KARACHI, Oct 19, 2012 (AFP) - For as long as Pakistan has existed, film lovers flocked to the Nishat cinema, sinking into seats in its plush auditorium to watch Hollywood imports, Bollywood hits and homegrown productions.
All that came to an end last month when an enraged mob set fire to the building, trashed furniture and looted equipment -- all in the name of defending the Prophet Mohammed and protesting against a cheap American web trailer that infuriated Muslims.
Eight other cinemas were destroyed -- in the conservative, northwestern city of Peshawar and the more cosmopolitan financial capital Karachi -- dealing a huge blow to Pakistan's already troubled film industry.
The arson and vandalism has cost scores of jobs and leaves even fewer sources of secular entertainment in a country where a conservative right-wing Islamist agenda whips up the street, and moderates are sidelined in public discourse.
"We didn't make that disgusting film against our beloved prophet, and like everyone else we protested against it. So why loot and destroy cinemas and render hundreds of people jobless?" asked Nawab Huzoorul Hasan, the Nishat manager.
The auditorium which once held 1,000 seats is now a mess of rubble, twisted metal and up-ended chairs. Its staircase is crumbling and its projector room destroyed.
What remains of the gallery could collapse at any time. Fire destroyed the cinema's beautiful ornate ceiling. The giant screen is gone. The wall behind is blackened.
Workers say September 21 was the worst physical attack on cinemas in Pakistan's 65-year history and another setback for a film and entertainment industry that has been nearly stripped bare by decades of Islamisation.
"The cinema culture had just begun to revive when this fatal blow happened," said Mustafa Qureshi, an actor famous for playing villains in Punjabi films in the 1980s.
When General Zia ul-Haq seized power in a bloodless coup in 1977, the country had around 1,000 cinemas. Today, there are just over 100 left.
"People used to save up to go to the movies once or twice a month. Pakistani music was all the rage and dancers were immensely popular," said Qureshi.
Pakistan banned Bollywood films in 1965, and although exceptions were made for individual films, Zia is credited with making Pakistan more right-wing, more Islamic and less tolerant of secular entertainment and of minorities.
His 11-year dictatorship coincided with Pakistan's sponsorship, along with the CIA and Saudi Arabia, of jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan that ultimately gave rise to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Film production houses in Lahore and Karachi went into decline.
"During General Zia's days, even a male actor hugging his daughter on film was ordered to be censored," Tariq Khalique, a documentary filmmaker, told AFP.
"Zia's policies discouraged people from going to cinemas and then he facilitated builders to dismantle cinemas and construct shopping plazas," he said.
In 2009, the newly elected civilian government lifted the blanket ban on Indian films, wildly popular in Pakistan, and cinemas began to hope that their fortunes might improve despite a Taliban insurgency that has killed thousands.
Now they are not so sure.
"I saw death in front of me," says Abdul Aziz, who works for the Capri cinema, remembering how he watched armed men he calls criminals cut through the iron gates.
"It was all pre-planned. They looted and burnt cinemas purposely on the pretext of protesting. I wanted to save the cinema and called the fire brigade, but they refused to come, saying they were being attacked by the rioters as well."
Among those destroyed was the Bambino, formerly owned by the father of President Asif Ali Zardari in a building where the president once lived with his parents.
"President Zardari should come forward and help us as his father was one of the pioneers of the business and passionate about it," said Nadeem Mandviwala, owner of the Nishat and head of the film exhibitors' association.
Comic actor Umer Sharif believes lack of entertainment is one factor that sees young men fall into delinquency and militancy.
"It's a great loss. These cinemas provided rare recreational facilities to our young people," Sharif said.
Others are just sad.
"I've watched scores of movies in these cinemas. For me it wasn't cinemas, but my childhood that went up in flames," said Abdul Hameed, a construction worker.