Every morning Firdous Ahmad, 36, finishes his breakfast quickly and prefers to take a ten-minute walk faster to reach his shop by 10 am in Sanat Nagar, Srinagar. His customers are more punctual than him and often reach before he does. Prior to greeting, a young man welcomed him saying, “Hum apka hi wait kar rahe the (we were just waiting for you).”
A resident of Baghat locality in Srinagar, Mr. Ahmad primarily runs a mobile accessories-cum-entertainment shop – selling movies, television shows, popular music albums, web-series, video games, etc.
On 5 August 2019, the Central government snapped all line of communication in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) before scrapping the state’s Constitutionally granted special status. Communication blockade was gradually eased, though the Internet blackout – the longest in any democratic setup – continues. It has affected a people that are about eight million.
The online streaming portals– like Netflix, Hotstar, and Amazon Prime Video – have revolutionised the way people consume entertainment across the world. Internationally, the market of online streaming platform has boomed; Netflix leads the market with 155 million paid subscribers, followed by Amazon Prime Video’s 100 million subscribers.
Parallel to this, many Kashmiris find themselves at the door of people like Mr. Ahmad with an external hard-drive in their pockets.
After about twenty days of the clampdown, in the last week of August 2019, residents of Mr. Ahmad’s locality approached him physically for content.
“People used to visit my home [in Baghat, Srinagar] for movies and other stuff,” he said while copying data to a customer’s thumb-drive in his shop. “Then my family suggested me to open the shop with half of the shutter down because neighbours were feeling uncomfortable.”
From outside, the entry gate of his shop flashes a poster of Khuda Aur Mohabbat, a Pakistani soap opera, and inside, a rack stacked with DVD-cases leads to his chair, placed behind a wooden desk with a desktop on it and a queue of customers over his head.
The clampdown didn’t catch Mr. Ahmed slumbering. In his twenty terabytes collection of multimedia data, he had the latest Bollywood and Hollywood movies, popular television series, and the most in demand – “Pakistani soap operas.”
Customers walked in with different demands and cited varied reason for their presence. From unnecessary fights and arguments within family to rising anxiousness due to idleness – Mr. Ahmad catered to all demands.
On one evening in December 2019, Suhail Nissar, who had come from Barzullah area of Srinagar, was standing in queue outside Mr. Ahmad’s shop to buy a Pakistan-based soap opera for his wife. “Pakistani serials have very heart-touching stories and aren’t boring like Indian soap operas,” he said.
“Khuda Aur Mohabbat” was the highest in demand serial in the clampdown,” Mr. Ahmad said. “People from far flung areas of Kashmir came here to get it. They ended up taking data in GBs [Gigabytes] due to apprehensions of a prolonged shutdown.”
Mr. Ahmad inserted his shop’s name – Oscar DVD_SanatNagar – in every title of the media he sold. Without Internet facilities, the Valley moved back to data sharing applications like ShareIt. One would often hear slang on street: Cheya keh? (Do you have anything?) Asking to one if he/she had anything to watch?
Following his marketing technique, people from far flung areas such as Kupwara in north Kashmir visited his shop to narrate how their village was discussing about his shop and they wanted to pay a visit. “I was surprised to see the urge for content in absence of the Internet,” Mr. Ahmad said as he recalled the incidents.
For a movie, he charges twenty rupees and a hundred rupees for a soap opera. During the clampdown, he was hosting about 150 customers daily.
To meet the unending demands of the customers and stay up-to-date, Mr. Ahmad flew to Delhi at least three times, between September and October of 2019, to download the latest content. “I didn’t leave my hotel room in Pahadgunj [in New Delhi] for three days,” he recalled. “For three days and nights, I was only downloading movies.”
The shop was originally established by the late father of Mr. Ahmad, Abdul Salaam Bhat, in 1978, under the name “M.D. Shop”, wherein he doesn’t know what M.D. stands for. After his father’s early death, in 1990, his elder brother took over.
Mr. Ahmad completed his graduation in commerce in 2002 from Islamia College of Science and Commerce, Srinagar. After that, he remained on the periphery of the business, helping his elder brother sometimes at the shop.
In the following years, when he couldn’t get hold of a government job, he finally joined the shop full time. “Music follows me like a shadow from my student days,” he said. “My friends also suggested me to focus on my business. I was young and I had my dreams but I followed their words. As an entertainment lover, I opted for this job and with time I started enjoying my work.”
Talking about days when Kashmir had Internet facilities, he recalled how his shop wasn’t doing well due to rising popularity of the online streaming platforms. “[But] in this clampdown, people were eagerly looking for alternative options to find entertainment.”
“If I had not been dealing in entertainment content, people might have gone mad by now or would be feeling traumatic during this turmoil,” he said. Dealing with a customer, he smiled and added, “I feel honoured that somehow I acted as a reliever for people who felt crammed during these months.”
Kaisar Andrabi is a Features Writer at The Kashmir Walla
The story appeared in our 13-19 January 2020 print edition.