A relic of the past - Saddar’s Rainbow Centre slowly fades away

The market, once central to Karachi’s residents is now increasingly irrelevant in the age of smartphones, 4G

Aftab Khan March 12, 2019
The iconic Rainbow Centre was once the hub of VHS cassettes and CDs, which contained movies of all genres as well as various softwares for computers. PHOTOS: EXPRESS

KARACHI: The Rainbow Centre in Saddar, once a central feature of the city, is slowly fading away into a relic of the past. It remains alive only in the memories of citizens whose lives were inevitably touched by the once bustling market.

In the 80s and 90s, the market served as the main source of VHS cassettes, CDs and DVDs. Yes, VHS cassettes, remember those? The tapes of which could be pulled out and ruined easily anytime you and your siblings fought over which movie to watch that day? Or the round silver disks which now if you find lying around are only useful for throwing around as make-shift frisbees? They were once treasured items which allowed you access to movies and songs from the comforts of your homes - millennials don't bother, this was life before Netflix. And Rainbow Centre was the place to go.

Hollywood, Lollywood, Bollywood, the market had them all. It also had recordings of stage dramas, theatre performances, television serials, and provided editing, mixing and audio dubbing services for mehendis and wedding ceremonies.  It's where you went to create your own playlist or mixed tape. Now you can simply turn to your iPod or smart phone.

Preserving history: Heritage sites to be mapped 

A dying industry

The Rainbow Centre, which housed nearly 500 shops at the time, now has only a handful of small stores still catering to video services. Rainbow Video Welfare Association President Salman Memon, who is also the chairperson of the All Pakistan CD, Audio Cassette Traders and Manufactures Association, reminisced with The Express Tribune.

Back in the day, when PTV was largely the only option for entertainment,  film fans would flock to the market and buy or rent as many as four cassettes on each visit. Shopkeepers did not even pause for refreshments, reminiscences Memon. The VHS industry flourished for years, he recalls, adding that shopkeepers would report shortages of newly released films as copies were sold or rented out as soon they hit the shelves. "There was a time when a shop in Rainbow Centre would be sold for Rs5 million while a bungalow in Defence Housing Authority (DHA) would cost Rs4.6m," claims Memon, adding the business is no longer a prosperous one. A survey by Plus Global carried out in 1990s revealed that thousands of shops in Pakistan were associated with selling and renting out films on CDs and DVDs, he adds. "However, we have learnt that businessmen should always plan for the future," he laments.

Culture experts highlight Balti folklore

And yet, with technological advancements constantly replacing old industries with new ones, how exactly can one plan for the future?  According to Memon, when CDs and DVDs came out, Rainbow Centre vendors expected they could sustain the business for another 30 years at least. But it was only some years after that 3G and 4G services were introduced in Pakistan and with them came the decline of the industry, laments Memon. The era of smartphones and applications such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Youtube put the last nail in the coffin, says Memon. "Entertainment of all sorts is now available in your palms through smartphones and the Internet," he adds. Rainbow Centre was simply not able to keep up with the shifting technologies and the market crashed, says Saleem.

Now there are barely eight shops at the market that manage the kind of business they had back then, says Nadeem, who has a shop at Rainbow Centre. Most people have switched over to garment businesses or have opened milk shops, he adds.

Good old days

The nostalgia for VCRs, VHS, CDs and DVDs isn't just for shopkeepers alone. Rainbow Centre touched the lives of many in Karachi. Back when people used to host mehendis and milads in make-shift halls with tents set up outside their houses, they would go to the bustling market to get those functions recorded, edited or dubbed. For some it would be a dreaded yet rewarding visit, for though the services were much needed, the shops would be crowded with film buffs and customers packed in like sardines.

Those who couldn't easily access theatres and stage dramas popular in the city at the time, the industry provided recorded copies of plays by the likes of Umer Sharif, Shakeel Siddiqui, Liaquat Soldier, among others.

This was back when colour televisions and VCRs could be rented out, when nearly every neighbourhood had a shop around the corner which specialised in cleaning VCR heads and fixing damaged cassettes. The market was your fix for all things related to visual and audio entertainment. In recent years, it had also come to serve as an archive for the cinemas of the past some of which might still not be easily accessible online.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 12th, 2019.


husain | 4 years ago | Reply Alternate title: Hub of piracy closes down
Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ