouts. "It's a man kissing a woman." Aziz ul-Haq, the video shop owner, is incredulous. "This is a family drama, a romance, nothing more." The crowd of men crammed into his darkened shop nod in agreement. "These movies are destroying the character of our children," says Bakht, as he storms out.

"It's not porn, it's entertainment," mumbles Haq.

It's an argument Haq and other video shop owners like him can't win in this Pakistan frontier town. It often simply ends with unknown assailants bombing their stores in the night. Haq's shop is the latest to be bombed by what locals call the Taliban, religious vigilantes who don't necessarily come from Afghanistan, but take their cue its erstwhile rulers. No one was hurt in the 4 a.m. bombing of his store, but the message was clear. So, Haq is getting out of the video business, as have the owners of some 40 similar shops in his neighborhood. "If we do not close, someone will force us to close," says Haq. "They are powerful, we cannot resist." Haq admits that videos are un-Islamic, but his rental business earned him $20 a day. "I can't earn so much in any other business, but at least now I am secure."

Despite the successes reported by the Pakistani military in its battle against religious extremists in the nearby Swat Valley, the campaign of intimidation by religious fundamentalists in the provincial capital continues to escalate. "The militancy is moving from the province to central Peshawar," says police superintendent Muhammad Tahir Khan. "The trend over the past few months shows they have been trying to reach the nucleus of the city." Suicide bombings and attacks against government officials are on the rise, and barbershops and girls' schools have received threatening letters. But the brunt of the attacks have been borne by the city's once-thriving Pashto-language entertainment industry.

As the hub city of Afghanistan's anti-Soviet jihad and later, during Taliban rule there when scores more refugee artists poured in from the across the border, Peshawar became the capital of Pashtun pop culture. Local producers built a formidable movie industry that served up a formulaic diet of violence and sexism (but no sex) to Pashtun populations on both sides of the border. This uniquely Pashtun take on exploitation cinema was hardly the stuff of international film festivals — "those films are so horrible, they should be banned," quips Peshawar University professor Shah Jehan — but they were an authentic expression of Pashtun culture celebrated by thousands of moviegoers every day. Now, the industry has gone underground, or has moved to cities such Lahore or Abbotabad in the hope of escaping the fundamentalists.

The industry's flight from Peshawar has left tens of thousands of employees without a job, says Ejaz Nayak, a 24-year-old actor who has appeared in 45 movies over the past seven years. He hasn't worked in two months. "No one is doing any films any more. People are afraid. They won't go shooting on location now." Nayak grew up watching Indian action films, but acting in Pashto movies gave him a sense of pride in his own culture. That this industry should be targeted by militants that are also largely Pashtun leaves him confused. "No one was objecting to our films before, but since the Taliban emerged, everyone is criticizing us," he says.

Musicians are suffering too. Wedding parties no longer risk hiring live entertainers, says Ivan Shafiq, a music producer who used to play bass in a Pashto folk band. He estimates that sales of Pashto music cassettes, once the mainstay of the industry, have fallen by half. "Our music sells in those shops," he says. "If all the retail outlets are closing down, the distributors and producers won't give contracts to make albums any more. And these artists don't know how to do anything else."

Although religious fervor made the Afghan Taliban outlaw music and movies after they seized power in 1996, their Pakistani cousins may have a more political motive: By demonstrating their ability to target entertainers with impunity, the Pakistani militants undermine confidence in the state, while choking off the supply of movies deprives potential recruits of distractions. "These entertainers are stealing an audience away from the mullahs, so the musicians have become their enemies," says professor Jehan. "It's the same with football teams and jugglers — they are stealing people's attention away from religion, and that's what the militants use to motivate their followers."

To Mohammad Fayaz, a doctor who six years ago decided to follow his lifelong dream of becoming a Pashto movie director, the recent threats are a new blow to an industry already on unstable ground. Indian imports and the rise of cable television have been steadily eroding box office takings for several years. People worry that cinema halls will be the next target of the extremists, he says. "The industry has been in a long fall. Then the bombs crashed the business." Nonetheless, he intends to keep directing movies as long as he is able. "Movies are my addiction," he says. His next film is called Oh, My Crazy Heart. In the current environment for the movie moguls of Peshawar, it helps to be a little crazy, or addicted, to stay in the business.