Is There Anyone Out There?: Exhibition and the Formation of Silent Film Audiences in South India

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Is There Anyone Out There?: Exhibition and the Formation of Silent Film Audiences in South India

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This is an authorized facsimile, made from the microfilm master copy of the original dissertation or master thesis published by UMI. The bibliographic information for this thesis is contained in UMI's Dissertation Abstracts database, the only central source for accessing almost every doctoral dissertation accepted in North America since 1861.

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Copyright O 1996 by Stephen Putnam Hughes All rights reserved ii

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MADRAS, _ _ __

26 53





CONVENTIONS OF FILM-GOING·- - - - - - - - 241

BIBLIOGRAPH"/._________________,, __,,_,...___

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Many people over the years helped me at different stages of my work on this dissertation.

Foremost among them

are K. Paramasivam, A. K. Ramanujan and Roja Huthiah, who each in their own ways as teachers and through one brief encounter profoundly shaped the course of my research even though they did not live to see its completion.

P. G.

Sundararajan was also especially generous with sharing his time, ideas and life which provided me with a continual source of great inspiration and lively discussion during my research in India. In India I received great hospitality and support from many institutions, teachers, colleagues and friends without whom my research would not have been possible.

I was

provided various institutional help from the University of Madras, Madurai Kamaraj University, the Tamil Nadu State Archives, the National Film Archive of India, the Nehru Memorial Library, the Madras Institute of Development


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Studies and the Theosophical Society Adyar Library.


particular, I am grateful to the staff at both the Tamil Nadu State Archives and at the National Film Archive of India whose tireless efforts helped me explore the wealth of th~ir respective collections. The most important resource for the historical research of this project was provided by Roja Muthiah who over the course of his life put together a uniquely valuable archival legacy for south India.

I regret not having more of a

chance to learn directly from him and his knowledge of the collection.

However, the use of his library, his family's

generous hospitality, and the assistance of

s. P. Selvam and

Muthwnalathi during months of research in Chettinad provided me with a rare opportunity which I will always greatly appreciate. More people assisted my work than it is possible for me to individually recognize.

For friendship and intellectual

sustenance I wish to thank in India and beyond, Aruna R., M. A. Kalam, M.

s. s.

Pandian, A. R. Venkatachalapathy, M.

Surveswaran, V. Arasu, V. Sundharalingam, J. Rajasekaran, A. Vidya, Film News Anandan and Raja Balasubramaniam Sundararaman.

Others who contributed to my research were S.

T. Baskaran, Rukmani Sampath Kumar, 8.

s. Chandrababu, V. A.


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K. Ranga Rao, K. Govindan, Randor Guy, J Vasanthan, A. Srivatsan, Sundar, G. T. Sastri and

c. s . Chellappa ..

The work that went into this dissertation was made possible, in part, by funding from the American Institute of Indian Studies during 1991-1992 and the Committee on South Asian Studies at University of Chicago during 1992-1993 . I was fortunate to have been given the opportunity to share my work in numerous settings: the South Asia Workshop and the South Asia and Middle East Workshop at the University of Chicago, the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, the Department of Art at the University of Minnesota and the South Asia Seminar at the University of Wisconsin, Madison .

I have benefited from questions, suggestions and

comments on all these occasions . I am particularly thankful for the excellent help and critical comments I had on the manuscript from Sarah Hodges, Rapheal Cohen, Awadhendra Sharan, Barney Cohn, Ronald Inden and Marshall Sahlins. The final production of this dissertation owes a great deal to all those who provided food, shelter, computers, printers, cars, friendship and a peaceful place in their homes during the last months of nomadic writing.

Ellen West

in Oregon, Robert West in Seattle, Nathan and Jane Hughes in California and, in the final stretch, Caitrin Lynch, Nick vii

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Collier and Jonathan Walters in Chicago each played an important part in the completion of the writing. More than anyone else, Sarah Hodges has been a constant source of patience, encouragement and critical insight.


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This dissertation charts the beginnings of cinema entertainment in south India from its introduction by touring exhibitors during the first decade of this century until the transition to sound films in the early 1930~.

I follow the

development of the cinema in south India from its inception as a western and elite entertainment through its episodic transformation over three decades into a popular Indian entertainment.

The purpose of the dissertation is to produce

a historical ethnography of the emergence of indigenous silent film audiences and culture of film-going in south India.

I historically examine film audiences as they were

variously constituted as objects of exhibition practices, discursive formations and government policies, as well as how they constituted themselves as film-goers. The dissertation follows the changing institutions and practices of film exhibition as the trade expanded and ix

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upgraded from touring to permanent theaters in Madras.


though their visits to the city were infrequent until about 1910, European and Indian film exhibitors initially established film shows in Madras city as part of the existing European itinerant entertainment circuit.

By the mid-1910s

permanent cinemas transformed the local conditions of filmgoing by rooting the entertainment within specific neighborhoods of Madras city and the Provincial centers . Using geographic locality, film genres, and promotional strategies, early permanent exhibitors variously constituted, cultivated and expanded audiences beyond European and elite classes to increasingly Indian audiences as the primary referent of the entertainment. As part of a re-evaluation of standard historical accounts which have privileged Indian film production and film texts, the approach here is to situate exhibition, audiences and film-going as part of an emergent set of historically and culturally contingent institutions, practices and discourses about and around silent cinema in south India.

I demonstrate how, despite the dominance of

foreign silent films in south India, film exhibitors and audiences accommodated, adapted and made the entertainment fit local social and cultural conditions.

More than through

the production of Indian silent films, the cinema in south


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India was transformed into an indigenous form of entertainment through the spread of exhibition outlets, the growth of Indian audiences and the creation of local filmgoing cultures.

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The purpose of the dissertation is to produce a historical anthropology of the silent cinema in south India which focuses on the emergence of indigenous audiences and their cultures of film-going .

I chart the beginnings of

cinema entertainment in south India from its introduction by touring exhibitors during the first decade of the 20th century until the emergence of sound films in the early 1930s.

What starts out as a European form of variety

entertainment for elite audiences in Madras city was episodically transformed, appropriated and extended over three decades across south India into a local form of popular amusement. The central question which I pursue within this formative period is: how did silent cinema become an indigenous form of entertainment in south India?

I argue

that in order to understand the culturally specific history of silent cinema in south India we must address the changing 1

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practices of film exhibition in relation to the growth of indigenous film audiences and the conventions of film-going.

llby •ileat

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One could make a strong case that the rise of cinema entertainment has been the most important cultural phenomenon in India during the twentieth century.

From its rather

humble beginnings as an itinerant variety entertainment, the cinema trade grew during the first half of this century into a very large and powerful industry primarily located in the three major metropolitan centers of the British Empire in India, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta.

As such, the cinema

industry in India was the most successful, large-scale and self-sufficient to be developed under the conditions of colonial rule anywhere in the world.

Already by 1939 India

ranked third among all film producing countries in total output of feature films accounting for about 91 of the world's production. 1

Since the early 1970s India has led the

world with the largest totals of feature film production. These figures include films produced in all the major Indian languages for the domestic market as well as for the significant export business to the Middle East, parts of Africa and in Southeast Asia. 1Report

of the Film Enquiry Committee, 1951 (New Delhi: Government of India Press, 1952), 11-12. 2

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But more than the enormity of film production (about

gco per year in the 1990s), the ci~ema bas been the focal point for a necvork of aass media in India which has transfo~wd, reorganized and created nev cultures of entertainment.

Over the first half of this century the rise

of the cinema episodically and unevenly built upon, reworked and eventually displaced older forms of Indian entertainmenc originally associated with ritual, festival, court or devotional contexts.

As the cinema emerged as the dom.i~anc

~oi•me~cial entertainment industry, it was increasingly associated with widespread cultural changes which were c!'taracterized as a kind of cultural aodernity. 2 With the mechanical reproduction of ima9es, standardized mass production and a greatly expanded circulation, the cinema came to define a new public institution of entertainment.

The perception of the cinema

as a central institution of cultural modernity was understood as constituting a break from older cultural traditions.


the 1940s 1110re than any other cultural movement, the cinema came to be understood as the most powerful agent of modern cultural change variously identified with a shift toward secular, urban, westem,

de ■ .:icratic,


ercial and for many,

superficial forms of culture.

. - . ·Ravi S. Vasudevan has recently ■ade • sJ.aJ.lar argwaent about hov the Balt»y/R.i.ndi ci~esa fashioned the experience of a national aodernity in India. See •Fila Studies, Nev Cultural Kistory and Experi~nce of Modernity,• Econoaic and Politic.l Jleekly 14 llo•t □Mr 1995): 2809-2814. 3

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Though very different than the later years when film entertainment emerged as the dominant culture industry in India, the silent period is nonetheless crucial for understanding the establishment of cinema entertainment as a modern, yet Indian, cultural form.

While this early period

was one of uncertainty and instability for the institutions of silent cinema, the new mass media nonetheless emerged as a significant social, cultural and economic factor in India during this time.

Before the 1930s when Indian sound cinema

in Indian languages displaced the supremacy of western films, this early period also marks the beginnings of Indian cultures of film-going based on the exhibition practices, institutions and discourses of the silent cinema. Given the success and importance of the cinema in India, it is perhaps surprising that until recently there has been very little scholarship on the subject.

This can, in

part, be explained in terms of an educated and elite prejudice in India and elsewhere against the cinema as a low class, tasteless and petty form of entertainment.

With the

exception of art films and film societies, the Indian intelligentsia and the international scholarly community have not considered the topic of cinema worthy of serious or sustained analysis.

This dismissive position on the cinema

was strengthened by the Indian film industry which, in constituting its cultural products as an affordable escape


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for the masses, designated its entertainment as below the dignity of the elite and educated classes. for whatever other reasons, compared to topics like caste, nationalism or religion, none of the social scientific disciplines has taken up the cinema in India as a sustained topic of inquiry.

Our main concern at this point, however,

is not to figure out why this has been the case, but rather to appraise what there is in the way of existing literature on the history of early cinema in India. Since Independence in 1947 there has been about one important monograph on the history of the cinema in India per decade. 3

This scholarship treats the early years of the

cinema in India as part of more general historical survey of Indian cinema.

These accounts have produced a now standard

historiographical approach to the period of silent films which tends to reduce the early years into a chronological list of film "firsts" and classic film productions all brought about through the agency of a few great "pioneering" men.

In their own ways, each of these accounts tells the

story of silent cinema in India as the heroic rise of the indigenous industry which struggled with meager technical and financial resources, but who also eventually succeeded 3

This is not to say that nothing else of worth was written on the subject for three decades, but the works by Panna Shah, The Indi•n Film (Bombay: The Motion Picture Society of India, 19501, Eric Barnouw ands. Krishnaswamy, Indi•n Film (New York: Columbia University Press, 19631 and Firoze Rangoonwalla, 75 Years oE Indi•n Cinema (New Delhi: Indian Book Company, 1975) can be considered as the standard texts on Indian cinema. 5

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against the unfair competition of foreign films.


accounts tend to narrate the early years with a certain amount of nostalgia as a period of great excitement, hard work and creativity all centered on the production of Indian silent films. Since the 1980s, however, the topic of silent cinema in India has received increasing attention.

This renewed

interest was no doubt related to the work done at and inspired by the National Film Archives in Pune during the 1970s to recover and preserve materials relating to Indian films from the early part of the century.

In trying to

overcome the general lack of historical research on the early decades of the cinema in India, an archival project was launched to make more historical materials available. In this archival effort one of the most significant problems faced was that the earliest years of silent cinema were passing beyond the range of living memory.

Most of the

generation of Indians who were old enough to be involved with or be able to remember the first years of the cinema were no longer living.

Further, there remains very little in the way

of journalism, public debate or publications concerning the fledgling film trade from the first decades of this century. Moreover, much of the archival efforts centered on recovering what was left of Indian silent films.


because of chemical instability, fire accidents, unfavorable climatic conditions, a lack of resources and a certain amount 6

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of carelessness, very few Indian silent films now exist.


of the total of nearly l,300 silent films produced in India between the years 1913 and 1934, only thirteen are known to have survived. 4 In contrast to the earlier book-length historical surveys of Indian cinema, the historical scholarship which has followed in the wake of these archival efforts on silent films has tended to provide detailed information on limited topics and taken the form of brief articles.

Yet, the same

stories which were part of the original historical surveys uncritically serve as the basis for much of the new scholarship on the silent cinema in India.

This scholarship

has picked up where the historical surveys left off in unquestioningly reproducing, extending and adding to the received narratives and assumptions about silent cineffl3. 5 One of the objectives here is to re-evaluate this historiography of the silent cinema in India.

Hy approach in

this regard is informed in part by a new direction in film studies which Thomas Elsaesser has described "a new


These silent films, some of which are only in fragments or

not edited, are preserved in the National Film Archive, Pune. For details about the remaining Indian silent films, see P.K. Nair, "And Now There are Thirteen" and "Silent Films in the Archive," Cinua Vision India, vol. l, no. l (1980): 103-113; and Suresh Chabria, ed., Light ot A&ia: Indian Silent Cinema, 19121934 (Pune: National Film Archive of India, 1994). iThe publication of the first issue of the journal, entitled Cinema Vision India, vol. l, no. l (1980) which was devoted to the "pioneers of Indian cinema" and "the silent era," provides a good indication of this increasing interest in and approach to this early history. 7

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historicism. " 6

This refers to the scholarship of a group of

film historians, mainly working in the context of the United States, who were dissatisfied with the reigning textual preoccupation of film theory .

Coinciding with the ascendancy

of psychological and semiotic film theory in the 1970s, a group of scholars took a different approach in turning to empi rical research in order to re-evaluate the standard histories of the cinema, especially those of early cinema . ' These scholars questioned the traditional accounts which portrayed the history of the early cinema"- as the story· of fearless pioneers, of 'firsts,' of adventure and discovery, of great masters and masterpieces."'

Instead, this new

historiography " ... turned its attention to the cinema as an economic and social institution, to relations between film practice and developments in technology, industrial organization and exhibition practices."9 Through critical examinati on and rigorous scholarship, recent film historians have radically altered our understanding of early cinema as a distinct mode of ed . , Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative (London : BFI Publishing, 1990), 3. 6

' Among the most prominent of these historians were Douglas Gomery, Robert Allen, Janet Staiger, Charles Musser, Kristin Thompson, Tom Gunning and Miriam Hansen. over the span of one decade these scholars have completely overhauled the conventional histories of early cinema. 'Elsaesser, Early Cineaa, 3. •

~iriam Hansen, Babel, Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press,

1991), 5. 8

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entertainment more closely related to pre-cinematic cultural forms and largely determined locally through a diversity of exhibition practices.

For the purposes at hand this

scholarship on early cinema in the United States and Europe shares some important parallel and divergent patterns in the changing dimensions of the film trade.

Further, this body of

scholarship has broadened the scope of film history in ways in which I consider also necessary for a re-examination of che early years of the cinema in India. Following upon the aew historicist reworkings of film studies, there are a number of problems with existing work on silent cinema in India which I address in this dissertation. First, with all the emphasis on early pioneers, film production and film texts as the subject of cinema history, the changing social institutions of the cinema have been completely ignored.

Instead, this dissertation approaches

the history of the cinema in south India from the bottom up, as it were, at the sites where film exhibitors brought audiences together with films.

In this way I narrate how,

more than through the agency of "great men" or Indian film production, the cinema was transformed into an Indian form of entertainment through the work of numerous film exhibitors and the growth of film audiences (this point is addressed below). The extant historiography of silent cinema in India tends to collapse the early period into a national teleology 9

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of political and industrial independence.

This is a problem,

especially in the historical survey approach outlined above, insofar as Indian cinema is treated as a unitary subject. That is, silent cinema is regarded merely as a primitive or inadequate stage in the development of a final, fully formed national cinema.

Lost in these accounts is an appreciation

of how early cinema differed from the later emergence of Indian feature films as the dominant mode of cinema entertainment.

The history of the nation and the eventual

accomplishments of the indigenous feature films are too often prefigured in the accounts of early cinema in India.


its variety format, multiple short films and live entertainment operated on a different set of appeals, attractions and strategies of exhibition. 10 Another significant problem with equating the history of the cinema in India with the narrative of the nation is this approach obscures important regional and cultural differences in the ways the that cinema entertainment developed.

All too often film histories focus on the

mainstream Bombay cinema establishment and Hindi films as articulating dominant conceptions of Indian nationality. 11 10

The distinctiveness of early silent cinema in these regards has been discussed at length in the collection of ess•ys edited by Elsaesser, Early Cine11a, 1990. See also, Hansen, Babel , Babylon, 23-59. Good examples of this tendency are Rosie Thomas, "Indian Cinema: Pleasures and Popularity,# Screen, vol. 26, nos. 3-4 (Hay-August 1985) and Sumita s. Chakravarty, National Identity in Indian Popular Cinem.t, 1941-1987 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993). :1


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In this way, the regional film histories of India have become marginalized and subsumed within the nationalist historiography of the cinema. What is called for is an ongoing comparison of film histories from other parts of colonial India and beyond in order to adequately address the cultural specificity of the cinema as it developed in south India. Addressing the regionalism question, Theodore Baskaran can be singled out as having written the most important historical monograph covering the early development of the cinema in India in relation to the nationalist movement, which for my purposes is especially relevant since he has done so with specific reference to south India. 12


history narrates the development of popular forms of entertainment in south India from the indigenous traditions of drama and popular songs to the rise of cinema.

silent and Tamil

Nonetheless, while this account deals with the

cultural specificity of south India entertainment from the late 19th to early 20th century, this history is reduced into a narrative of the nation and the freedom struggle.

I do not

want to dismiss the importance of the nationalist movement or of Baskaran's -work.

Instead, I suggest that the history of

12 The

Message Bearers : The Nationalist Politics and the Entertainment Media in South India, lBB0-1945 (Madras: Cre-A: , 1981). This book is considered to contain a "definitive chapter"

on the silent era in south India, see Suresh Chabria, "Before Our Eyes: A Short History of India's Silent Cinema," in Chabria, ed . , Light of Asia, 3-24.


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the cinema in south India does not have to be written only as one aspect of a greater story of the nation. In Indian film histories which collapse silent cinema in India into narrative about the nation, imported silent films from western countries have occupied an ambiguous position in these accounts.

In the effort to trace the

history of Indian cinema as part of the story of anticolonial nationalist struggle, foreign silent films are usually only mentioned insofar as they influenced Indian silent films or as they were eventually displaced by Indian films.

But the fact remains that until 1928, 90\ of all

films screened in India were foreign.

European and American

silent films formed a crucial part of the history of the cinema in India which nationalist histories have studiously avoided. Recently, some scholars have claimed that the cinema in India was a product of British colonialism which, like other indigenous business, agricultural and industrial ventures, was " ... nurtured in a chronic state of underdevelopment. " 13 However, the growth or stunted growth of the cinema in India cannot so easily be associated with or equated as a direct intervention by the colonial state in India.

Though cinema


Cited from Chakravarty, National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema. For other similar arguments which link early cinema in India to the colonial state, see Someswar Bhowmik, Indian Cinema, Colonial Contours (Calcutta: Papyrus, 199S) and Pranjali Bandhu, Black and Ml.ite of Cinema in India (Thiruvananthapuram: Odyssey, 1992), especially chapter two, "Cinema under Colonialism," 10-29.


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technology and films were originally introduced and imported from Europe and the United States, the colonial government did not self-consciously conceive of the cinema as a tool of colonial government, like education, taxes or the system of law, nor was it imposed as a colonial measure to replace indigenous cultures or reform traditional practices .


the introduction and development of the cinema in India mostly happened outside of official efforts and powers to control its rapid growth.

Moreover, the Government of India

was generally uncertain ctbout what the cinema was doing t ·o its Indian subjects and what its implications might be for the continuance of colonial rule (for further discussion on this, see chapters four and six).

This is not to argue that

the colonial situation had no bearing on the history of the cinema in India, but that these early years of the cinema involved a more complex cultural encounter than a unilinear imposition of foreign films or a repressive suppression of the indigenous film industry. Silent cinema added new dimensions to the already complex and changing cultural encounter within colonial India. British and Indians alike participated in the development and enjoyment of cinema entertainment in India. In the highly segregated colonial context, silent cinema from the west provided an ever-growing number of Indians with new ways of encountering, understanding and interacting with western cultures as mediated through visual images and inter13

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As film exhibitors brought films together with

Indian audiences throughout south India, the cinema eventually ceased to be something merely foreign and for Europeans.

Why aucliencea and •xhibiti.on? Si.1ent f'ila avdi encea •• an object of' inquiry

When I started to investigate the history of the silent cinema in India I quickly realized that there is a great deal missing from the standard accounts.

As mentioned above, the

general approach to this history has been from the top down with an emphasis on big name directors, prominent studios, and famous film stars.

Even the more recent histories of

early Indian cinema have exclusively concentrated on filmmakers, the conditions of production and the textual aspects of Indian films.

In these now dominant formulations of

Indian film history, there has been little effort to consider audiences and exhibition.

One of the main objectives in this

dissertation is to demonstrate that, more than through the production of Indian silent films, it was growth of Indian audiences, the spread of film exhibition and the emergence of local film-going cultures which transformed the cinema to fit the social and cultural conditions in south India,


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The neglect of audiences as subjects of film history is not unique to India, but has until recently also characterized much of the scholarship about the cinema around the world.u

Only from about the mid-1970s have film

audiences and spectatorship emerged as important issues within cultural and film studies.

The new interest in

spectatorship was related to a growing dissatisfaction with the more narrow focus on film texts as the object of film studies.

Influential in this regard was the work of Barthes

and Eco who helped to displace the notion of a text as a self-contained "object" which could be determined by the intentionality of its author. 15

On these accounts the

literary text was reworked into an encounter with the reader where meaning was mobilized in relation to the process of reading and not fixed by the text itself.

By postulating the

role of the reader, the self-contained identity of the text was broken down as part of a wider social and cultural formation.

For the study of the cinema the implications of

this move away from an exclusive textuality brought new


For a review of the existing literature and an account of why film audiences have traditionally been a neglected area of study, see Leo A. Handel, Hollywood Looks at its Audiences: A Report of Fil.Ill Audience Research (Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1950). For a more recent summation see, Bruce A. Austin, The Film Audience: An International Bibliography of Research (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1983). ~~Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, trans. by Stephen Heath (New York: Noonday Press, 1977) and Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979).


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considerations of how film spectators were involved with the production of meaning in cinema. Over the last two decades there have been numerous and divergent responses to the problem of theorizing film spectatorship which are not immediately relevant to this project and will not be discussed here. 1'

Let it suffice to

say that the approach pursued here is not informed by empirical market research, cognitive science or psychoanalysis.

The objective is not to posit the average

film-goer or an ideal film spectator as somehow produced or positioned by film texts, dominant ideology or universal laws of cognitive perception.

Instead, I address the issues of

film spectatorship historically as they relate to the culturally and locally specific ways film-goers engaged with silent cinema in south India.

The point here is not to

produce another theory of film spectatorship, but to look at specific audience histories as a means of better understanding how silent cinema was appropriated and taken up as an indigenous form of entertainment in south India. The history of early cinema in India is still written almost entirely without reference to anyone who might have watched these·films.

If film viewers are acknowledged, they


an overview of this recent scholarship on the subject of specatorship in film studies, see Judith Mayne, Cineu and Spectatorship (London: Routledge: 1993). Another important overview of approaches to the study of media audiences more generally from a Cultural Studies perspective see, David Morley, "Changing Paradigms in Audience Studies,H in ed., Ellen Seiter

et. al., Remote Control: Television, Audience, Cultural Potier (London: Routledge, 1989), 16-43.


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are usually considered to be anonymous or an undifferentiated mass based on an unsupported assumption about the cinema inherently being a medium for the masses.

In more

sophisticated accounts spectators are considered insofar as they were constituted and positioned by the textual aspects of films . 11

Beyond vague generalizations about the masses or

abstract theories of spectators, we know virtually nothing about historical film audiences in India, who went to silent cinema shows and what it possibly could have meant to them. Who were the people, the paying customers, the fans who sustained the early cinema business in India? come from?

Why did they go?

Where did they

What was it like to attend

these early shows? Early film audiences as objects of historical inquiry present a number of problems.

Film audiences are a fleeting

assemblage of people who come together from a wide geographic area for usually only one film show and then disperse again. An

audience consists of a wide variety of people each of

whom bring their own complex gender, generational, ethnic, religious, economic, occupational and other identities to every cinema show.

Yet, these people were linked by means of

their shared social experience of going to see a series of moving pictures at a particular theater space. Considering 11

See Ashish Rajadhyaksha, ~India's Silent Cinema: A 'Viewers View'," in Chabria, ed., Light of Asia, 25-40 and Ravi S. Vasudevan, "Addressing the spectator of a 'third world' national cinema: the Bombay 'social' film of the 1940s and 1950s," Screen, vol. 36, no. 4 (Winter 1995) :305-324. 17

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the dispersed, complex and diverse range of people who went to see films, any notion of an audience as a unified social collectivity will always be a reductive category. At an empirical level, as Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery have pointed out, "the 'audiences' for movies in any sociological or historical sense are really only an abstraction generated by the researcher, since the unstructured group that we refer to as the movie audience is constantly being constituted, dissolved, and reconstituted with each film-going experience." 11

We will never be able to

empirically reconstruct the first film audiences or their experiences at the early venues of cinema exhibition in south India.

However, this is not to argue that film audiences are

historically indeterminate.

Indeed, the historical study of

film audiences is about more than the actual people who attended films shows. This dissertation investigates silent film audiences in south India as a socially constituted, institutionally produced and discursively debated category.

On the one hand,

my research concentrated on the historical formation of film audiences as being subject to assumptions, opinions, practices and discourses about film-going produced by the cinema trade, government officials and public debate.

On the

other hand, I approach the historical film audiences in south India through their active participation in and engagement 11 Film

Hi8tory: Theory and Practice (New York: Alfred A.

Knopf, 198S), 1S6. 18

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with film entertainment.

Taken together, chese various

perspectives and fragments on cinema audiences serve as the basis for understanding the institutional and cultural processes through which audiences were simultaneously constituted as well as constituted themselves in relation co the cinema. 19 One of the primary ways we have to better understand che history of film audiences and film-going is to consider che emergent practices of film exhibition. 20


practices provided the concrete situations of film viewing. Film exhibitors created the primary spaces where audiences engaged with the cinema.

The used theater spaces to

constitute audiences as paying customers in relation to projected images and live entertainment.

In establishing

regular access to film shows, arranging hierarchical seating and ticket classes, offering special discount and partitioned seating sections to certain audience segments, exhibition provided the changing conditions of the cinema's : 1 In

formulating my research in this fashion I have followed Philip Corrigan's suggestion for writing film history from the point of view of audiences: "We need to encompass the views of audiences and assumptions inscribed in (l) official reports and legal regulations, (2) statements of producers, distributors and critics and (3) the expressed opinions and actions of the audiences themselves.w See, "Film Entertainment as Ideology and Pleasure: A Preliminary Approach to a Kistory of Audiences," in J. Curran and V. Porter, British Cinem.w History (London: British Film Institute, 1983), 25-26. =0This point has been argued effectively by Douglas Gomery, Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in the United States (London: BFI Publishing, 1992) and Robert Allen, "From Exhibition to Reception: Reflections on the Audience in Film History," Screen, vol. 31, no. 4 (Winter 1990): 347-356.


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Thus, the practices of exhibiting films not

only gave shape to film audiences, they also shaped audiences' experience of the entertainment. Historians of Indian cinema have either completely ignored or simply missed the significance of film exhibition and its practices in the establishment of the cinema as an Indian form of entertainment.

Nationalist histories

(discussed above) have focused entirely on the production of Indian silent films as the beginning of a culturally indigenous Indian cinema.

However, compared to the early

small scale efforts of film production which involved small groups of Indians at a few isolated locations, Indian film exhibitors were far more numerous and spread throughout colonial India.

Film exhibitors adapted and fashioned the

predominance of foreign films into a form of entertainment designed to appeal to their ideas of Indian cultural sensibilities.

Film exhibitors brought the cinema to ever-

increasing numbers of Indians where they lived and created the necessary conditions, institutions and infra-structure through which Indians were able to embrace the entertainment as their own.

Rather than in the abstract issue of how early

Indian film texts addressed ideal spectators, this dissertation is more concerned with how film exhibitors used films, their theater spaces and other means to address their local audiences in south India.


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While I position this project to both address neglected areas and critically re-evaluate our understandings of film history in India, the purpose here is more than just a corrective or an attempt to fill a lacuna in the existing scholarship.

I argue that the history of exhibition and the

growth of film audiences will help us understand how south Indians appropriated the medium for refashioning their own culture of entertainment.

rollowin9 th• cb•NJiA9 emilliU.on p a t ~ and cultural d!annaionn of :i.n aouth Indi"'

In pursuing the historiographic issues outlined above, this dissertation starts by examining how and where cinema exhibition entered into the field of popular entertainment, first, in Madras (chapter two) and, subsequently, how and where exhibition practices spread throughout the Tamil districts of the Presidency (chapter three).

I approach the

history of film audiences in south India by examining the introduction and development of exhibition practices as primary institutions of cinematic entertainment.

I outline

how both European and Indian film exhibitors created the material conditions and institutions which made the cinema available to people in south India on an everyday basis as an affordable entertainment.

Differing radically from what we 21

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now consider to be mainstream popular Indian cinema, I discuss how silent cinema started in Madras city as a form of European variety entertainment culturally located and socially positioned within the colonial geography of the city. The dissertation also follows the changing institutions and practices of film exhibition as the trade expanded and upgraded from touring to permanent theaters in Madras.


though their visits to Madras city were infrequent until about 1910, European and Indian film exhibitors initially established film shows there as part of the existing European itinerant entertainment circuit (chapter two).

By the mid-

1910s permanent cinemas transformed the local conditions of film-going by rooting the entertainment within specific neighborhoods of Madras city and the Provincial centers (chapter three).

I look at how early cinema business

constituted, cultivated their audiences through various means- the choice of locality for film shows, advertising, the organization of theater space, the arrangement of different ticket classes and the special offers of discounts, separate shows and seating sections for segments of the audience. By examining the changing institutional, commercial and social contexts of cinema exhibition I produce a history of the growth and composition film audiences in south India. Using geographic locality, film genres, and promotional


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strategies, early permanent exhibitors variously constituted, cultivated and expanded audiences beycnd European and elite classes to increasingly Indian audiences as the primary referent of the entertainment. As another way of understanding the constraints and conditions of film viewing, I follow the development of government regulations of exhibition spaces.


concerns for the physical safety of film audiences were initially linked with their concerns about the alleged harmful effects of film content in spatial terms at the buildings and locations of cinema theaters (chapter four). Early official responses to silent cinema framed as interventions at the sites of cinema exhibition helped to define a set of differential limitations and standards which in turn shaped the patterns of film exhibition in south India. Next, I turn to a growing set of discourses which center on the cinema during the 1920s as constituative of certain assumptions and theories about film audiences.



first to articulate detailed theories about local film audiences in south India were those in the cinema exhibition business.

Cinema theater owners, managers and film

distributors developed their own understandings based on their practical experience of who goes to see what films where and why (chapter five).

Apart from how the film trade

understood their clientele, film audiences were also 23

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subjected, produced and construed as an object of debate and discussion about the effects and power of silent cinema. These ongoing discursive constructions of film audiences throughout the 1920s provide an important site for understanding the cultural meanings of silent cinema in India (chapter six). Finally, chapter seven discusses the emergent culture of silent film-going from the perspective of south Indian film audiences.

That is, how did these film-goers constitute

themselves in relation to the cinema and what did it mean for them to go to the cinema?

The people who attended the

cinema participated on their own terms and had their own reasons, understandings and experiences which offer perspectives on how film audiences in south India integrated cinema entertainment as important part of their lives.


development of film-going culture was a definitive means through which the cinema was transformed into an indigenous form of entertainment. To summarize, I discuss a series of critical transformations in regard to the development of the silent cinema in south India: from touring to permanent outlets, from European to Indian exhibitors, from the urban neighborhoods of Madras to the provincial areas of south India, from small elite and European audiences to a vast majority of mixed Indian audiences, from a variety entertainment format to feature and serial films, from local 24

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government interventions at cinema halls to regional film censorship and from foreign films to Indian film productions. I document the historical and cultural formation of film audiences and film-going from several perspectives.


consider early film audiences in south India as they were variously constituted as objects of exhibition practices, government policies and discursive formations as well as how they constituted themselves as film-goers.

The aim of this

historical investigation is to better understand how the cinema was episodically accommodated, adapted and transformed into an indigenous form of entertainment in the years preceding the transition to sound films. These uneven, overlapping, episodic and changing practices, institutions and discourses helped to transform and create the conditions through which the cinema became the most important and popular form of entertainment in south India.

This history needs to be more carefully examined

before we can begin to understand the basis upon which sound cinema from the 1930s comes to form the focal point for the dominant culture industry in south India.


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'l'D BSGIDIBGS or Cnti+-A DI IIADP-'S: SUllOHAII D'flatTA!!Wti1' Alm 'fOUltI1fG ClMINAS

The first film event in India has undoubtedly acquired more historical significance than it deserves.

Almost every

general survey of the cinema in India starts with the same story of its originary moment.

Maurice Sestier, a touring

agent of the Lumiere Brothers, was the first exhibitor to bring the "cinematographe" show to India at the Watson Hotel in Bombay during July 1896 only months after its debut in Europe and in the United States. 1

Within the chronology of

"firsts" which defines the historiography of early cinema in India, this event has come to mark an absolute beginning for the cinema in India.

Today, one century later the

beginnings of the cinema in India need to be more carefully :see for example, Erik Barnouw and S. Krishnaswamy, Indian

Film, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), l; Firoze Rangoonwalla, 15 Years of Indian Cinema, (New Delhi:

Indian Book Company, 1975), 9; or Someswar Bhowmik, "The Path Breakers: A Look back at the first, unsung showmen of Indian cinema," Cinema in India, vol. 2, no. 5 (May 1991): 42-46.


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considered. There are several historographic problems with overestimating the significance of the first exhibition event. 2

Insofar as historical accounts allow the first film

exhibition in 1896 to represent the beginning of the cinema in India, they also tend to obscure the wider entertainment contexts within which film shows were initially introduced by Europeans.

The cinema did not appear from out of

nowhere, nor were the first film shows an isolated entertainment event. Another problem with histories dealing with the beginning of the cinema in India has been the tendency to assume the eventual popularity of the cinema in India was somehow contained or secured with the first film show.


example, take the following claim: "From the day the first film was shown in India in 1896, its popularity was established." 3

It is perhaps too obvious to point out that

the cinema did not arrive in India with an inherent, predestined and monolithic popularity which was somehow


For a general critique of "the search for origins" see Michel Foucault, ~Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" in Language, Counter-He.mory, Practice: Selected Essays and Intervie111s, trans. by o. Bouchard ands. Simmon. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977). Also, for a critique of starting points in relation to the history of the cinema, see Charles Husser, "Toward a History of Screen Practice," Quarterly Revie111 of Film Studies, vol. 9, no. l (Winter 1984), 59-69. >Aruna Vasudev, Liberty and Licence in the Indian Cinema, (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1978), ix.


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instantaneously unleashed with the projection of the first moving pictures. The future success of the cinema in India cannot be written as part of the story of its origins. In this chapter I seek to defer any notion of a discrete point of origin for all cinema in India.


the beginnings were more like an ongoing, dynamic encounter between exhibitors and new audiences mediated through co!Mlercial transactions and film entertainment from the West.

Likewise, there cannot be just one beginning for the

cinema in India, but a multiplicity of beginnings across· its different regions, cities, towns and villages.

I seek to

displace the notion of an isolated original event of the cinema through a broader historical consideration of the specific entertainment contexts which both preceded and were eventually transformed by the introduction of the cinema in the south. After situating early touring cinema shows within the local, European entertainment circuits of Madras city during the first decade of this century, the chapter goes on to examine the early growth and popularity of the cinema in Madras as, to a large extent, the work of film exhibitors. 4 Both European and Indian film exhibitors were responsible 'Someswar Bhowmik makes a similar claim about film

exhibitors in Calcutta. Ke identifies "small itinerant showmen" as the ttunsung heroes" who created the film trade in India from nothing and provided a solid basis for the later development of the Indian film industry. Indian Cinema, Colonial Contour$ (Calcutta: Papyrus, 1995), 15-17.


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for institutionalizing regular access to film shows, providing the basic conditions of the cinema's availability, and creating the opportunity for local audiences to engage with the cinema.

These early film exhibitors culturally

located and socially positioned the cinema as a European form of entertainment within the colonial order of the city.

'1'he que•tion o~ cnal.aual prec.danu:

Colonial enterta~nsent in a Pre•idency town

Before moving on to the subject of how the cinema began in Madras, we need to first consider what preceded this development.

What cultural conditions prepared the place

for the introduction of the cinema?

Historians of Indian

film who engage with the issue of the cinema's pre-history, usually do so on the basis of privileging indigenous film productions as the foundational moment of a culturally Indian cinema.

In particular, recent historical accounts

have focused on


G. Phalke's film production to trace

Indian cinema's immediate cultural precedents back to the indigenous performance traditions, visual aesthetics and mythological stories used by Parsi drama companies and Raja Ravi Varma's paintings and lithographs. 5

This pre-history

~The most important statements of this line of inquiry can be found in Geeta Kapur, "Mythic material in Indian cinema" in


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may very well help us to understand the specific content of Phalke's films and the creation of the mythological film genre.

However, the cultural genealogies involving Hindu

mythological traditions are insufficient for understanding the pre-history of the cinema in India.

I would like to

suggest that when the focus of cinema history expands beyond films and their production to include film exhibition there are other, very different cultural precedents for the cinema to consider. When traveling film shows from Europe and the United States first came to India one hundred years ago, they were accommodated within a well established European variety entertainment circuit.

In this regard the introduction of

the cinema in India was not so different from the entertainment's early career in the West, where it was not only based on the representational strategies, subject matter and vast repertoire of the Victorian stage, vaudeville and magic lantern shows, as well as other popular amusements, but also integrated into mostly lowbrow entertainment venues and contexts.'

In India the first

Journ•l of Arts •nd Ide•s, nos. 14-1S (1987), 79-107 and Ashish Rajadhyaksha, "The Phalke era: conflict of traditional form and modern technology,# Journal of Arts and Ide•s, nos. 14-15 (1987), 47-78.

'There is now considerable scholarship on the relationships between moving pictures and a variety of antecedent entertainment forms. See Nicholas Vardac, Stage to Screen: Theatric•l Methods from G4rrick to Griffith (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1949); Robert c. Allen, V•udeville •nd Film,


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moving picture shows .also began within and as an extension of the already established, European, entertainment circuits.

However, the initial entertainment niche into

which film exhibitors introduced the cinema were of a relatively higher class orientation inflected by the colonial formation of British India. The city of Madras owes its existence to the British colonial occupation from about the mid 17th century.


was the oldest of the colonial port cities but did not experience the same rapid industrialization, growth and prosperity in the 19th century as the either Bombay or Calcutta.

Though on a lesser scale than these cities,

Madras also enjoyed the benefits of being the capital of a .

Presidency, a state which comprised most of south India.


its own right the city developed into the administrative, industrial, mercantile, banking and educational center for south India in the 19th century.

As the most populous city

in the south, Madras attracted a diverse mix of British and Indians alike drawn by the possibilities of new and increased opportunities in employment, professional 1895-1915: A Study in Hedi• Interaction, (New York: Arno Press, 1980); Charles· Musser, ~Toward a History of Screen Practice," Qu•rterly Review of Film Studies, vol. 9, no . l (Winter 1984), 59-69; John L. Fell, "Cellulose Nitrate Roots: Popular Entertainment and the Birth of Film Narrative" in BeEore Hollywood: Turn-of-the-Century Americ•n Fillll (New York : Hudson Hills Press, 1987), 39-44; and Miriam Hansen, Babel, Babylon: Spect•torship in American Silent Fil.JD (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Presa, 1991), 25-30 .


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advancement and trading.

The result was a new hybrid, urban

environment where people from widely divergent cultural backgrounds learned, with various degrees of success, failures and adjustments, to live together in new ways. As with the other colonial port cities in British India, the settlement patterns of Madras reflected a spatial segregation of the European community from Indians.


small European settlement, known as White Town, was originally confined to the area immediately surrounding Fore St. George, while the far more numerous Indian population settled to the north in what was known as Black Town.


Indians from all over the south migrated to the city during the 19th century, Madras also expanded to the west and south incorporating the surrounding villages into a sprawling decentralized conglomeration.

By the turn of the century

many of the British residents were widely scattered in spacious residential garden suburbs (Egmore, Chetpet, Kilpauk, Nungambakam, Teynampet and Adyarl, leaving the congested urban areas of the city to commerce, the government and Indian residents (Georgetown and Triplicane) • 7

Like other urban centers of colonial India,

'A more complete treatment of this history can be found in c. s. Srinivasachari History of the City of ~dr•s (Madras: P. Varadachary and Company, 1939); Susan Neild, "Madras: The Growth of a Colonial City in India, 1780-1840" (Ph.D. diss., The University of Chicago, 1977); and Norma Evenson, The Indian Metropolis: A View Toward the West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 12.


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Madras thus developed as a dual city comprised of separate colonial British and indigenous sections.• The urban entertainment culture of Madras also conformed to these same social and spatial divisions which separated the European and Indian residents of the city . Each community had their own forms and styles of entertainment, performed in different languages, at different venues in separate parts of town, and attracted almost mutually exclusive audiences. At the beginning of this century Indian popular forms of entertainment were still to a large extent organized around the traditional economy of patronage which operated at royal and zemindari courts, religious festivals, weddings and temples.

However, during the late 19th century in the

urban setting of Madras, professional drama emerged as an early form of Indian commercial entertainment.

From about

1870, touring drama companies from what are now Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh performed Parsi style musical stage productions in different Indian languages of well known Persian and Hindu stories.'

By the first decade of

'see Anthony D. King, "Colonialism and the Development of

the Modern Asian City: SOl!le Theoretical Considerations" in K. Ballhatchet and J. Harrison eds., The City in South Asia: Premodern and Modern, (London: Curzon Press, 1980), 1-19. 'see R.K. Yagnik, The Indian Theatre: Its Origins and Later Developments under European Influence (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1933); and Anuradha Kapur, "The representation of god.s and heroes: parsi mythological drama of the early twentieth century," Journal of Art and Ideas, nos. 23-24 (19931, 85-107.


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this century there were several drama halls, the Wall Tax Theatre and the Royal Theatre, in what was still known as Black Town which hosted these Parsi-style drama companies. These theaters catered to predominantly Indian men with well known plays in Indian languages which typically started at nine, the main drama would go on until midnight and, perhaps, be followed by two or three shorter comic plays that could last into the early morning. The educated and elite Indian classes considered these professional dramas to be vulgar, low class, rowdy, drunk and morally unsuitable for women and families.

Members of

the Indian professional classes organized their own amateur dramatic associations by the end of the 19th century as a high-class alternative to commercial drama.


Europeans did not attend Indian professional drama performances and rarely went for Indian amateur drama productions which they would visit only for special occasions or, perhaps, an adaptation of a Shakespeare play. While both professional and amateur drama contributed greatly to the creation of Tamil and Telugu cinema in the 1930s, these Indian entertainment formats and venues did not provide the initial context in which the cinema took root in Madras.

During the first decades of the century Indian

entertainment did to some extent compete with the emerging cinema business in Madras for Indian patronage, but only did so as a distinct alternative to the European entertainment


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circuits of Madras. As the number of British in the city increased during the course of the 19th century, so did their own forms of entertainment. The oldest and most established institutions of leisure amongst elite Europeans in Madras were the exclusive social clubs and athletic gymkannas where the allmale members gathered for drinks, games, and gambling.


the mid 19th century, the British also began amateur theatrical groups which provided the elite of Madras with regular drama performances at venues such as the Museum Theatre and the Victoria Public Hall.

In Madras, European

drama was much more limited and later to develop than in the other colonial port cities of Bombay and Calcutta, both of which had thriving commercial and amateur drama activities from early in the 19th century. 10

Unlike Calcutta and

Bombay, the European population of Madras was too small to support any permanent year-round commercial drama theater or music hall entertainment. In addition to amateur theater, there was not much in the way of public entertainment for Europeans in Madras until the late 19th century.

The circus visited town at

least once a year, military regiment bands performed regularly at the Marina or in various public parks around the city, and there were occasional music recitals and


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More than any other European entertainment event in

Madras, visits from touring musical hall companies with their vaudeville, variety performances were entertainment highlights of the year. 11

Over the course of a year, the

European community of Madras could look forward to seasonal visits by a few of these variety shows which usually did not remain for more than five days at any venue and no more than several weeks at a stretch in the city. These widely traveled shows which came to Madras were part of a world market in variety entertainment.


performers, ranging from poor-house children to the classically trained, were predominantly English speaking from Britain, though there were also performers from continental Europe, Australia and the United States.


show came with its own combination of specialty acts which could include dance, drama, singing, comedy, magic, hypnotism, electro-magnetic tricks, tumbling or feats of physical strength. These touring variety shows established the markets, venues, formats and standards within which the touring film exhibitors first found their place in Madras.

Though the

European variety entertainment would eventually be at least uin 1909 Ananda Coomaraswamy lamented the pr0111inence of these European entertainment in Madras. Ke feared that these attractions were luring Indians away from the traditional Indian arts. Essays in National Idealism (Colombo: Colombo Apothecaries Co. Ltd., 1909), 185.


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partially undermined by the success of the cinema, and almost completely vanish in the 1920s, both forms of popular entertainment operated together within the same social and cultural ambits during the first decades of this century.


cnn z n•

arri.,re i.n Medr••

The early pattern of commercial cinema entertainment in India in many ways followed the same lines as the cinema business in Britain.

Unlike in the United States, where

between 1905 and 1910 the cinema business expanded rapidly through small, permanent, store front "nickelodeon" theaters, moving pictures in England largely remained an itinerant entertainment during the same period. 12


engagements at fairgrounds and music halls provided the most regular venues for these early cinema shows which continued mostly on a touring basis in Britain until about 19081910.13

However, compared to Europe and the United States,

film exhibitors in Madras from the outset pitched their entertainment at a more affluent and high class clientele . 12

See Douglas Gomery, Sh•red Ple•sures: A History of Movie Present•tion in the United St•tes (London: BFI Publishing, 1992); and Eileen Bowser, The Tr•nsformation of Cinema, 1901-1915, History of the American Cinema, vol. 2, (New York: Charles

Scribner's Sons, 1990).

ilsee Rachael Low, The History of the British Film, 1906-1914 (London: George Allen, Unwin, 1949).


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It is now standard to attribute the first moving picture show in Madras to an American exhibitor, M. Edwards, who visited the city for a short engagement at the Victoria Public Hall during 1897. 14

The venue was one of the most

prestigious and prominent European-style public theaters located in the south end of People's Park next to the Madras Corporation offices in the Ripon Building.

Built in 1887

through public subscription and a loan from the Raja of Vizianagaram, the hall was intended for"-· public or private meetings, exhibitions, lectures concerts, dinners, balls, theatrical or musical performances and for any other purpose conducing to the moral, social and intellectual welfare, or rational recreation of the public of Madras." 15

What set

the Victoria Public Hall from some of the other public halls in Madras was that it was available for amusements and entertainment which most of the other halls did not allow in their buildings. With a seating capacity of about 1,000, the prices of admission for this first screening were prohibitively expensive.

Starting at two rupees and going up to three and

five rupees for the highest seating classes. 1'

t•see s. Theodore

At such high

"Silent Cinema in the South," Cinema Vision India, vol. l, no. l (January 1980): 61. Baskaran,

!!Illustrated Guide to the Southern Indian R.Jilway, (Madras: Premier Press, 1913), 13. •'Huthu, Cine Art Review, Deepavali Special (1936): 73.


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rates we can be certain that these first cinema shows were a curiosity only the wealthy could afford.

This engagement

helped to establish the initial cultural position of the cinema within the elite and European entertainment market of Madras. After this first event, there is very little reliable history on the exhibition activities in south India during the first decade of this century.

There is some indication

that during the first decade of the century there were a variety of exhibition practices in addition to what would develop into the dominant mode of commercial exhibition.


example on one account the first person responsible for having brought the "shadow show" to the "interior" of south India was Pandi Duraiswamy Thevar (1867-1911), a wealthy zemindar and patron of music from Palavanathan in Ramnad. 17

Pandi's approach to moving pictures was not the commercial exploitation of a traveling showman, but rather informed by an older pattern of court patronage for the performing arts and not made available to the general public.


suggestive of an alternative cultural economy for the cinema in south India, this example needs to be further investigated.

Another alternative exhibition practice was

the use of the cinema for corporate advertising.


~'A. Venlcataramarna Iyer, B.A., B.L., as cited in the Evidence of the Indian Cinem.ttograph Committee, 1927-1928 (New Delhi: Government of India Press, 1928), vol. 4, 239.


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agents of the Imperial tobacco company were cited as having used moving pictures on publicity tours through south India. 18

While it is important to recognize other modes of

exhibition, these other ventures were never more than small scale and sporadic.

It is clear however, that the earliest

exhibitors to visit Madras did so as part of an itinerant circuit which included all the major cities of colonial India, Burma and Ceylon. The city of Madras was the most important market for the early touring cinema shows in south India, although exhibitors did visit, less frequently, all the major cities, hill stations and cantonments in the south (see chapter two).

Virtually all touring cinema operators who passed

through Madras before 1905 were from Europe, the United States or Australia.

These cinema companies were generally

independent, small-scale concerns with low overhead, designed to make a quick profit with a few shows and then move on.

The standard practice was for the traveling cinema

companies to bring along a limited stock of short films which they owned outright (the system of film rental through distribution offices and local dealers only developed later during the teens).

When exhibitors exhausted their

repertoire of films or their audiences dwindled, they left for a new city.


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Traveling cinema companies visited Madras city with increasing frequency throughout the first decade of this century.

One reason for this was that several Indians from

the south also entered the business of film exhibition while using Madras as their base of operations.

In the years

before 1910 a pair of south Indians, moving in the same circuits as their European competitors, emerged as some of the most important touring film exhibitors to frequent Madras city and the Presidency in the period before permanent theaters. The earlier of these two south Indians to get involved in the cinema business was Samikannu Vincent, a Tamil Christian, who began his career employed as a draftsman for the South Indian Railways.

While working in Trichinopoly

during 1905, Vincent purchased his first set of films and projection equipment from a French touring cinema operator who had fallen ill and wished to return to Europe without delay.

Vincent resigned from his job and launched his own

touring company under the name "Edison's Cinematograph. " 19 For the next nine years Vincent toured throughout India, Ceylon and Burma under a variety of names {always retaining ~Edison# as part of the name), and new improved technologies (such as his 1909 upgrade to a chronomegophone which 19

Despite the Edison name, there is nothing to indicate any formalized affiliation with The Edison Manufacturing Company, the major film producer in the United States at the time .


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synchronized gramophone records with films) • 20

He finally

stopped touring himself by 1914 and started his own permanent cinema theater in Coimbatore.

For Vincent this

was just the start of a prosperous career in all aspects of the film trade which continued into the 1940s. The other important early film exhibitor based in south India was a Hindu, native Telugu speaker from Hasulipacnam named Raghupathi Venkiah Nayudu (1869-1941).

Venkiah moved

to Madras in 1896 to work as a photographer.

Within ten

years he established hi~self as one of the city's leading photographers and along with his brothers he ran a photography studio on the prestigious north east end of Mount Road, in the elite and European shopping district cf Madras.

To signify their standing and success, the

letterhead of the R. Venkiah Brothers boasted of patronage from "the Governor and the leading Rajahs of the Presidency. " 21 In 1909 Venkiah expanded his business from studio photography to moving pictures when he ordered a "Chronophone" set from England for a reported 300,000 rupees.

The package deal included the projector and a

:osee s. Theodore Baskaran, The Message Bearers: The Nationalist Politics and the Entertainment Hedi• in South India, 1880-1945, (Madras: Cre-A:, 1981), 68-69; the Madras Times; and Aranchai Narayanan, Tamil CiniJDavin Kathai (Madras: New Century Bookhouse, 1981), 14. nThe letterhead can be found in Tamil Nadu Archives, Judicial, G.O. no. 1291, 18 Hay 1916.


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program of 12 or so single-reel shorts (300 to 400 feet), which came with synchronized gramophone recordings on large 18 and 24 inch plates.

Using a name which signified the

cultural orientation of his entertainment, Venkiah's London Exposition Company held its first show at the Victoria Public Hall, still the most prestigious entertainment venue in Madras at the time.

But after the inaugural show,

Venkiah shifted to a tent which he pitched on the Esplanade for larger audiences and a longer engagement. 22 At this point Venkiah entered the cinema business and followed the British entertainment circuit, along with the other itinerant film exhibitors, in touring throughout colonial India, Burma and Ceylon.

Venkiah started out by

traveling with a limited program which he screened in short engagements of five or six days before moving on to another venue or city.

From 1909 to 1913 Venkiah's cinema company

toured extensively, including stints at Bangalore, Bombay and Andhra in 1909-10, and Ceylon, Burma and across north India in 1911. 23

During this period Venkiah's cinema show . returned to Madras at least several times a year; enough to make it one of the most frequent cinema shows to pass through the city.

::c. B. Devaraj, Indian Talkies Era: Silver Jubilee (Madras: n . p . , 1957), 11.

=>tbid. And Madras Times, September 1910, December 1911 .


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Both Vincent and Venkiah were independent exhibitors and ran their cinema companies along similar lines. both traveled along the same entertainment circuits.

They When

visiting Madras, like other itinerant entertainment companies, film exhibitors would book one of the few public halls available for hire.

The other possibility, depending

on the season and weather, was for these companies to pitch tents on some open ground in the city.

The most common

public space used for both European and Indian outdoor entertainment was the Esplanade Maidan.

Located near the

High Court Buildings between George Town on the north and cart St. George on the south, the Esplanade Maidan functioned a kind of col'lllllOn ground for public entertainment which was unmarked as being either a specifically European or Indian part of town.

Vincent and Venkiah performed two

shows nightly at 6:30 and 9:30 mostly at outdoor locations in Madras with their own ~large and well ventilated# tents and oil engines for generation of electricity. 24 Through the medium of film, these Indian exhibitors were agents of European culture bringing the images, stories, scenes and topical events of Europe to both :•Except for liJllited industrial use, electricity was not yet widely available. Even after the Madras Electric Supply corporation started to provide electricity with the city liJllits in 1910, Vincent continued to generate his own power for his tent shows. The quote comes from a description of Vincent's Madras engagement published by the M4dras T.illles, 1 March 1910 . For other details see the Tamil newspaper, Swadesamitran (Madras), daily edition, 18 December, 1911.


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European and Indian audiences far removed from the metropole.

During their years as touring film operators,

Vincent and Venkiah acquired their films through mail order services from London. They purchased an assortment of mostly second-hand prints, originally produced in Europe or the United States by companies such as Warwick, Lubin, Urban, Gaumont, Edison and Nordisk. 25

Like the other early touring

exhibitors, Vincent and Venkiah tended to limit the live entertainment offered in conjunction with the film show. Beyond the musical accompaniment of piano, percussion or gramophone recordings, the shows usually revolved entirely around a series of unrelated short films presented in the familiar format of variety entertainment.

for example,

Venkiah's advertisements promised a balanced program consisting of "many a varied coloured, comic, historic, [and) tragic" film. 26

The discontinuous succession of

diverse, short films addressed Madras audiences through a wide variety of appeals based on what Tom Gunning has identified as an early cinema of attractions which was distinct from what in the early 1910s emerged as the dominant narrative form of classical Hollywood cinema. Compared to the later narrative cinema which called upon its spectators' sustained attention and absorption into a self:sKristin Thompson, Exporting Entertailllllent: America in the World Fil.Ill Market, 1901-1934 (London: BFI Publishing, 198S), 43. ~'Madras Ti.mes, 2 Septemb•r 1911.


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contained diegetic world constructed by the film, the cinema of attractions constructed different relationships to its viewers based on astonishment, stimulation, distraction, diversion, shocks and spectacular visual effects. 27 Early touring exhibitors in Madras offered within each film show a wide variety of appeals capable of accommodating a range of audience interest and engagement.


exhibitors offered topical features which were of special interest for British audiences in the far flung corners of the Empire.

For example, during the second half of 1910

Venkiah organized his show around a series of films documenting the funeral of Edward VII, the "accession proclamation procession" and the coronation of George V, only a few months after the events. 21 Madras in 1910 he

When Vincent visited

featured topical films marketed

specifically for British audiences.

The first half of

Vincent's show consisted of a variety of "amusing and instructive pictures", while after an interval, the second half after was devoted entirely to Gaumont's 3,000 foot feature film entitled, "Sir Ernest Shackleton's Journey to the South Pole," about the well-publicized expeditions of the famous B~itish explorer.

As an additional attraction

:'Tom Gunning, ~The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film its Spectator and the Avant-Garde," Wide Angle, vol. 8, nos. 3, 4 (Fall 1986), 63-70. Also see, Miriam Hansen, Babel, S.bylon, 30-34. :,Madras Times,

1-5 September, 1910 .


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the screening of this film was accompanied with an "educational" gramophone recording of Lieutenant Shackleton's speech delivered at the Royal Society. 29 Beyond the explicitly British content of the Shackleton program, Vincent also made other efforts to attract European audiences with special arrangements and more expensive ticket prices.

Vincent received a strong endorsement in a

Madras Times review that singled out the "excellent

accommodations provided for Europeans" for high praise. This "excellent accommodation" implied at the very least a marked distinction in comfort and position provided for Europeans in relation to Indian audiences.


marketing strategy that would have favored Europeans at this show were the high ticket prices: Vincent fixed his ticket classes at prices high enough (3, 2 and 1 rupees) to limit the attendance at his shows to the more privileged classes. In addition to targeting British audiences, these two exhibitors also used other marketing strategies which focused on the distinct, yet overlapping social categories of Christians, women, children and soldiers.

By offering

discount rates for certain groups, special film showings, and separate seating exhibitors consciously reached out to certain audience segments in an effort to create a new market for film shows. These details are from advertisements and a review on the event published in the HldJ:as Times, 1 March 1910 . ~9


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Both Vincent and Venkiah made tneir own efforts to cater to Christian audiences in Madras which included divergent communities of British, Anglo-Indian and Indian Christians.

Even though Vincent was a Christian, the

marketing strategies in this regard were not merely a matter of personal religious faith for the exhibitors.

Though a

Hindu himself, Venkiah's London Exposition Company made a direct appeal to Christian audiences in offering two additional screenings of a film entitled, "Joseph Sold by his Brethren" on Sunday "for the convenience of our Christian Brethren.• 30

This was, in part, a public

relations ploy to help Christians justify their attendance at film shows on Sundays.

These extra efforts on behalf of

Christians were, perhaps, warranted as a means of avoiding a ban on Sunday film shows which by this time had become a widespread practice in Britain. 31

By screening Christian

films on Sundays, these exhibitors were also making a virtue out of the necessity of the fact that there were a great many religious films circulating in the world film markets at the time. Another targeted audience segment which figured prominently in the early Madras exhibitor's marketing strategies was that of Indian women. 10

Madras Times, 16 September

Venkiah made efforts


HAnnette Kuhn, Cinema, Censorship and sexuality, 1909-1925 (London: Routledge, 1988), 17-18.


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to appeal to Indian women, even during short engagements in Madras.

By 1910, Venkiah routinely advertised his cinema

company as providing "special accommodation for native ladies" which consisted of a screened-off area with a separate entrance. 32

The next year, when Venkiah came to

Madras, he went further in offering a "ladies only" show at six in evening under the patronage of the Indian Ladies Club of Madras, featured a program of films especially selected for women audiences. The fact that special efforts were made to attract women suggests, by implication, that male audiences formed the unmarked, assumed majority of early Madras film audiences.

The early Madras film exhibitors cultivated

women audiences, in part, as a means to extend the market for their entertainment especially since Indian women filmgoers either attended in groups, were accompanied by men or brought along their families.

In this way, the appeal to

Indian women was, perhaps, part of a more general effort to encourage broader attendance from amongst the wealthy Indian classes.

However, it is doubtful that Indian women would

have ever constituted the majority of the audience at early ~dras Ti.JIies, 1-5 September 1910. Special accommodation for Indian WOlllen was a theater convention which pre-dated the cine111a and was a strategy used by film exhibitors in India from the outset. Barnouw and Krishnaswamy, quoting from the Ti.JIies 0£ Indi•, (27 July 1896), point out that "Reserved boxes for Purdah Ladies and their Families" were offered by the Watson Hotel only a few days after the debut of the first moving pictures. In The 32

Indi•n Fil.Jfl, 5 •


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touring film shows.

At best, the separate sections and

screened boxes for women only accounted for a small percentage of the total film attendance .

Yet, the mere

presence of women at film shows also worked as a public relations ploy implying a certain respectability for the entertainment worth more than their proportional share at the box office. The early touring film exhibitors also recognized British soldiers as an important market for their entertainment.

Within the colonial class structure of

Madras, soldiers were the closest to forming a British working class.

During this early period, most exhibitors

offered half-price tickets to soldiers in uniform for all seating classes except the least expensive .

This concession

was, in part, a patriotic gesture used by the exhibitors to generate good will and help public relations.


marketing ploy, however, would not have significantly cut into the exhibitor's revenue since British soldiers in Madras were only a small percentage of the larger European community for which early cinema shows primarily catered. By using the same entertainment venues and formats that the touring variety shows had used, the early film exhibitors tapped into an already constituted entertainment market catering primarily to ~high classH European audiences.

Even with the contributions of south Indian film

exhibitors, the early film business in the south was a small


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scale, transient enterprise which operated within the European entertainment circuits and reached only very limited audiences, the majority of whom were British residents of Madras.

The resident European community of

Madras was only a small minority of the city's population. 33 However, they formed a majority of the upper classes exercising an almost total monopoly of power and wealth over the indigenous communities.

Further, apart from those in

military service, there was no exact equivalent to a British working class in colonial India, 34 which meant that any appeal to European culture by the film exhibitors in Madras tended to favor a higher class clientele. This high-class orientation also carried over into the efforts made to accommodate Indians at the early touring films shows in Madras.

Even though Europeans figured most

prominently as preferred audiences, film exhibitors catered to select Indian audiences consisting mostly of those from the elite, English-educated and wealthy classes who were the most inclined toward "western" culture. 35

The appeal to


The 1911 census reported that out of a total population of 518,660, there were 41,812 residents (81) who were identified as being of European decent. The majority of these claiming European decent were probably Anglo-Indians, since only 2,247 of the European residents in Madras had been born in Europe with 2,003 of these from Britain. 34

King, "Colonialism and the Development of Modern Asian Cities," 8 and 12. 35

Barnouw and Krishnaswamy, Indian Film, 6; and Bhowmik, Indian Cinema, Colonial Contours, 17.


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these Indian classes is reflected i n the efforts to publicize film shows in the local press.

In addition to

advertisements in Madras' English newspapers, film exhibitors also placed adds in the Tamil and Telugu newspapers of the city from as early as 1911.

Even though

the early touring cinema shows only reached relatively small audiences in Madras, exhibitors identified elite Indians as a potentially important audience segment .


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After the initial decade or so of operating on a touring basis, film exhibitors around the world shifted towards establishing permanent cinema outlets.

In Britain

between 1908 and 1914 exhibitors adopted a set of new exhibition strategies based on the model of already successful commercial drama and vaudeville theaters which catered to a better-paying, middle-class clientele.


a few years, permanent cinema halls replaced seasonal touring shows in all major cities and towns in England. These new permanent theaters were the first to take on the . name of "picture palaces" as part of an overall effort to make the cinema more respectable and attract more affluent audiences. 1


Low, The History of the British Film, 1906-1914 (London: George Allen, unwin Ltd., 1949), 13-24. For comparison with the United States, see Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cineaa, 1907-1915, History of the American Cinema, vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990), 1-20, 121-136. 53

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In India as well, film exhibitors opened the first permanent cinema theaters in Bombay and Calcutta during the first decade of this century.

By 1910 there was one

permanent theater in Calcutta, one in Rangoon and four in Bombay, while Madras and the rest of British India were still covered by about seventy touring cinemas. 2


emerged a few years later as a regional center of permanent film exhibi-tion during the early 1910s and other cities in the Madras Presidency followed from the mid-1910s. As has been the case with other film histories in other parts of the world, film scholars have only begun to realize that the basic facts of exhibition history have gone undocumented. 3

With the exception of the first film

exhibitions in the different cities of India, there have been no attempts to document the early establishment and spread of film shows.

Where, when and by whom did film exhibition

begin; how did it spread to new locations; what were the differences in exhibition practices in the cities, their neighborhoods, towns and rural areas? In addressing these questions this chapter charts a series of changing institutions and practices of film 2Kristin

World Fil.JD

Thompson, Exporting Entertaillllent: America in the Market, 1907-1934 (London: BFI Publishing, 1985), 33.


an account of one scholar's recognition of this deficiency over the last 20 years in the context of U.S. film history, see Robert Allen, ~From Exhibition to Reception: Reflections on the Audience in Fil.Ill History," Screen, vol. 31, no. 4 (Winter 1990):348.


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exhibition as the trade expanded and upgraded from touring to permanent theaters.

Hore than documenting an unknown

exhibition history, at issue here is how the emergence of new permanent cinemas transformed the local conditions of film-going in the south.

Starting with the first, not

entirely successful, attempts at permanent exhibition, this chapter follows the geographic spread of the permanent cinema theaters in south India during the 1910s.

From the

neighborhoods of Madras city to the districts of the Presidency, the change to regular, daily cinema shows helped to create new film-going habits in a new kind of theater space.

This history of film exhibition is crucial for

understanding how exhibitors mediated, adapted and shaped the experience of cinema entertainment to fit local social and cultural conditions in south India.

Mra. IUUCJ'• Bioacop•

The first few exhibitors to market the cinema in Madras from "permanent" outlets did so as a marketing strategy to distinguish their concern from touring film companies. These exhibitors offered a commitment to provide regular entertainment for the local market, which they hoped would lead to sustained and stable commercial returns.


permanent cinema theaters had a marketing edge over the 55

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touring film companies, in that they could provide a more comfortable and opulent space for film viewing, they also had to work at maintaining a respectable local presence and at cultivating regular film viewing habits. A woman, who went by the name of Mrs. Klug, was the first film exhibitor to advertise her concern as a permanent cinema hall in Madras. Unfortunately nothing is known about who Hrs . Klug was, where she came from or where she went after Madras.

The only source consulted for this account and, perhaps,

all that remains from her stay in Madras comes from the

adverti sements and coverage in the ~dras Times.

At the

beginning of the hottest season in April 1911, Mrs . Klug established a cinema hall, known simply as "The Bioscope," located at Popham's Broadway in Georgetown.

For several

months, Mrs. Klug continued to emphasize in her advertisements the singularity and novelty of her establishment as the "only permanent bioscope."4 As a woman film exhibitor, Mrs. Klug was in a unique position within the cinema business in south India.

It is

difficult to know if there were any other women film exhibitors operating in the area, but from all indications she seeirus to have been one of the very few women to have ever owned and managed a cinema company in Madras. 5

•~dr•s Times, 30 May 1911. 5There

was at least one other early woman exhibitor in India. In Calcutta a Miss Constance Bromley worked her way up from being a secretary at the Opera Rouse to the position of its 56

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Displaying her name prominently in newspaper advertisements as the sole proprietress, Mrs. Klug may have been using her status as a woman to promote a respectable public image for the establishment.' Though she advertised herself as the "sole proprietress" of the concern, her cinema company's name, Bioscope, suggests some affiliation with the French cinema company Pathe.

The French company Pathe Freres had been the

first international supplier of films to open offices in India: first in 1907, a Calcutta branch and another in Bombay during 1910. 7

Pa the' s trade in "Bioscope" machines

and "Gold Rooster" brand films took several years to develop in India, but reached a commanding position in the market after 1910. 1

In addition to using Pathe projection

equipment, Mrs. Klug seems to have acquired her regular supply of films from the Pathe Freres office in Bombay. At first the Pathe office did not rent films to cinema manager by 1920. •Films in India" in Bioscope (14 October 1920): 18d.

'This is, perhaps, c0111parable to the situation in the United States at the same time, where women were, to some extent, welcomed as managers/owners of film theaters to add refinement to an entertainment business which was trying to raise its respectability. See Bowser, Transformation of the Cinem•, 45-47. 7

Allister MacMillan, compiled and edited. Seaports of India , Ceylon: Historical and Descrfptive Co111111erci•l and Industrial Facts, Figures, Resources, (London: w. H. , L. Collingridge, 1928), 260.

'Panna Shah, The Indian Film (Bombay: The Motion Picture Society of India, 1950), 21.


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exhibitors but insisted on the direct sale of their films. Permanent theaters and cinema companies purchased new films directly from Pathc-India and after exhibition they eventually sold the used prints to the smaller touring companies. 9 This new enterprise was enthusiastically endorsed in the English-language press on the grounds that Madras was, "so dismally bereft of popular forms of entertainment, the setting up of a permanent bioscope may be welcomed." 10 Indeed, performing during swmner was in itself a novelty for Madras' European entertainment circuit.


professional entertainment companies, especially those with tent shows, avoided touring India during the hot weather and monsoons . 11

When Mrs . Klug opened her permanent Bioscope it

was first commercial theater in Madras to perform throughout the off-season in the heat of summer.

With no other film

shows running in competition, she turned the hot season to her advantage by outfitting the theater space with plenty of electric fans which were said to have rendered the hall

'Thompson, Exporting Entertailllllent, 33 . 10

,,.dra.s · xi.JIies, 19 April 1911.

11 In

Calcutta one contemporary credited J. F. Madan with breaking the seasonal conventions for collllllercial entertainment performances with his film shows . Towards the end of the first decade of this century Madan's Elphinstone Bioscope was the first to continue through the hot season and thereafter the other commercial entertainment companies followed suit. See N. Exley in Bio.scope, (17 April 1913). 58

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"comfortably cool. " 12

This was part of the improved comfort

which was possible at a permanent cinema hall (as opposed to tent shows) and would continue to serve as an important marketing strategy in the years to come. Like the touring cinema companies before her, Mrs. Klug offered a varied program of films described variously as comic, coloured, dramatic, tragic, variety, travel, trick, scenic, sport and animated gazettes (called "our English Mail").

Other than musical accompaniment, Klug did not

incorporate any live variety acts as later Madras exhibitors resorted to, relying instead entirely upon film as the sole attraction.

However, Klug was able to improve upon the more

limited film programs that had been the standard for touring cinema companies.

With a regular supply of films, Mrs. Klug

offered a weekly change of program which was at the time an innovation for the exhibition business in Madras.

With the

change of program every weekend came a promise of new attractions which in turn could be used to encourage audiences to return to the theater weekly. The new status of permanency also brought its problems for the exhibitor in creating and maintaining regular and repeated attendance.

It may not have been easy for Mrs.

Klug to develop film going habits where there had been none before.

Another way that Mrs. Klug attempted to cultivate

repeated patronage at her show was through a "guessing •• ·-Madras Times, 19

April 1911. 59

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competition" conducted with great fanfare after her first month in the city.

Over the course of about three weeks

each ticket holder was entitled to one guess at how many nuts were contained in a sealed bottle with the closest guess earning 50 rupees.

If, as a newspaper reported, the

competition aroused "keen interest" and a "spirited contest" for the cash prize, Mrs. Klug's publicity move would have encouraged repeated attendance. 13 As indicated by the winners of the guessing competition, the audiences at Mrs. Klug's Bioscope inclYded a mix of both Europeans and Indians.

The very location of

this cinema hall makes it almost certain that Mrs. Klug was the first film exhibitor in the city to rely heavily on Indian audiences for support.

Mrs. Klug's Bioscope was

strategically located at Popham's Broadway- the main northsouth road cutting through the geographic center of Georgetown, the largest and most densely settled, Indian part of Madras.

Considered to be "the most important

business thoroughfare in Georgetown,H Popham's Broadway was a concentrated center for a wide range of businesses including hardware, drug and paper goods stores as well as iron foundries, wood depots, masons' yards and printing


The prize was split up between two contestants, Hr. H. B. Shanmugam and Mr. Ralph Jackson. I cite their names here since they are the only film goers during this early period that can be identified by name. M.Jdras Tillles, 22 May 1911. 60

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presses. 1~

Busy Indian crowds, electric tram-cars every

five minutes and a high volume of other traffic surged through Popham's Broadway in the evenings during the hours when Mrs. Klug's Bioscope offered their shows.

She screened

films continuously from every evening from 6 to 11 so,~... the visitor may arrive at his own convenience and spend a pleasant hour without dipping very heavily into his pocket. " 15

In this way Mrs. Klug made it easier for her

clientele to spontaneously visit the film show after work, school or shopping. Another indication that Klug marketed her entertainment to Indian audiences was the narrow range of ticket classes and inexpensive rates that she offered. 1'

From the

advertised ticket rates which varied according to seating classes, Mrs. Klug seems to have under-priced the other touring shows and appealed to a wider range of audiences with inexpensive tickets.

She offered upholstered chairs at

one rupee, "Brentwood" chairs at


with back rests went for 4 annas. 17

annas and bench seats These prices would have

made it possible for many more Indians, and those of lesser


Somercet Playne, et al., Southern India: Its History,

People, Commerce, and Industrial Resources, (London: The Foreign and Colonial Compiling and Publishing Co., 1914-1915), 122. 15

Hadras Times,


19 April 1911.

'Ibid. 61

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means to afford a regular film going habit than had been previously possible at the touring film shows. Mrs. Klug's Bioscope was not quite as permanent as advertised. 1911.

Her cinema show left Madras for good in October

In September 1911 Mrs. Klug's Bioscope faced

considerable competition from a number of different touring entertainment companies which all converged on the city at the beginning of the winter entertainment season.

At the

beginning of the month Vincent returned to Madras with the London Exposition Company to stay for an unusually long period of one month in tents at the Esplanade Maidan. Harmston's Grand Circus pitched their tents next to Vincent's show on the Esplanade for several weeks at the end of September.

In addition to all this, the New Royal Parsee

Theatrical Company of Bombay was also in town for a short engagement at the Royal Theatre near the Salt Cotaur (shed) at the western edge of Georgetown. 18

These other

entertainment companies may have hastened the departure of Mrs. Klug's Bioscope from Madras in October 1911. After five months at the Broadway location providing the longest continuously running cinema entertainment that the city had ever seen, Mrs. Klug's efforts were quickly forgotten and have never been mentioned in any history of the cinema in Madras.

Though this was also the first effort

to run a permanent cinema hall in one of Madras' Indian "H.adras Times,

16 September 1911. 62

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neighborhoods, the establishment did not provide any sustained access to the cinema for Indian audiences in Madras.

Yet, Klug made an episodic start toward making the

cinema available to audiences in Georgetown which by the 1920s emerged as the most important and concentrated Indian area for film shows in the city.

Th• central.iaation of tb• cin-• on Mount load

After Mrs. Klug's interrupted effort, the next permanent cinema theaters in Madras came up about three miles south of Georgetown on northeast end of Mount Road. This shift in location situated film shows in the midst of the only fashionable European shopping district and just south of the colonial Government House and Gardens.


as mentioned above, the majority of British residents of Madras had by the beginning of this century moved to garden houses in the suburban periphery, this wide stretch of Mount Road was the one central place where Europeans met for dining, entertainment and shopping. In addition to retail shops stocke~ with expensive imported consumer goods, Mount Road had since the 19th century been the site of elite European institutions of leisure, including several of the large European style hotels and the most prestigious social


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clubs in the city (this neighborhood will be discussed at greater length below). The shift of cinema activity to Mount Road not only served to reinforce the cinema as an elite and European form of entertainment in Madras, but also connected the emerging cinema business with the Mount Road entertainment establishments.

European promoters, agents and managers of

Eurcpean commercial entertainment were largely responsible for establishing the first permanent cinema halls on Mount Road. The first permanent film theater to open on Mount Road was located in a part-time music hall known as the Lyric Theatre.

The Lyric was owned by Wallace Misquith who used

the theater space to help promote his music business which was located on the ground floor of the same building.


the late 19th century Misquith and Company was one of the most prominent music suppliers for Europeans in south India with branch offices in all the hill stations.

The main shop

on Mount Road was located in an imposing structure and local landmark known as the Misquith Building.

In addition to

selling sheet music, pianos, player pianos, Pathe brand gramophone products, and all kinds of stringed and brass instruments, Misquith and Company also undertook a wide


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range of musical repair work, from replacing a violin string to rebuilding an organ. 19 The theater space was originally known as Misquith Hall and was used for demonstrations of musical wares and music lessons.

However, after renovations in 1910, Misquith re-

opened the space as the New Lyric Theatre and hired it out "for concerts, entertainments and meetings."

The Lyric was

outfitted as one of the most comfortable theaters in Madras at the time featuring the novelties of "electric lighting and new tip-up seats." 20

With these up-to-date facilities

Misquith arranged regular musical events at the theater, which quickly became a popular venue for touring entertainment companies.

In the gaps between professional

companies and other engagements, the theater hosted local amateur artists- including Misquith, himself, who gave piano recitals. The Lyric Theatre was first used as a cinema hall when Misquith leased out to the Empire Cinema Company in early 1913. 21

The owner and manager of the Empire was D. £. o . . Cohen who was well known in Madras as an agent for European performance companies who booked and directed tours 19

1913 .



Shopping Supplement,"

Madras Times,


Times, 19 December

10 March 1910.


It is likely that this cinema company was in some way related to a larger chain of Empire Cinema halls which operated in Britain and, perhaps in other cities throughout India. l


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throughout India, Ceylon, Burma and the Far East.


Empire opened at the Lyric as the only film show in town and ran successfully for almost six months before advertising a sudden change of status by permanently establishing their concern at the Lyric Theatre in July 1913. 22

The timing of

this announcement was an obvious response to the construction of a new cinema hall, known as the Electric Theatre, which opened only a few weeks after the Empire first advertised their own "permanent"' status.

As it turned

out the Empire Cinema did not last much more than two months in competition with the Electric before it closed to •make extensive alterations" in October 1913 with the promise to reopen in two weeks. Two months passed without any further announcement until December 1913 when Hisquith sold the Lyric Theatre to Cohen.

Instead of resuming operation of the Empire's cinema

shows, Cohen used the Lyric Theatre during the Christmas season to host the European performance companies, which he promoted.

The Empire Cinema Company eventually returned for

another few months in early 1914.

Again during this second

engagement the Empire Theatre ran its shows in direct competition with the Electric Theatre.

However, a fire at

the Lyric Theatre (completely unrelated to the operation of the cinema during off hours) led the Empire Cinema to close in March 1914. 22

Cohen seems to have lost interest in his

Madras Times, 10

July 1913. 66

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exhibition business during 1914 preferring to travel on tour with the controversial danseuse Maud Allen and the Ridding Opera Company while the Lyric was left idle.

In all the

Empire Cinema Company provided entertainment for a total of eight months over the course of about one year and might well have successfully continued if not for the competition just down the street. The construction of the Electric Theatre in July 1913 was the initiative of Warwick Major who had come from England in order to invest in the film exhibition business in India. 23

Major was described in a local newspaper as "a

well known actor and enterprising theatre and cinematograph manager," who brought extensive entertainment experience to Madras.

His manager, Reginald Eyre, also "enjoyed a high

reputation as a stage manager and came out to [India) last two years ago to put his energy to promoting the interest of a big London Cinematograph company."24

It seems probable

that these two were somehow affiliated with the exhibition company based in London also known as Electric Theatres

:lThere has been a great deal of confusion surrounding the Electric Theatre. Warwick Major's name is often erroneously cited as Major Warwick and the opening date for the theater is often wrongly cited as 1900 . Suresh Chabria cites Baskaran (Message Bearers, 68) to make the further false claim that the Electric Theatre was India's first permanent cinema hall based on this mistaken date of 1900. See "Before our Eyes: A Short History of India's Silent Cinema," ins. Chabria, ed . , Light of Asia: Indian Silent CineJU, 1912-1934 (Pune: National Film Archive of India, 1994) 24

Hadras Ti/lies, 28 July 1913. 67

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(est. 19081 which at . the time controlled one of the largest permanent cinema hall chains operating in Britain . 25 The Electric Theatre was the first theater specially constructed for the staging of film shows in Madras. Consisting of a large corrugated iron shed with a brick facade, the Electric Theatre was also the first cinema hall in Madras to project itself as a picture palace, or in their own words, "The Premier Picture Palace."

The marketing

strategy behind this new designation was to upgrade the image of the cinema hall through architectural and decorative means which could enhance the experience and comfort of going to the cinema with the trappings of wealth and refinement. The Electric Theatre was ~tastefully draped with star-spangled blue hangings overhead, and around the doorways and sides with red cloth hangings" to help establish the theater as a place of "high-class" entertainment.

The Madras Times welcomed the Electric as

the "last word in comfort," adding that this new "Picture Theatre" was historically unprecedented for Madras, never before having had a "theatrical company" built its own building to stage its performances. 2 ' The Electric operated continuously for just over one year staging nightly shows to crowded houses, especially for the six months when it ran as the only permanent commercial :


Low, History of the British Film, 20-22.

:,Hadr•s Tillles, 28

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entertainment in Madras.

During this period the cinema

emerged as the premier entertainment option on Mount Road. It was not uncommon at the Electric for " ... hundreds of people to be turned away owing to lack of accommodation. " 27 The Electric Theatre was finally shut down when the Government took over the building in order to build a new main Post Office on Mount Road in early 1915. During the months the Empire competed with the Electric, their British managers articulated a series of overlapping, yet competing entertainment strategies and marketing ploys designed to give their respective theaters an edge in attracting patrons.

Both the Empire and Electric

followed basically the same exhibition pattern in offering two nightly performances at 6:30 and 9:30.

At first the

Empire offered a weekly change of program on Saturday evenings, but when the Electric opened with their own twice weekly changes of program, the Empire matched the competition down the street. Both establishments maintained the well-established format of variety entertainment with a mixed program of short films- a drama, a few comics, a scenic (often colored) and a topical news gazette.

Yet, these exhibitors also

followed the shifts occurring in the world film markets at the time in acquiring longer, narrative feature films and screening them as the main attraction amongst the variety


• Madras T.iJlle.s, 30 November l9l3.


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In newspaper advertisements the Empire's management

asserted their commitment to screening "classic works of the great dramatic masters, including those of Sophocles, Goethe, Shakespeare etc."21

By offerir.g films based on

literary "masterpieces• and stage adaptations, these theaters appealed to educated, European high cultural forms as a mark of social respectability. In addition to the main feature, another aggressively advertised attraction at these cinema halls were actuality films which were topical ~dramatizations of the world's · news. " 29

Known as an "animated gazette" or the "Weekly

Gazette" these films arrived via post from London and represented "popular and topical happenings in various parts of the world. ,,Jo

Especially after September 1914 the

Electric exploited films from the war fronts in Europe providing weekly visual updates on the events covered in the newspapers. The Empire and the Electric also used "special attractions," consisting of live variety performances by touring entertainment companies, to increase the appeal of their shows.

From June 1913, the Empire Cinema increasingly

offered a "Vaudeville mixturew of live music, dance, drama and comedy acts in an escalating effort to upstage the :•Madras Ti.mes, 10 July 1913. :9 ~


Ibid. Hddras Times, 28 July 1913.


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Electric. 31

The Electric responded with an equally

ambitious schedule of live performances to accompany their films.

For example, for several weeks in December 1913 the

Electric featured a youthful performance troupe billed as the "Merry Magnets" to supplement their film shows.


"nine clever and versatile artistes" performed the second half of the program after the interval, entertaining the house with comic songs, bird imitations, clog dancing, juggling and comic skits. 32

More than any of the previous

or subsequent cinema theaters in Madras, the Empire and the Electric provided a permanent venue for the touring European entertainment companies who passed through the city. The success of the Empire and Electric cinema halls helped to establish Mount Road as the only center of permanent cinema entertainment at the time in all of south India.

Even though the Empire and the Electric only

operated over a span of two years, the single block area on Mount Road where they were located continued to be associated with the cinema for many decades.

Within just a

couple of years after the first two permanent theaters on Mount Road closed, a series of Indian film exhibitors, all with extensive experience in the cinema business, also chose this same area of Mount Road to construct three new cinema halls.

While Europeans dominated the early phase of

December 1913.


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permanent film exhibition in Madras, they only managed to do so for a few short years at the beginning of the 1910s. Indian film exhibitors were responsible for establishing the more long-standing permanent cinema theaters which eventually lasted for sixty years and more.


Europeans at the time were less willing than Indian entrepreneurs to make the long term investment required to construct permanent cinema halls in Madras.

In any case,

with the establishment of the next three theaters on Mount Road, the film exhibiticn business in Madras shifted almost entirely to the control of Indian exhibitors. In September 1914 while Electric Theatre was providing the only permanent cinema entertainment in the city, another cinema company moved into the Lyric Theatre, six months after the fire incident.

When Cohen returned from his tours

in August 1914 he arranged with Jamshedji Framji Madan (1857-1923), a Parsi based in Calcutta for his Elphinstone Bioscope Company to engage the Lyric Theatre for the winter season. 33

Madan's new venture opened in Madras with a great

deal of publicity to go along with the Elphinstone's established name in cinema entertainment throughout India. J. F. Madan, who had spent his youth acting in both amateur and professional Indian drama companies, made his wealth as a piece goods merchant and invested heavily in the growing

Indian commercial drama business in Calcutta during


Tilles, 3 and 21 September 1914.


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the late 19th century.

Madan was one of the earliest

Indians to have entered the cinema business when he purchased Pathe film equipment in 1902 and launched the Elphinstone Bioscope Company.

After touring for several

years J. F. Madan built Calcutta's first permanent cinema hall in 1907 (also named the Elphinstone Picture Palace) and went on to build India's largest cinema theater chain during the 1910s and 1920s. 34 The Elphinstone Cinema Company opened in Madras on 20 September 1914 with a well attended show that consisted entirely of films.

Unlike the Empire and Electric with

their elaborate stage acts, the management of the Elphinstone offered an exclusive program of films.


distinguished the Elphinstone's film shows, according to one reviewer, was the general quality of the pictures which were considered to be superior to any that had previously been witnessed in Hadras. 35

On the strength of his extensive

chain of exhibition outlets throughout British India, Madan had obtained an arrangement with Pathe to have the first . chance in India to exhibit their best offerings. Elphinstone in Madras, as part of this theater chain, also .

screened the first-run prints of Pathe's films.


Michael Kinnear, The Gramophone Company's First Indian Recordings 1899-1908 (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1994), 17-20 . 35

,,.dras TiJles, 21 Septemb~r 1914.


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After the winter season of 1914 the Elphinstone Cinema Company ended their engagement at the Lyric in order to pursue a more permanent accommodation on Mount Road.



turned out Madan acquired the entire Misquith Building in early 1915 to serve as the site for a permanent Elphinstone Picture Palace, thus marking the end of both Misquith's music business and Cohen's Lyric Theatre.

When the

Elphinstone was built at the end of 1915, the new hall was the largest, most grand picture palace in Madras with a balcony for the highest seating classes.

However, while

Madan's New Elphinstone was still in the planning stage another new cinema hall came up on Mount Road. The next permanent cinema theater on Mount Road was opened in early 1914 by an exhibitor already well-known in Madras.

After four years on tour with his London Exposition

Company, Venkiah returned to Madras to stake his own claim in the city's emerging permanent exhibition business. Venkiah chose the same area on Mount Road where all the previous cinema theaters had been located for his first investment in the local cinema business.

The Gaiety Theatre

was situated at Harris Bridge (over the Coovwn river) directly behind the site where the Electric Theatre had been.

Advertising the hall as "the City's Premier Picture

Palace," Venkiah initially continued to use his touring


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UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN, The London Exposition Company, but eventually the cinema hall came to be known as the Gaiety Theatre. 36 The last of the three large cinema halls constructed on Mount Road was due to the initiative of Rustomji Dorabji, a Parsi who owned a cinema theater chain in Bombay.


established the third cinema hall along the same block on Mount Road in three years .

The Wellington Theatre, named

after one of Dorabji's Bombay theaters, opened in 1918 outdoing the other two theaters on Mount Road in terms of size and opulence. At a time when cinema entertainment in south India outside of Madras was limited to just a handful of permanent theaters and a few touring cinema companies, the construction of three new cinema halls within the span of three years solidified the Mount Road area as the most concentrated center for the cinema in the entire south.


popularity of the cinema on Mount Road prompted one Tamil writer, who identified the cinema in 1917 as the culmination of a series of popular forms of entertainment starting with . drama, musical concerts and then the circus, to claim that public desire to see the cinema had surpassed that for all other entertainment.

He added that the people of Madras

city had been more fortunate than the others in the Presidency to have had the first chance to see motion




(Hadras), 12 Hay 1915. 75

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pictures on an everyday basis. 37

With a combined seating

capacity of almost 4,000 at two and sometimes three shows daily, the Mount Road picture palaces moved an unprecedented high volume of film-goers through their establishments. During the evenings the Mount Road picture palaces were the nexus of crowd activity which dominated the entire neighborhood.

But who were these people?

Th• auclie11ce• oE llouAt bad

Having mapped the progression of Madras' first permanent cinema outlets within a concentrated area along Mount Road, the next set of questions involves the growth and composition of film audiences at these locations.


order to address these issues this paper analyzes the surrounding neighborhood of Mount Road as a specific part of the urban geography of Madras which helped to determine who went to see early film shows. 31 37

These observations were part of the introduction to a two part article which explained the scientific basis of moving pictures. The article was published in a Tamil monthly journal dedicated to education and general knowledge. A. Varatachariyar (8.A., L.D.), "Acaiyum Patankal," Vivek• Bothini, vol. 9, no. 7 (January 1917), and vol. 10, no. 3-4 (Septemb~r-October 1917). 31 For

a similar approach which explicitly borrows from the field of urban geography to examine exhibition history in the United States, see Douglas Gomery, "Movie Audiences, Urban Geography and the History of the American Film," The Velvet Light Trap, no. 19 (1982): 23-29; and, Gomery, Shared Pleasures: A history of movie presentation in the United States, (London: BFI Publishing, 1992). 76

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The consolidation of the first permanent cinema theaters in Madras on Mount Road during the 1910s placed the entertainment within the city's most exclusive European shopping district.

Mount Road served as a kind of outpost

of European culture attracting Europeans not only from across the scattered suburbs of Madras, but also from all of south India.

When colonial officials, military personnel,

missionaries, planters, industrialists, doctors, merchants and traders who were stationed throughout the south passed through to Madras, a visit to Mount Road for lodging, eating a European meal, buying consumer goods or seeing a film show was almost certainly part of their agenda.

Mount Road

provided a focal point for European professional, commercial and leisure activities in Madras. The Electric was located immediately next door to the Hotel d'Angelis (which changed ownership and was renamed the Hotel Bosotto in the mid 1920s) which was described as a "large," "all European" and "well-appointed residential hotel." 39

Established in 1880 by an Italian confectioner,

the hotel became one of the leading, "high class" hotels of its kind in Madras, featuring a restaurant and catering service which offered English, French and Italian cuisine and confections of "renowned excellence."

Surrounded by

verandahs on all sides within the inner courtyard of the 19



Shopping Supplement,"

Madras Times,

18 December


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hotel, there was a "charming Parisian garden, which is not equaled in South India.- [where) one may be served with light refreshments while listening to the captivating strains of a first-class band music. " 40

The hotel tried to recreate the

atmosphere of their establishment at the neighboring Electric Theatre where they also operated the "open air bar and cafe" in the theater's compound.

These two

establishments were linked in a contemporary colM\ercial/business guide which described the centrality of their location within the European cultural geography of Madras, The hotel occupied a central position in the European quarter of Mount Road, the leading thoroughfare in the city. It is near the Government House and the Madras Club, and within minutes' drive from the Central and Egmore railway stations. 41 For the potential guest at this hotel this description plots the significance of the European section of Mount Road in relation to other important colonial institutions of government, leisure and transportation. Along Mount Road the cinema theaters were flanked by other "substantial structures of high-class architectural merit," which housed department stores, photographic studios, English newspaper offices, European pharmaceutical Playne, Southern India, 152; also see the hotel's advertisement in H. A. Newell, Hadras: The Birth Pl•ce of British India (Madras: Madras Times Printing, Publishinq co., 1919), xi. 40


Playne, Southern India, 152. 78

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shops, opticians, book stores and furniture, automobile and motorcycle showrooms. 42

The businesses along Mount Road

were mostly owned and managed by Europeans, though in the

first part of this century there were increasingly more Indian business in this district.

Likewise, the patronage

at these businesses was almost exclusively confined to Europeans and Indians of the wealthiest classes. Despite the fact that Mount Road was the most European and elite shopping district of Madras, Indian employees on the street far outnumbered the patrons for whom the businesses catered.

One contemporary British account

described it this way: during business hours the broad street saw only light traffic taking on a "sleepy aspect... for the greater part of the day... but wakes into sudden activity when the business places release their thousands of workers in the evening... [becoming] a street thronged with thousands of hurrying natives. " 43

Most of the

establishments had a small number of European managers, officers, foremen and supervisors who employed "small armies" of Indian clerks, servants and laborers, many of whom commuted to Mount Road daily from other parts of the city by the electric tramway and motor buses.

It was to

these classes of Indians, I would argue, that the film exhibitors of Mount Road increasingly marketed their 42

Ibid., 162.



Se•ports of India , Ceylon,



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entertainment to widen their audiences during the late 1910s.

A short digression is needed to put this claim in

perspective . Most discussions of the growth and composition of early Indian film audiences maintain that the first Indians to attend cinema shows in large numbers were from the recently migrated, male, urban industrial labor classes.

The story

goes something like this: during the late 19th and early 20th centuries an exploitative colonial land revenue system and a lack of investment in the agricultural sector displaced large numbers of rural Indians, who migrated to the urban centers seeking new employment opportunities. These mostly male migrants created a significant new floating population in the urban areas.

They worked in

factories, menial jobs and in the service sector, and have been credited with forming the majority of early Indian audiences at cinema shows. 44

While this scenario may well

have contributed to the formation of Indian markets for early cinema in Bombay and Calcutta, migrant labor and working classes did not form the majority of the early Indian film audiences at the Mount Road cinema halls. The industrialization and labor migration patterns in Madras were quite different to those which are reported to have occurred in Bombay and Calcutta.

While the 19th

uFor a recent version of this position see Someswar Bhowmi.k, Indi•n Cinema, Colonial Contours (Calcutta: Papyrus, 1995), 19-23.


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century growth of the latter two cities was powered by rapid industrialization, in Madras industry grew slowly and only played a minor role in the city's economy which remained more oriented around commercial trade. 45

According to the

1911 Census of India, out of a total population of 518,660 there were only 48,088 (just under 10\) employed in the factories of Madras.

The demand for industrial labor in

Madras was small and the large industries only employed a small proportion of immigrants. 4 '

Further, industrial labor

force in Madras tended to be recruited locally and formed a stable, permanently settled community which resided almost entirely in the far north of the city close to work places at the textile mills and railway workshops. 47

From this

part of north Madras it would have been difficult for workers during their off-hours to travel the distance (5-7 kilometers) to Mount Road for a film show in the most expensive and European part of the city. 48

•~see P. s. Loganath&n, "The Industries of Madras," The Journal of the Hadr•s Geographical Association, vol. 14, no. 2, (April-June 1939): 155-163; and C.N. Ranson, A City in Transition: Studies in the Social Life of Madras, (Madras: The Christian Literature Society, 1938) . 46

George Kurien, "The Distribution of Population in the City of Madras," The Indian Geographical Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, (January-March 1941): 62. 41

Loganathan, "Industries of Madras," 156.


For an account of the general conditions and hardships of industrial workers during the labor agitation of 1918-1920 in

Madras, see the writings of a labor organizer, 8. P. Nadia, Labour in Madras, (Triplicane, Madras: s. Ganesan, Co., 1921).


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Compared to industrial labor, the more significant immigrant labor force in Madras consisted of the smaller industries such as beedi making and tailoring and casual labor such as handcart porters and harbor coolies.•'


Indian laboring classes were concentrated in the Indian neighborhoods of Georgetown and Triplicane, living and working quite separately from the European district of Mount Road.

Eventually both industrial and casual laboring

classes of Madras became an important market for the cinema in the 1920s, but only after film exhibitors moved out beyond the Mount Road area into the Indian neighborhoods of the city in order to cater to wider Indian audiences (which will be addressed below). All this suggests that the early Indian attendance at the Mount Road theaters during the 1910s is more likely to have consisted of the numerous Indians who were employed at the large Mount Road commercial establishments.

When the

Indian employees finished work in the evenings flooding Mount Road with large crowds and busy traffic, the cinema cheaters were offering their first shows at 6:15 or 6:30. Despite the general orientation of this section of Mount Road toward European culture, film exhibitors were also eager to include Indians among their clientele. Accordingly, cinema shows on Mount Road attracted a more ''Report on •n Inquiry into the F•mily Budgets of Industrial Workers in Hadr•s City, (Madras: Government Press, 1938) . 82

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mixed audience of both Europeans and Indians than the earlier European traveling entertainment companies or their Indian counterparts had done. Describing the appeal of the cinema across the social, cultural and racial divides of colonial India one observer in 1913 put it this way, ~The cinematograph speaks its own language easily understandable by everybody, and there is little doubt, therefore, the picture palaces will draw both Europeans and Indians just as they do in Calcutta, Bombay, Rangoon and Madras. ,,so

This would seem to support

Sivathamby's claims that in south India the cinema acted as a "social equalizer," in that film theaters were the first performance centers in which all classes sat under the same roof.

He argues that the seating for cinema shows was a

radical departure for popular forms of entertainment in that it was not based on the hierarchical position of the patron, but on the individual's purchasing power. 51

While it is

important to recognize that film exhibitors in Madras brought people together in new ways, I would not go as far as Sivathamby in saying that cinema audiences were "socially equalized," that social differences somehow disappeared in the darkness ~f cinema halls. 5

°w. Exley, "The Bioscope in India," 1913): 191.

Bio!Scope ( 17



Kartigesu Sivathamby, The Tamil Film as a Medium 0£ Political Communication (Madras: New Century Bookhouse, 1981), 18. 83

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Far from understanding film audiences as an undifferentiated mass, the film exhibitors in Madras had very specific notions about the social composition of their local markets which could, in part, be calculated by how their audiences filled up the theater space.

During these

early years of permanent cinema entertainment, exhibitors developed a working theory about their audiences in the course of running the establishment.

This was primarily an

economic class-based taxonomy and sociology of local film audiences which was both informed by and worked out in terms of ticket rates and seating classes. The early film exhibitors in Madras organized their audiences according to hierarchical seating classes within the cinema hall.

The highest priced admission tickets

started at the top in the balconies or at the back of the theater, descending to the front with a decline in the quality of seats, and on down to the floor directly below the screen.

Once film exhibitors settled in permanent

theaters they expanded their accommodations for the highest ticket classes with spacious box seats, well padded and upholstered furniture and more fans. During the course of the 1910s one way that the film exhibitors of Mount Road made efforts to expand their clientele beyond the limited and more wealthy European audiences was by broadening the range of admission rates offered at their theaters.

As the first of the Mount Road 84

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permanent cinema halls, the Empire offered a relatively narrow range of three ticket classes, which at the rates of two rupees, one rupee and eight annas were higher in price than those Mrs. Klug had offered several years earlier. However, with the second of the Mount Road theaters, the management of the Electric widened the range of ticket prices to five classes starting with box seats for three rupees, then stalls for two rupees and one rupee, and benches in the pit went for eight annas and four annas. Compared to the Empire, the Electric extended accommodations at both the high and low ends of their seating classes, making their entertainment available to a diverse range of social classes. By the time the Elphinstone moved into the Lyric in late 1914, running in direct competition with the Electric, both theaters added an extremely inexpensive two anna ticket class, which would have made it possible for Indians of modest means to afford an evening's entertainment. Adjustment of admission rates towards the less expensive seating classes was one indication of the shifting market and class basis of cinema audiences.

Through the course of

the 1910s, especially as competition increased, the film exhibitors of Mount Road discovered that while the highclass tickets brought wealthy and prestigious patronage, they did not return as much revenue as the far more numerous lower class seats which always drew good crowds. 85

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In addition to economic categories, the exhibitor's working sociology of local film audiences also recognized social categories as relevant to constituting film audiences.

They offered special Christian theme films with

extra showings on Sundays, made "Special arrangements" for Indian women, provided screened boxes for -zenana Ladies" and offered free admission for children aged 15 and under accompanied by an adult.

In many ways these exhibitors

continued the same kind of promotional work that earlier touring exhibitors had started in singling out certain audience segments, especially Christians, women, children, families and students.

Despite these strategies of social

inclusion aimed at catering to increasingly diversified film audiences, permanent exhibitors who only worked out of Mount Road outlets were confined within the limits of their locality.

Even though the picture palaces of Mount Road

continued at the top end of all cinema exhibition in south India for most of this century, the vast potential of the trade lay beyond this privileged location .

Iadian f'ila


berond llount aoacl

The placement of new cinema outlets within the different neighborhoods of Madras beyond Mount Road helped to turn the market decisively toward Indian clientele. 86

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film exhibitors moved out into new neighborhoods exhibition became linked to new localities and new audiences within the city.

More than the various marketing strategies aimed at

cultivating Indian audiences at Mount Road theaters (discussed above), the establishment of theaters by Indians in Indian localities for Indian audiences pushed the film trade in new directions and toward new possibilities for constituting audiences. Four years after Klug's Bioscope ran for over five months in Georgetown, Venkiah was the next exhibitor to take film exhibition into the heart of an Indian neighborhood in Madras.

After having successfully launched the Gaiety

Theatre on Mount Road in 1914, Venkiah chose Georgetown for his second permanent cinema hall, known as the Crown Theatre, explicitly in order "to cater to the Public living in the north of Hadras.H 52

A far cry from the posh setting

of Mount Road, the Crown was located on Mint Street at the north edge of Georgetown situated across from the "Seven Wells" water works, near the city's wood depot, just south of a large "native" burial ground, within a warehouse (godown) district and nearby to iron foundries, cement works and the textile mills of Choolai and Perumbur.


acquired a plot of land adjoining the entrance to the Government Press which had previously been used as a stand ~2Tamil

Nadu Archives, Judicial, G.O. no. 1616-17, 23 June



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for hiring hand and ox carts and contracting coolie labor used in the transport of goods. 53

The Crown opened in July

1916 as the first cinema hall in Madras to be constructed outside of the Mount Road area specifically intended for Indian audiences. After the Crown was finished, Venkiah wasted no time in expanding his position in the Madras exhibition business by building his third cinema hall.

In late 1917 or early 1918

Venkiah opened The Globe Theatre (later known as the Roxy) at Purasuwalkum Road in Vepery which followed Georgetown and Triplicane in terms of population density.

The neighborhood

was mostly known for being the principle residential quarter for Anglo-Indians in Madras as well as being home to a number of prominent Christian schools, colleges, organizations and churches.

The Globe Theater operated as a

neighborhood theater almost exclusively associated. with the Anglo-Indian community.

For many years the Globe served as

something like a social club where Anglo-Indians met on Saturdays and Sundays for films, music, dancing and social drinking. The trend toward Indian cinema halls continued in the early 1920s with all the new cinema theaters in Madras coming up in the Indian neighborhoods away from the Mount Road.

After the Crown Theatre several more cinema halls

were established in Georgetown during the 1920s. 53

The second

Tamil Nadu Archives, Judicial, G.O. no. 1297, 18 May 1916. 88

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theater in the neighborhood was the Cinema Majestic in, what had been known as, the Grand Theatre close to the Crown on St. Xavier's Street. 54

Similar to the attendance at the

Crown, the Majestic (seating 700) was said to have done steady business in attracting primarily Hindu audiences for their film shows. 55

Next came the Liberty Cinema in the

Lakshmi Theatre at Cenkaam Bazaar which catered almost exclusively to Georgetown's Muslim population. 56 The other Indian neighborhood to attract exhibitors in the early 1920s was Triplicane, which had the highest concentration of the city's Indian residents after Georgetown.

First, the Imperial Cinema operated for a short

time on Triplicane High Road, to be followed by the Cinema Popular (which later became the Star) • 57

Both attracted

audiences from the Indian wage earning and laboring classes. The manager for the Cinema Popular estimated that 901 of the income of his cinema was derived from the lowest classes of


The street location was provided by an advertisement in the Tamjl newspaper, Sa,•de~amitran (Madras), daily edition, 29 December 1923. 55

Narayanan, Evidence of the Indian Cinem•tograph Committee, 1921-1928 [hereafter ICC Evidence), vol. 3 (New Delhi: Government of India Press), 295. A.


6The location of the theater was cited in, Swade.s,1mitran (Madras), daily edition, 1 December 1924. 57

See, Sa,ade.s,1111itr•n (Madras), daily edition, 11 November

1924. 89

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admission (the 2 and 4 annas ticketsi which attracted the poorer classes. 51 By 1928 Madras film exhibitors identified locality as the main determinant of audience composition at any given cinema theater .

In a later chapter, I will return to this

issue of locality to show how, based on the different local clienteles in the neighborhoods of Madras, each cinema theater adopted a settled policy and film program which was supposed to correspond to the tastes of their audiences.


cin■■ e

iA th• cliatricta

In 1916 a government official reported that Meven outside of the Presidency towns cinema theatres in India are fairly numerous and conducted with considerable initiative." 59

This quotation refers to the, at the time,

recent spread of the cinema from its initial sites in the main colonial cities of British India to new areas.


the mid 1910s the first wave of exhibitors brought cinema to cities in the mofussil, or countryside throughout colonial India. In this way early film exhibitors also extended the

As reported by A. Narayanan who eventually became an important silent and Tamil film-maker, but owned and operated the Cinema Popular during 1924-2S. In ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 280-295. 51


Tami l Nadu Archives, Judicial, G.O. no. 121S, 10 May 1916.


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cinema in the south to new Indian audiences in other urban centers than Madras city. It is difficult to generalize about the attendance at these early provincial cinema theaters.

Certainly more

research is needed to better elaborate the multiple and significant differences for each theater according to its regional, city and neighborhood locations, as well as its ownership, management, marketing strategies, theater space, music and film programs.

The following section should be

read as the beginnings of such an account.

I suggest how

the geographic spread of film exhibitions beyond Madras city created new institutions, conditions and patterns of film going through the south. After the permanent exhibition trade had been established in Madras city, film exhibitors next moved on to the provincial cities of Madras Presidency and new possibilities for constituting Indian audiences from about 1915.

Through the 1920s, these permanent theaters in

provincial cities were still relatively few in number and widely scattered.

However, this movement into the districts

greatly expanded the cinema's conditions of availability in south India by creating new centers, though on a smaller scale than in Madras city, for the entertainment. In Madras Presidency the first permanent cinema theaters to open outside of Madras were primarily in the district headquarters towns.

In the Tamil districts of the


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eresidency, permanent theaters opened in most of the important district towns between 1915 and 1920.

The initial

spread of permanent cinema theaters was encouraged by the recent public availability of electricity in a few industrial centers, such as Coimbatore, Salem, Tiruppur and Madurai (if local electric supply was not available, exhibitors were burdened with the added expenses of an oil generator).

In January 1915,


Vincent, a successful

touring exhibitor, opened one of the first permanent theaters outside of Madras city in Coimbatore, which was known as the Variety Cinema Hall (seating 800 in 1921 and 1200 in 1928).

Permanent cinema halls were soon established

in other provincial cities: the Oriental was opened in Salem, the Diamond Palace in Tiruppur, the Imperial Cinema House in Madurai, the Empire Cinema was in Trichinopoly for a couple years during the early 1920s, and the Kamatchi Amba Cinema in Tanjore.'0

By 1921 the number of permanent

cinemas in the Madras Presidency had risen to 14 with half in Madras city and half in the other important urban centers. 61

~Tamil Nadu Archives, Law OepartJDent (Gen), G.O., no. 804, 24 March 1922. 61 The

Report of the Indian Cineiutograph Committee, 19271928 (hereafter ICC Report), (New Delhi: Government of India Press), 179. Also, Bangalore, located in the neighboring Mnative staten of Mysore, became an important city for cinema entertainment. The Bangalore cantonment had its first theater, the Royal Opera House, by 1917 and in Bangalore city, the Theatre Majestic opened by 1920. See, K. V. Acharya, Film Producer, The 92

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While Indian exhibitors from other regions were some of the first to invest in permanent theaters in Madras, this was not the case for the other cities in the south.


first permanent cinema halls outside of Madras city were started by south Indian exhibitors, some of the more successful of whom went on in the 1920 and 1930s to start small theater chains, not generally exceeding five or six 1n total. As had been the case in Madras city, the cities in the districts of the south were generally not on the European entertainment circuit.

When exhibitors moved away from the

cosmopolitan Presidency town of Madras, they introduced the cinema into considerably different entertainment contexts •


The first cinema theaters in these provincial cities were not specially built for the purpose of screening films. Rather, exhibitors rented already existing theater spaces which had originally been built variously to host commercial dramas or to serve as "public town halls"'2 primarily used for meetings, functions, drama productions and at least in one instance a library as well.

The first permanent cinema

theater in Madurai was located in the city's public hall, known as the Victoria Edward Hall (seating 400) which was a high class venue used by Europeans and Indians alike.


Mysore Pictures Corporation, Bangalore in ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 392-393. '2

A. Narayanan as cited in the


Evidence, vol. 3, 243.


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hall was permanently contracted out to several different exhibitors during the 1920s while part of the building was retained by the city for its public library. During the 1920s virtually all growth in the permanent exhibition trade of south India took place outside of Madras city in important mofussil towns which had not previously had any access to the cinema.

Between 1921 and 1928 the

number of permanent cinemas in Madras city only rose from 7 to 9 .

Comparatively, during this same period in the rest of

the eresidency permanent cinemas dramatically increased from 7

to about 40. 63

The majority of the growth in the volume

of film-going was decidedly in the direction of the provinces. Until the 1930s the district headquarters throughout Madras eresidency usually had the most important and, perhaps, the only cinema theaters within the entire district.

These provincial cities and important towns acted

as regional centers drawing people from the surrounding areas for commerce, shopping and official business.

As it

was in Madras city, a trip to one of these provincial cities was also an occasion to visit a cinema show.

In Coimbatore,

a cinema-going regular explained, ~Even villagers come to 3

There were discrepancies in the exact figures for permanent theaters outside of Madras city which varied according to their source. Film distributors estimated a total of 41 permanent theaters excluding Madras city while Government sources figured the number at 34. However, the Indian Cinematograph Committee guessed that the distributor's list was probably more accurate. ICC Report, 179. 94 '

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attend it after paying considerable cartage and railway fare.

Those who come on court business invariably avail

themselves." 64

If one could afford it, going to see the

cinema was part of what one did on a trip to the city. These centers drew a considerable floating population who came and went on a daily basis mostly for work or to sell goods. In the 1920s almost every town in the south of 30,000 or more in population had at least one permanent cinema theater, and even a few smaller towns also had theaters : The second largest city in Madras Presidency, Madurai with a population of 139,000 already had three small cinema halls by 1928.

Not only was Madurai the headquarters for a

district, but also an important center in south India for textile production, educational institutions, Hindu pilgrimage and festivals, Christian missionary activities and for marketing agricultural goods supplied by the surrounding areas.

All three of Madurai's theaters were

centrally located in the heart of the city.

Both the

Imperial Cinema (seating 500) on East Avani Moola Street and the City Cinema (seating 600) on South Masi Street were located in dense, congested business districts and along crowded thoroughfares close to the Meenakshi Temple at the city's geographic center.

Managed by P. Ratnavelu Pillai


Abdur Rahim CB.A., L.T.), District Educational Officer, Coimbatore District, as cited in ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 171. 95

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the City Cinema occupied a small theater space, known as Ratna Hall, which had formerly been used for staging Indian professional drama companies.

The Victoria Edward Hall

(seating 400), which in 1928 was contracted out to T. Kadir Hussain, was located across from several important hotels, both European and Indian, and next to the South Indian Railway station.

With three permanent cinema theaters in

the city, Madurai had, after Madras, more cinema halls than any other city in the Presidency except Mangalore, also with three.

However, since Madurai's theaters were relatively

smaller, the cinema was relatively less available and reached fewer people than almost every other city in the !?residency. Given the fact that the European and Anglo-Indian population was negligible everywhere except Madras city, virtually all early exhibitors in the districts catered to predominantly Indian audiences from their localities. Except for Madras city, a couple of hill stations and military cantonments there was not a significant concentration Europeans living in the south to support more than occasional or seasonal touring commercial entertainment.

Outside of the Mount Road location of Madras

city there were only cinema theaters which catered to Europeans.

By the mid 1920s there were three seasonal

cinema halls in the Nilgiri mountains.

The first, known as

the Assembly Rooms Cinema, was located in Ootacamund (Ootyl 96

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which was the largest hill station in south India.


second was the Bedford Cinema in nearby Coonoor. These two cinemas catered to European missionaries, government families and military personnel on holiday escaping the summer heat of the plains and did not operate for five or six months out of the year.

The third seasonal theater, the

Regimental Cinema, was run by the 'lMCA for the British Regiment when stationed at the headquarters of the Southern Brigade in Wellington next to Coonoor. 65

The other

concentration of European cinema halls in the south was in Bangalore Cantonment where there were by 1928 as many as three theaters catering to British military personnel and Anglo-Indians.

luropean v•. Z~dian cirnse theater•

Within a ten year period up to 1920, urban permanent theaters displaced touring shows, European exhibitors gave way to Indians and the entire cinema trade in the south reoriented from mostly European to the vast potential of Indian audiences.

At a time before Indian silent films were

available, Indian exhibitors created a distinct, new class of cinema theater in the Indian neighborhoods of Madras and 65

Tamil Nadu Archives, Law (Gen), G.O. no. 666, 23 February

1928. 97

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in the Presidency.

These early Indian cinema theaters

created a space for the cinema culturally distinct from European cinema theaters and shaped cinema entertainment experience specifically for Indian film audiences. The differences between Western and Indian theaters were pronounced enough for the Indian Cinematograph Committee in 1928 to consider them as constituting a fundamental distinction in the cinema trade in India.


distinction in exhibition outlets was based upon the racial and class hierarchies of the colonial social order. European cinema theaters catered to Europeans, Anglo-Indians and educated Indians whereas Indian theaters drew exclusively Indian audiences.

The segregation between the

two kinds of theaters was such that there was very little overlap in patronage and virtually no competition between the two kinds of theaters. In the words of an Indian exhibitor, • -· their audiences are so different that they do not effect each other's attendance."''

This corresponds

with the fact that Indian theaters in the Madras neighborhoods and in the district headquarters tended to offer lower admission rates (sometimes as low as 1 anna for a seat on the. floor at the front) than did the "European" and high class picture palaces.

The lower rates undoubtedly

better matched the generally lower incomes of their Indian clientele.


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v. Acharya,



Evidence, vol. 3, 398 . 98

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There were also differences of infrastructure. Put simply, European theaters tended to be in larger, more grand halls and were better furnished with upholstered seats, electric fans, toilet facilities, and the like.


theaters generally fared badly in comparison to the European picture palaces which even Indian exhibitors condemned as mostly, "Poorly constructed theaters, ill-ventilated and badly equipped showing bad conditioned films." 67


to the European cinemas with all their gestures toward highclass and refined theater space, Indian cinema theaters were considered to be second class cinema establishments by both the European and Indian elite classes alike. Exhibitors who catered to Indian audiences were presented with a range of problems which were not shared by the exhibitors at European cinema halls.

In providing films

for Indian audiences, exhibitors had to bridge the gap between culturally foreign, western films and their Indian audiences.

In order to deal with these problems exhibitors

in south India appropriated and institutionalized the cinema in culturally specific ways using Indian music, performance styles and languages to help mediate and translate western silent cinema for Indian audiences. Considering that until 1920 Indian exhibitors in the south had no choice but to screen films from the west, one ''K. v. Acharya, silent film producer, The Mysore Pictures Corporation and exhibitor as cited in the ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 384.


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of the main ways they inflected their shows for Indian audiences was by offering Indian music, mostly instrumental but some vocal, to accompany the film shows.


exhibition practice was being used throughout India, though the musical arrangements and songs would have, at least to some extent, varied regionally.

Indian cinema halls

typically hired Indian musicians who in the south, as with most of India, used primarily two main instrW!lents, harmonium and tabla.

In addition to these two staples, the

musical accompaniment might also include violin, cymbals (jalra) and other percussion instruments, which when put together approached something like a small orchestra. Indian musicians adapted and interpreted their repertoire of mostly drama and folk songs to suit the tempo and action of the silent film in such a way as to create a musical attraction which at times upstaged the film shows. In contrast, European theaters provided western music played primarily on piano and violin, but also more elaborately, by a small orchestra."

The music of European

cinema halls in India was described, on the basis of secondhand reports in a British cinema trade journal, as consisting of "the very best compositions of to-day and of the masters," played by "excellent orchestras of competent 58 For

a brief discussion of the music which accompanied silent films in India, see Bhaskar Chandavarkar, "Sound in a Silent Era,n Cinema Vision India, vol. l, no. 1 (January 1980): 117-119. 100

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musiciansH who were led by music directors with "a keen sense of synchronization and sympathetic accompaniment.u 69 The music at Indian cinema halls did not conform to these standards, but was performed in their own culturally distinct ways and places. Within the theater space, the physical location of musicians differed between Western and Indian cinema theaters.

Following the stage tradition of company dramas,

the musicians in Indian theaters were usually positioned prominently on stage next the screen.

In this way

exhibitors foregrounded the place of music in relation to the images on the screen.

In contrast at European theaters

musicians and orchestras was less visibly prominent and tended to be located less conspicuously in a pit beneath the stage or off to the side.

Music was expected to be soft and

in the background and definitely should not usurp the viewers attention away from the films. Reflecting on the cultural differences between European and Indian cinema halls, a representative of the AngloIndian Association of Madras claimed that Europeans and Anglo-Indians did not attend Indian cinema theaters chiefly because they found the Indian music which accompanied the


A regular contributor to the music section, J. Morton Hutchinson, "Music in Cinemas in the East,u Bioscope (21 October 1920) .


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films to be "horrible." 70

Elite, English-educated Indians

were equally critical of the music at Indian theaters.


Devasankar Aiyar, an amateur cinematographer, prescribed, " ... a piano or similar soft music" instead of what was offered at Indian theaters.

He even suggested that restrictions be

placed on exhibition: "The dinning noise of Indi an cymbals (jalra) or loud and harsh drums or the shrieking fiddle must be prohibited- Noise and shrill tones interfere with the following of the story on the screen."7 i

Despite these

criticisms, Indian music at Indian cinema halls continued to be an integral part of how exhibitors presented their entertainment and an important part of how Indian film audiences related to the cinema. The atmosphere during a performance and the behavior of the patrons at early Indian theaters were markedly different from their European counterparts.

At Indian theaters

vendors were usually allowed to circulate inside the hall during film screenings hawking their goods, such as biscuits, lemons, peanuts and drinks, all the while shouting and providing a constant side attraction.

Talking was

reported to be very common throughout the course of the film entertainment at Indian theaters as those who could read the subtitles explained the story to those seated around them. ~0 aeverend


A. Kobson as cited in the ICC Evidence, vol.

3 , 354. 11


Evidence, vol . 3, 339.


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Even the consumable goods which were sold at theaters to go along with watching films were culturally marked for either Europeans or Indians.

Paan and beedis sold briskly at

Indian cinema halls, while alcoholic drinks, cigarettes and cigars were staples at the European cinema theaters. Predominantly, cinema halls which catered to elite and European audiences were the only ones which provided a bar for serving European style alcoholic beverages. 72 In general, the levels of noise, talking, commotion and the spitting of betel leaves during film shows at Indian theaters were often cited as offensive by Europeans and elite Indians.

At European theaters there were other

expectations of how to spectators were to behave.


was to remain seated and silent except during intervals when the audience was able to move freely and make use of the facilities and, in most cases, the open air food concession and a bar located outside in the compound surrounding the hall.

All this suggests that the shows at Indian cinema

halls were more lively affairs with plenty of crowd distractions, louder and more prominent music, and an active audience less focused on the filffl!I than at the higher-class European cinema halls. Even though film exhibitors were able to use music, performance styles and the theater space to help frame and mediate western silent films for their India audiences, '


ICC Report,



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there were still significant cultural and linguistic gaps between the films and their Indian audiences.

With the vase

majority of available films only having subtitles in English, exhibitors generally had little choice but to screen films in which had inter-titles written languages that local audiences could not read.

In order co improve

the intelligibility of the film, many exhibitors at Indian theaters resorted to a variety of practices to help their audiences follow film stories.

Some cinema hall managers

printed pamphlets, notices, hand-bills and books in the vernacular languages of south India which worked as both advertisement and explanation of the film plot.


exhibitors produced slides with explanatory titles which were projected along with the screening of serial episodes. In some theaters, in addition to playing their instruments musicians were asked to help narrate the story, add voices and supply other sound effects to help audiences get more out of the experience of the entertainment. 73

Still other

exhibitors employed someone to explain on stage as the films were screened. 74 It seems that more than in Madras city, exhibitors in the provincial cities used to employ someone who was variously referred to as "lecturer," "demonstrator" or '


Chandavarkar, "Sound in a Silent Era," 118.


See A. Venkatarama Iyer (B.A., B.L.) as cited in the ICC Evidence, vol. 5, 240.


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"commentator" to narrate the story of the film as it was screened.

One description of this practice from Ellore in

the northern part of the Presidency explained, There is always a man standing there and explaining about the story. He is a very clever fellow. He knows all about the story. As soon as one scene is on, he explains the whole thing in Telugu because everyone cannot read what is on the film. 75 He stands throughout, he is a lecturer. The practice also seems to have been common in Madurai's two exclusively Indian theaters, the Imperial and the City Cinema. 76

During the 1920s the use of narrators was

scattered, but widespread in Indian theaters outside of Madras where the majority of audiences would mainly know Tamil or Telugu, but Kanada and Malayalam as well.


different exhibitors must have experimented with this form of vernacular voice-over until the conversion to sound in the 1930s eventually rendered this practice obsolete. European cinemas halls were eventually left behind in the further development of the exhibition trade in south India relegated to only a few locations and high class theaters.

By the 1920s south Indian exhibitors clearly

realized that the future of their trade lay in the patronage of Indian audiences.

Throughout the decade, exhibitors used

,sM. Ramachandra Rao (8.A., 8.L.), High Court Vakil, ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 250.

~'c. s. Chellappa, interview by author, Madurai, Tamil Nadu,

November 1992.


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various methods of presentation in order to encourage their local audiences' understanding and enjoyment of the entertainment.

Using music, flyers, lecturers and other

devices, film exhibitors exerted an editorial control over the films as part of their effort to mediate and adapt the entertainment for local conditions.


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Anxiety and ambivalence characterized the colonial engagement with early cinema in India.

Beginning in the

l9l0s the Government of India grew increasingly concerned about their ability to manage and mediate the popularity and spread of silent cinema.

Colonial officials were both

uncertain about the effects of cinema viewing on their subject population and juridically unprepared to regulate the growing film trade.

Yet, despite the confusions and

limitations of the colonial state's power to regulate the new media, early government policies nonetheless produced a set of standards which helped to shape the public institutions of cinema in south India. I address the ongoing processes of how the government in south India defined and constituted its power in relation to the cinema during the 1910s and 1920s.

I discuss a series


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of episodes- a failed dance performance, the construction of a cinema hall, the personal efforts of the Madras Government's Electrical Inspector and the enforcement of cinema regulations- to suggest a range of variable ways through which official anxieties led to the development of government regulations on the cinema.

I, thus, follow the

colonial government's changing engagement with the cinema in south India during the 1910s and 1920s.

The first official

response to the cinema was implemented by local authorities in Madras city (1913), then extended to cover most of Madras Presidency (1915) and finally encompassed by all-India legislation (1920). In the span of one decade, the Government of India worked out a basic policy on the cinema which established theater licensing and film censorship as the two primary means of control over the commercial entertainment.


censorship emerged in 1920 as an official means of controlling the content of cinema representations in colonial India, the early government responses defined their power over the entertainment in spatial terms with the point of control at the sites of cinema exhibition.

The first

government actions on the cinema were based on earlier colonial legislation regarding "places of public resort"' and drama, which helped to locate their interventions at the buildings and sites of cinema theaters, at the physical spaces used to gather audiences around the new entertainment. 108

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Focusing on public exhibition spaces, authorities in Madras sought to protect the physical safety of film audiences as well as to control the ideological effects of the cinema's content.

That is, the colonial government's concerns about

morally or politically offensive cinema representations were also addressed at the public spaces where audiences engaged with films. This initial spatial orientation of official power was eventually modified when censorship moved beyond being just a matter of local authoritt at theaters to become the all-India task of regional censor boards.

In the 1920s censorship

eclipsed the regulation of theater space as the more important, contested and discussed mode of regulation. For critics in both colonial and Independent India, film censorship has been an important and persistent problem throughout this century which has been subject to a great deal of scholarly attention.

However, the topic of

censorship has dominated historical accounts of the government's relationship to the cinema in India to the point that the spatial definitions and aspects of official power over the entertainment have been for the most part ignored. Even the most complete historical accounts of both the colonial and independent Indian government's efforts to control the cinema barely mentions anything about their interventions at the public spaces and institutions of film


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exhibition or the system of licensing cinema theaters.·' Likewise, in S. T. Baskaran's otherwise worthy account of government policies on silent cinema in south India, official intervention is portrayed as being merely a matter of censorship. 2

In part this lacuna can be explained as part of

the general historiographic privileging of film production, texts, content and star personalities to the exclusion of the conditions, contexts and institutions within which film-goers have had access and engaged with the cinema.

However, in

focusing on the early government efforts to control the· cinema through regulation of exhibition spaces and practices, I want to recast the discussions about the relationship between the colonial state and the cinema in India. In addition to restoring the sense of place in the history of colonial efforts to control the cinema, I also question the changing relations of power between local, Presidency and central government authorities and the growth of silent cinema in the south.

During the first decades of

this century government officials in India only had a tenuous and provisional control over the cinema, despite their ongoing efforts to further rationalize and extend their power.

The relations power of the colonial state over silent

cinema in India worked to simultaneously restrict and 1

See Aruna Vasudev, Liberty and License in the Indian CineJll4, (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1978).

=see The Message Bearers: The Nationalist Politics and the Entertainment Hedi• in South India, lBB0-1945 (Madras: ere-A:, 1981), 127-150.


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prohibit, while also facilitating and shaping the growth of the public institutions of film exhibtion in south India.

Licenainq the apace• o~ the ~i~zz~· Govei-1zs:nt regul.ationa be~or• 1918

During the early 1910s before there were any laws regulating the cinema in India, the first official attempts to control the cinema wece based on already existing legislation.

The most important precedents in framing early

cinema regulations were colonial rules governing "places of public resortw and dramatic performances and on British cinema laws which had only been devised a few years earlier. Using these tools, local authorities in the city of Madras, who were the first to assume responsibility for policing film shows in south India, attempted to apply older established legal means to fit the perceived new needs of regulating the cinema at the site of the theater. The Public Performances Act of 1876 provided an already existing model for the Madras Government to deal with the threat of morally and politically undesirable entertainment. The 1876 Act was mostly aimed at prohibiting what the government considered to be seditious drama performances, that is, those likely to excite feelings of discontent with British colonial rule.

The law required managers or 111

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promoters of a "place of public resort or amusementu to notify the local police authority about any planned drama performance.

Though the Madras Government was empowered to

ban any performance it saw fit, in practice, it did not use its powers to stop dramas until the 1919 agitation against the Rowlatt Act . 3 The British Cinematograph Act of 1909 established an example throughout colonial India of how to deal with the new entertainment as a threat to public safety.

The Act

empowered local authorities in England to issue licenses for buildings where "pictures or other optical effectsu were exhibited on the basis of whether they conformed to certain safety criteria.

The explicit concern motivating this Act

was that the inflammable nitrate film stock used at cinema halls presented a special risk of fire and was, thus, a public safety hazard. 4

With no mention of any ideological or

moral problems with the content of film shows, this first legislative effort in Britain defined the public problem of the cinema strictly in spatial terms and located it in specific buildings of public entertainment. In addition to the issues of public safety at cinema theaters, there were other concerns guiding the early regulation of the cinema in Madras. 3

In the Indian colonial

See Baskaran, Message Bearers, 21-42.

•see Annette Kuhn, Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality, 19091925 (London : Routledge, 19881, 114-125; also, Rachael Low, The History of the British Filla, 1906-1914 (London: George Allen, Unwin, 1949), 58-61. 112

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setting, government officials from the outset explicitly worried about the potentially harmful effects of films on public morality and the continuation of colonial rule.


first attempt to control cinema exhibit i on in the south was not aimed at protecting the physical safety of audiences so much as their moral safety. The Government of India prompted the Provincial government's to take action to regulate the performances at cinema halls in response to the announced India tour of Hiss Maud Allen, a British ballet dancer known for her sexually suggestive style.

The Secretary of State for the Government

of India initially tried to dissuade Allen from undertaking the tour.

Upon Allen's refusal to cancel, the Secretary of

State issued a circular to the provincial governments warning of her arrival and suggesting that appropriate local action be taken to prevent her performances.

The directive

explained, somewhat circuitously, that, " ... the objections to performances in this country by a white woman of her dramatic reputation, with dances of the type that have been associated with her name, are obvious." 5

The Government was concerned

that this indecent performance would reflect poorly on the moral of British people as a whole and, in so doing, damage the authority of colonial British rule in


Madu Archives, Judicial, G.O. no . 2335 , 18 November 1913; also see Baskaran, Message Bearers, 128-129.


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Conceived as a threat to British prestige, colonial

officials acted out their duty to protect and, in this case, police the virtue of white women as represented on screen against what they perceived as the lustful desire and gaze of Indian men in the audiences.' In Madras, Maud Allen was to perform at the Lyric Theatre which 0. E. 0. Cohen had just recently obtained from Misquith (see chapter three).

At that time Cohen was also

closely involved with Allen's tour in working as a promoter who "booked and directed" Allen's performances in "South India, Ceylon, Burma and the East. " 1

The plan was that Maud

Allen and the Cherniavsky music trio of brothers, advertised as "The Most Powerful Attraction in the History of India," were to inaugurate the new ownership and management of the Lyric Theatre as well as open the Christmas performance season. 9

The Presidency government was alerted to the threat

of this performance about one month in advance and charged with the duty of protecting the central government's conception of public morality.

In turn the Madras government

'For a wider discussion of these issues, see Poona.m Arora, "·Imperiling the Prestige of the White Woman:' Colonial Anxiety and Film Censorship in British India,• Visual Anthropology Review, vol. ll, no. 2 (Fall 1995): 36-50, 'since the revolt in 1857 the sexual threat to white women in India figured as a major trope in the colonial discourse justifying the continuation of the British civilizing mission. see Jenny Sharpe, Allegories of Empire: The Figure of Jiolun in the Colonial Text (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993). 'Madras Times, 1

December 1913


Hadras Times, 3 December 1913. 114

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further delegated the administrative problem of how to prevent the event from happening to Municipal officials of Madras.

Allen's performance at the Lyric was considered to

be a matter of local jurisdiction . Allen's performance presented new juridical problems for the Madras city officials .

They were doubtful about

whether the existing rules on drama performances and places of public resort would apply to a dance performance in a cinema hall .

Did they have any legal authority to prevent a

non-dramatic performance at cinema theaters or otherwise? raced with Allen's impending arrival, Madras city officials made sure that they had a legal basis to prohibit her performance.

In addressing this perceived threat to public

morality, the government introduced measures to assert control over the content of all performances at places of film exhibition.

The city government added a provision to

the Public Resort Act of 1888 to include cinema shows: "No cinematograph exhibition shall be held without special sanction of the Commissioner of Police... The licensee shall furnish the Commissioner of Police with full information of any performance at least seven days beforehand.- 10


though the explicit purpose was to stop Maud Allen from performing, police authorities in Madras city also gained new powers over performances held in the public spaces of cinema exhibition. •



Tamil Nadu Archives, Judicial, G. O. no. 2335, 18 November 115

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With this move the Government created police jurisdiction for approving the material to be performed at film shows, whether live or celluloid, which was similar to what had been established for public dramas and songs.


Commissioner had the power to prohibit any performance in the city which in his judgment did not conform to the


. ' requirements of decency or was likely to lead to disorder.·· This meant the Commissioner of Police was institutionalized

as the local authority over film shows with de facto power of censorship, a position which was later formalized in the creation of regional film censor boards by 1920 and was even retained after Independence. In the end Maud Allen never performed in Madras due to a well publicized injury and city officials never had to exercise their newly created powers to ban the show.

It is

ironic that threat of a live performance at a cinema hall without any accompanying film program was the occasion which prompted the government to initiate its first steps in a long history of regulating the spaces cinema.

There is no

indication that Cohen had planned to screen any films in conjunction with Maud Allen's dance performance in Madras. The first government moves to control the cinema were based on the reputation of a woman dancer who never performed in Madras.

Nonetheless, the dancer's non-incident established

government precedent in Madras city which defined official


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power over the space of cinema theaters and what could be performed in that public place which served as the basis for creating regulations for the rest of the Presidency.

The aUZTei.llance o~ th• ciczce

The failed Maud Allen event encouraged government officials in the south I~dia, at least sporadically, to consider ways of expanding its power to regulate and control cinema shows.

However, the next action on the issue of

regulating the cinema, however, was not a centrally organized and collective government initiative.

Before specific

regulations were drafted for the cinema in all of colonial India, local authorities in Madras acted on their own initiative to control the public spaces of the entertainment. The Electrical Inspector for the Public Works Department of Madras Presidency, E. J. 8. Greenwood, took it upon himself to monitor the growing cinema trade in the south. In 1915, Greenwood personally appealed to the Madras Government to extend the rules of the Indian Electricity Act of 1910 and the Places of Public Resort Act, 1888, to make it necessary for all film exhibitors to obtain a certification of electrical safety in order to run cinema shows.


proposed that "a special set of rules based on those already 117

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worked for Madras cit·y be extended for the rest of the Presidency."

The Madras government implemented the plan

before any action had been taken by the Government of India. LZ This move in the name of electrical safety constituted the first attempt by the provincial government to exert control over cinema shows, both touring and permanent, through necessary compliance with electrical codes, inspections and licensing.

Almost five years before the

first official board of film censorship in Madras, the government assigned the Electrical Inspector to keep track of exhibition activities throughout the Presidency.

Under this

plan Greenwood inspected a cinema theater for a fee of 64 rupees and issued a certificate which was presented to the Chairman of Municipal Councils and Sub-divisional Magistrates who issued licenses for cinema shows within their areas.


owner or manager of each touring cinema was also responsible for informing the District Magistrate at least seven days in advance of every time a relocation was proposed. Greenwood assumed direct responsibility and evinced a personal interest in inspecting all cinemas, both permanent and touring, operating in the Presidency.

In this capacity,

he acquired a great deal of first-hand experience relating to the conditions of cinema exhibition.

In the 1910s the number

of cinema outlets in the Presidency were few enough that •=Tamil Nadu Archives, Judicial, G.O. no. 1348, 16

June 191S.


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Greenwood was able to look after the matter personally. !n fact, Greenwood attended to all matters of public safety, broadly conceived, at all film exhibitions in the Presidency, including exits, ventilation, electric installation, fire appliances, the strength of balconies and staircases, storage of films, minimizing eye strain, and certifying that the age of the operator was over 21.

From the mid 1910s through the

mid 1930s Greenwood acted in a capacity which went well beyond being just an electrical inspector. Greenwood did not stop with an inspection of the material conditions of exhibition, but also concerned himself with moral and political issues raised by the exhibition of objectionable films.

This move from inspecting theater

safety conditions to identifying the harmful moral and political effects of film contents was consistent with Greenwood's conceptions of his duties to implement controls over cinema exhibition.

Greenwood used his expertise and

involvement with film exhibitions to advise the Government on all dangers, physical or mental, posed to film audiences. for example, in 1921 Greenwood wrote a letter to the Madras Government which proposed his own set of criteria for determining unsuitable films.

With a clear acknowledgment of

the current political climate, he suggested that films "-· dealing with inflammatory matters as Gandhi doctrines, religious feelings of the Hohamedans, and universally condemned scenes of inchastity or immorality,• were 119

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particularly dangerous, hinting at a different kind of fire hazard. 13 Greenwood's overall concerns about the cinema were indicative of the colonial government's difficulties in sorting out the issues of what the cinema was potentially capable of doing to its audiences.

While the officials

clearly recognized that cinema could be both physically and morally harmful to the public, as I have already argued, they initially found it more practical to deal with the moral threat through the regulation of the theater spaces.


the Government of India stepped in to regularize and institute central controls in 1918, the regulation of the sites of exhibition in Madras Presidency was left as a matter of Greenwood's personal involvement in the task.

In the

absence of clear, officially mandated guidelines, Greenwood took pride in applying his own strict standards for protecting the physical and moral safety of the film-going public.

For a time Greenwood constituted himself under the

power of the colonial state as the representative authority on the cinema in Madras Presidency.

Cont:.eatia9 the place o~ tb• eia1s2 ill Madr••


Letter no. 29 (Confidential) in Tamil Nadu Archives, Law (Gen), G.O. no. 804, 24 March 1922. 120

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While the Madras government's regulations concerning cinema shows were still in their early years, there was general confusion about official authority and powers to control cinema exhibition.

Madras officials tested the

limits of their powers in trying to intervene to stop the construction of an Indian cinema hall in Georgetown during 1916.

Once again, a cinema building itself became the site

for defining the Madras Government's new powers to control che cinema. The cinema hall in question was the Crown Theatre, the second of R. Venkiah's three Madras theaters.

As discussed

in an earlier chapter, the site for the theater had previously been a hand cart stand which was located on Mint Street next to an alley used as the entrance to the Government Press and across from the Government Stores Depot. for Venkiah this plot of land and its surrounding Georgetown neighborhood opened possibilities to cater to new Indian film audiences in Madras city. Venkiah drew up the plans for constructing the hall in October 1915, obtained a building license by the beginning of November and began construction of the Crown Theatre in Oecember. 14

The plan was more functional and less ornate

compared with the most recent picture palaces on Mount Road neighborhood which catered to more affluent and European audiences.

The hall was to measure 140 feet in length and SO

aTamil Nadu Archives, Judicial, G.O. no . 1297, 18 Hay 1916. 121

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feet in width and was to accommodate up to 1,200 on the flat floor without a balcony.

However, before the project could

be completed Venkiah ran into resistance from the British authorities in Madras. Some highly placed British officials in the Government of Madras Presidency and in the Municipal Corporation worked together to stop the cinema theater before it was finished. After five months of construction the Commissioner of Police warned Venkiah in early May 1916 to discontinue the theater. The exact motives behind this move are not clear but the official charge was that the new cinema was located too close (60 yards) to the Government's Medical Stores Depot which, in 1916, was producing medical dressings for the war effort. The stated fear was that a cinema hall represented a serious fire hazard due to the arc light used in projection thus threatening the medical dressings ~which would be irreplaceable at the time of war and are very urgent for the Expeditionary Force in Mesopotamia." 15 This official excuse for halting the theater construction proved to be rather thin.

When the Madras

government asked the British Military authorities to intervene under the Defense of India Rules, they declined because they were not themselves concerned enough with the safety risk posed by a cinema theater to their bandages. When the Madras Government could not get the military to go


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along in preventing the completion of the theater, they sent the Electrical Inspector, E. J. 8. Greenwood, to check the construction.

However, Greenwood also failed to find any

fault, certifying the theater to be up to electrical standard and presenting only a small risk of fire spreading from the building.

The theater had been built using the latest fire-

proofing methods: a zinc and iron trestle roof covered with corrugated iron, brick walls and a concrete floor.

The only

wood in the building was used for the doors and windows. 16 The Government's position was further complicated by the fact that Venkiah had originally been granted a building permit without objections.

Clearly, the stated war effort and

public safety could not have been the government's only .

concerns, since they continued their ban and searched for other legal means to enforce it, even after their original complaints had been dismissed. Venkiah, for his part, contested the ban on his building the Crown and hired a lawyer to represent his case and help pressure the Government on his behalf.


wanted to know why had the Government waited through five months of construction before raising its objections, if the danger posed by a cinema was so great.

Further, Venkiah was

anxious not to lose the substantial investment for the construction of the theater which he claimed was close to one lakh (100,000) rupees.


He estimated that for every day that

uTamil Nadu Archives, Judicial, G.O. nos. 1616-17, 23 June 123

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the theater was delayed he would lose something close to 400 rupees in profits from ticket sales. Rather than the expressed anxiety about possible fire hazard, one can speculate that there were other anxieties at work as well.

The idea of crowds of Indian working class men

gathering for film shows in close proximity to important government institutions, clearly had Madras officials worried, but, again, they did not seem to know what to do about it.

Beyond the official excuse about the bandages

which in any case proved to be hollow, the government was either unable or unwilling to state why the presence of the Crown theater was so objectionable.

Still searching for a

legal basis to enforce the ban on the theater the government even considered appropriating the site under the Land Acquisition Act.

However, on further legal advice, the

Government finally capitulated three months after halting the construction and decided not to take further action to prevent the completion of the theater.

Venkiah finished the

theater and was open for business within one month. We may never know why some members of the Government objected so persistently to the Crown Theatre, but it seems likely that there was much more than a concern for public safety at work.

It may not have been an accident that this

was the first cinema hall which explicitly was designed to cater to Indian audiences in Madras, and that none of the previously constructed cinema theaters on Mount Road had been 124

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More than just its physical space, the Crown

Theater represented a new kind of social space in this predominately Indian neighborhood of north Madras which would involve new patterns of social traffic and congregation.

'1'he rauonaliaation o~


Publi.c ■deq and aorali.q

at th•


for almost a decade the Government of India had left the regulation of the cinema to local authorities, who patched together whatever administrative means they had at their disposal.

The result was that the existing laws

relating to the cinema were "scattered over various Provincial Police Acts and Municipal Acts. " 17

Not only was

there a great deal of variability, but also confusion and ineffectiveness in what local governments were doing about preventing the exhibition of undesirable films.

One official

at the time observed, " ... the existing law on the subject was for the most part framed long before the cinematograph was dreamt of and is altogether inadequate to deal with film which may be objectionable.w 1•

The Government of India came

to recognize that the cinema represented a new kind of ~Report of the Indian Cinematograph Committee, 1927-1928 (hereafter ICC Report] (New Delhi: Government of India Press, 1928), 105 . 1


Council Debate, S September 1917. Vasudev, Liberty and License, 11. 125

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problem of scale which necessitated a set of regulations designed specifically for coping with the cinema. By 1917 the Government of India clearly believed that the power of the cinema lay in its ability to propagate ideas, to shape the consciousness of its audiences.


by Britain during the first world war, the Government of India experimented with the possibilities of using films as propaganda for encouraging cooperation with the war effort. In the short term very little came out of this initiative except a flurry of government circular memoranda alerting local officials to both the dangers of enemy film propaganda and the new possibilities of screening films which helped educate and explain the purposes of the war to Indians. 19


nothing else was accomplished from these propaganda efforts, it indicated an official recognition of the potentially vast powers of the medium to reach and shape public consciousness which were significant enough to warrant government action in the matter. In 1918 the Government of India made its first significant legislative intervention covering the cinema. The Government of India drafted the Indian Cinematograph Act of 1918 based on two main objectives for the control of the cinema: to insure the safety of film audiences and to prevent the exhibition of objectionable films.

These objectives were

Philip Wood.5, "Fil~ Propaganda in India, 1914-23," Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol. 15, no. 4, 1'See

( l 995) : 54 3-553.


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to be realized through the separate administrative strategies of licensing theaters and film censorship.

Similar to what

was already in place in the Madras Presidency, no cinema exhibitor could operate in any public place without first obtaining a license granted by the District Magistrate or by the Commissioner of Police in the Presidency towns. 20


earlier lice.1sing system in place since 1915 was carried over into the new legislation, but with the addition of regionally centralized film censorship, the moral qualifications of films were to be decided in advance as a matter of colonial policy. In the years before this legislation, the government had learnt through practical experience that control of the multiple sites of exhibition was not sufficient for preventing undesirable films from being screened.


response to this perceived deficiency, the government introduced state censorship as a separate strategy for controlling film content.

While earlier government efforts

focused on the sites of exhibition and struggled to keep up with their proliferation, censorship addressed the problem of the cinema in a very different manner.

Earlier controls over

cinema were implemented spatially across the entire Presidency at specific theater locations, censorship seemed to offer a centralized means of controlling the supply of films before they went out for exhibition.

Censorship held

=0 rcc Report, 105. 127

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the promise of offeri~g a solution for all of colonial India to what had previously been delimited as a regional and local problem at theater spaces.

Through this means the government

hoped to standardize the regulation of film content from above and to impose a standard a moral code for the cinema. Censorship judged cinematic representations on the basis of a presumed position of normative public morality. The institutions of censorship abstracted films from their conditions of circulation to judge their potential me~tal effects on their audiences according to a changing set of moral and political concerns .

Censorship was designed

specifically to control the cinema's power to shape, adversely and on a mass scale, the consciousness of its audiences.

Yet, the work of censorship was done from the

isolated comfort of a darkened room in a government bungalow where police and officials met with a few elite and representative leading citizens. The Indian Cinematograph Act of 1918 empowered the Provincial Governments to form Boards of Censors in order to examine and grant or deny certification for films as suitable for public exhibition.

No film was to be exhibited unless it

had received~ certificate of approval from one of the regional Board of Censors at Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Rangoon and then later in the Punjab.

To insure a fair

representation of all public interests on the Board it was required that no more than half its members could be in 128

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government service.

In practice the final authority was

exercised by the Commissioner of Police in the Presidency towns who served as President of the Censor Boards.

Most of

the early work of film censorship took place in the cities where imported films entered the country, which meant that the Censor Board in Bombay and to a lesser extent in Calcutta handled the vast majority of films in the 1920s. Though set up to operate independently and with a completely different moral and political agenda, the censorship of films could not be entirely separated from the contexts of their exhibition.

Though acts of censorship were

done centrally by government officials, police, and leading citizens in the regional centers, this work was far removed from its enforcement on the ground at cinema theaters. Censorship could not be effective if there was no way to make sure that exhibitor screened approved films .

Cinema theater

managers were required to send a copy of their entertainment program in advance to be scrutinized by an Inspector of Police who was then responsible for determining whether each film had proper censorship certificate numbers.

Every film

which passed through a Board of Censors came with an accompanying certificate (which was later spliced to the beginning of the films) with a registration number.


certificates were cross-checked with the lists of censored films regularly published in government gazetteers. Greenwood put it simply, "If you cannot show the number, the 129

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film is obviously unproved. " 21

In order to prove censorship,

the certificate had to be shown to someone, usually police, who represented the authority of the state in the matter of regulating film exhibitions at the site of the cinema hall. As for the matter of whether approved films were the only ones actually screened in theaters, the situation was less certain.

The Government was well aware of the fact

that censorship process could easily be eluded by exhibitors who used smuggled film prints.

The establishment of

censorship immediately created a black-market for films which would not have been passed by the regional Boards.


extent of this illicit trade of smuggled films was relatively small and mostly limited to erotic entertainment at private screenings, but seemed both significant and vague enough to worry government officials in the early 1920s. 22


films could easily be screened since the local authorities were not always present at every public exhibition. In 1921 a committee of publicity advisors warned the Madras Government of a small but highly profitable market for indecent films in south India:

"At present these films are

smuggled in clandestinely frOtll France and South America and


Evidence of the Indian Cinematograph Committee, 1927-1928 (hereafter ICC Evidence) (New Delhi: Government of India Press, 19281 vol. 3, 46. ==ey 1928 the Indian Cinematograph Committee dismissed this problem as unfounded at public exhibitions and efficiently prevented by existing censorship channels. See the ICC Report, 134.


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are believed to fetch a very high price. " 23

Greenwood echoed

this concern, but added that more than any other mode of exhibition, touring cinemas were the ones likely to screen uncensored, smuggled and undesirable films. 24

As government

officials episodically constituted the cinema as an object of regulations, they constantly confronted the limits of their own power to control its alleged effects.

While censorship

appeared to offer a centralized mode of power over the ideological content of films before their distribution, the .

circulation of these films to diverse audiences at multiple and dispersed sites of film exhibition always exceeded the bounds of direct government control. Greenwood, as on anything related to the cinema in south India, had very strong opinions about the enforcement of the censorship at the point of exhibition: I say there is no definite machinery for seeing whether films exhibited are approved or unproved- The police may amble in or not. It is nobody's duty in the mofussil at the opening night of a film to see to this (check the certificate]. 25 Film shows in remote areas presented obvious limitations in the government's surveillance of licensed theaters, but those in the urban ~enters of south India were more vigilantly 23

From a confidential letter from the Advisory Publicity Coanittee located in Tamil Nadu Archives, Law (Gen), G.O. no . 1237, 12 May 1922. :cTamil Nadu Archives, Law (Gen), G.O. no. 804, 24 March 1922. 131

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followed by local authorities.

In Madras city the

Commissioner of Police employed three inspectors, "a Muhammadan, a Brahmin and a non-BrahmanH who were regularly sent to film theaters, on the basis of whether a film was being screened that related to their community's interests or religious feelings. 2'

It is highly unlikely that exhibitors

screened uncensored films at Madras cinema halls which maintained prominent public profiles with newspaper advertising, posters and handbill~.

Moreover, police seem to

have frequently attended Madras silent film shows on their own and for their own ends. Police throughout the south used their positions of authority to go beyond their official duties in regard to enforcing censorship at their local cinema halls.

The police

presence at cinema theaters seems to have been more often related to their interests in taking in the show for their own purposes rather than as a representative of the colonial state.

Exhibitors found it difficult to refuse the police

any number of free passes which were used more for their own enjoyment.

Greenwood speculated about police attendance at

cinemas: "I think they go there more for amusement than in an official sense. It is not their definite object to see whether a film has been passed or not passed; whether it is approved film or not.

They may get there late or early, just

=1oral evidence from the Madras Board of Film Censors in the

ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 75.


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as they please." 27

Local police may have been the fooc

soldiers of the government's cinema policy, but they atcended their duties with widely variable interests which undoubtedly included their own amusement.

Clearly, the enforcement of

film censorship was contingent on the vigilance of local authorities.

Despite shifting the process of making

censorship decisions to an all-India level, police were still necessary at local cinema theaters to enforce the licensing system, insure compliance with cinema building safety regulations and check the certifications of censorship on the films screened.


Touring cia

•• aad tb• t tet ta o~ o~~icial auziNil.lance

Even though the Madras Government broadened its powers to control film exhibitions throughout the Presidency, they continually confronted the limits of their abilities to monitor and control the events of film exhibition.

More than

any other mode of exhibition touring cinemas presented special problems for government licensing and surveillance. From the 1910s permanent and touring cinemas developed in tandem as the two main aspects of the same commercial 2

~ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 48. 133

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exhibition business in south India.

Both kinds of cinema

outlet were separated and related through a division of exhibition practices worked out in terms of different locations, levels of capital investment, film programs, and audiences.

Though touring exhibitions were the rule before

1910, the trend toward large, capital intensive, permanent cinema outlets in the 1910s (discussed in chapter three) displaced touring cinema companies from the best urban locations and appropriated the more affluent classes which touring cinemas had been able to attract during their early years in Madras.

Compared to the up-scale permanent picture

palaces, touring cinemas struggled as low budget, small scale operations, catering to rural and poorer audiences.


all this, there was a high rate of failure among touring cinemas.

Itinerant exhibitors were a humble lot who traveled

in remote areas, often by means of bullock carts with their own projector, tents, benches and chairs.

Almost everything

about touring cinemas put them in a class below permanent cinema establishments.

The range of ticket prices at touring

cinemas was about half that offered at permanent theaters. Starting as low as one anna for a space on the floor or ground at the front closest to the screen and going as high as one rupee for a chair at the back, the norm for tickets at touring cinemas was two to four annas for a bench seat. 21

~•E. J. B. Greenwood as cited in ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 48.


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Permanent theaters and touring cinemas also had different ways of acquiring a supply of films and accordingly offered a markedly different quality of film programs. Through the 1920s the touring cinemas conformed to the earlier pattern of exhibition (before the system of renting prints from film distributors was established), where independent exhibitors purchased their own supply of mostly second-hand film prints from other exhibitors or film importers.

Even after permanent theaters had switched

completely to film rentals, touring cinema operators were said to be distrustful of film distributors and the practice of renting films.

In any case a regular supply of films

would have been difficult to secure while touring outside all _ but the largest cities.

Touring cinemas were at the end of

the film chain and could only afford to purchase films which were the least expensive, of the worst picture quality and had already done the rounds at the urban, permanent outlets. While picture palaces established the cinema in the urban centers once and for all, touring cinemas worked on the margins of the growing film trade in south India where there were no permanent cinema outlets.

They provided film

entertainment in rural areas and on the outskirts of larger towns to audiences relatively removed, if not completely cut off, from the cosmopolitan life in Madras city.

In this way

touring cinemas remained on the frontier of the exhibition trade as they sought out new markets for motion picture shows 135

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where none had gone before.

Quite apart from the large

picture palaces of the urban centers, the touring cinemas in ~emporary accommodations created their own modes of exhibition and cinema going. The Government was especially concerned about its ability to control these touring cinemas, because, as they reasoned, any temporary or mobile cinemas were, by their transitory nature, inherently difficult to control.


exhibition exacerbated existent anxieties about the porous limits of government regulation and hence was considered uniquely dangerous. 29

From the mid 1910s the Madras

Government was well aware and increasingly concerned about the fact that touring cinemas were "not uncommon" in the districts of Madras Presidency. 30

When the Government

extended the rules regulating cinematograph shows which had been worked out for the city of Madras to the rest of the Presidency, they included both permanent and touring cinemas under their new licensing requirements. 31

Permanent theaters

were issued licenses for a particular building only, while touring had to obtain a license for every district within which they operated .

29 E.

J. B. Greenwood as cited in Tamil Nadu Archives, Law (Gen), G.O. no. 2063, 23 August 1922.

J . B. Greenwood as cited in Tamil Nadu Archives, Judicial, G.O. no. 1348, 16 June 1915. 30 E.


Ibid. 136

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The licensing system for touring cinemas had the unintended effect of limiting their movements within small number of districts in Madras Presidency.

Since the licenses

originally issued to touring cinema companies by District Magistrates were good for a period of one year within each district, it was much easier, less expensive and more convenient for exhibitors to confine their movements to districts for which they already had acquired a yearly license.

By 1917 the results of this policy were already

obvious to government officials who discerned patterns in the geographic distribution of touring cinemas.

They found an

uneven distribution with the majority of touring cinema companies confining their movements to only a few districts while avoiding others altogether. 32 After the implementation of the system of touring cinema licensing in 1915, the Government was able to quantify and monitor the movements of these cinemas for the first time with information provided by the local licensing authorities and the electrical inspector for the Presidency.

As a result

of these initial licensing efforts, the Electrical Inspector was able to estimate in 1917 that there were 17 touring

32 Tami.l

Nadu Archives, Judicial, G.O. no. 132, 18 January 1917. Another reason for the localized movements of touring cinemas was that in the 1910s and 1920s these companies mostly concentrated on the districts without any permanent cinema theaters, such as TiMelvelly, Ramnad, North Arcot, and Tanjore. See, Tamil Nadu Archives, Law (Gen), G.O. no 1545, 29 September 1921. 137

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cinema companies operating throughout the Presidency. 33


Madras Government, especially through the efforts of Greenwood, became much more knowledgeable about the local conditions of exhibition at touring cinemas than had previously been the case.

Yet, despite these new measures,

better surveillance and more knowledge of touring cinemas, government officials were still skeptical about their abilities to control their entertainment content as well as follow their movements.

The more the Madras Government

involved themselves with regulating touring cinemas the more they realized the problems, limitations and uncertainties of this endeavor. Greenwood reported to the Government of Madras that because traveling cinema shows in the rural areas usually moved on after a few days to a maximum stay of two months, it was possible for them to move quickly through the Presidency while escaping the notice of the Government.

In 1917

Greenwood admitted that he "could not make long sudden tours to catch one or two traveling shows, so that in genera l these cinema shows are sucject to little technical control." 34 Even if Greenwood could have kept up with these movements , touring cinema tended to change their film programs daily making it practically impossible to monitor the content of


Nadu Archives, Judicial G.O . no . 132, 18 January

1917. 34

Ibid . 138

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these exhibitions with anything less than constant surveillance. In addition to these difficulties, the Government also recognized there were a number of holes in their legal authority to control touring cinemas.

First of all, the

electrical codes first used to regulate the public safety of cinema shows did not apply to exhibitors who used lime light. When the rules had been drawn up for Madras city, electricity had already supplanted lime light as the norm for cinema illumination and no rules had been written to regulate its use.

This was especially a problem for controlling

touring shows since in 1915 Greenwood estimated that touring cinemas outside of Madras city usually used lime light. 15


an exhibitor used limelight for illuminating their projectors, then certification of electrical safety was not necessary and, thus, such shows escaped Greenwood's personal attention.

Also, there were a few places in the Presidency

that the Place of Public Resort Act 1888 did not apply and officials had no legal authority to license or regulate cinemas shows.

In some areas such as Tirunelveli, Tuticorin

and Nilakottai, touring cinemas seem to have gone unlicensed before the Cinematograph Act of 1918 was implemented. 36


of the problems outlined above were addressed with the implementation of the Cinematograph Act of 1918 which applied 35

Tamil Nadu Archives, Judicial, G.O. no. 1348, 16 June 1915.


Nadu Archives, Judicial, G.O. no. 132, 18 January



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uniformly to all cinema shows throughout British India, no matter what illumination was used. d.:i.-ri.•ion of exhib"tioo practiae•

As colonial officials struggled to establish and define the state's power over the multiple and diverse sites of film exhibition in south India, they unwittingly helped to institutionalize an official two-tier distinction of exhibition practices.

Apart from the issues of film

censorship, the Cinematograph Act of 1918 also established regulations to protect the physical safety of audiences as a matter of licensing cinema theaters.

However, in so doing

they instituted an official division between the two modes of exhibition, which framed a separate set of rules for the operation of permanent and touring cinema outlets.


amounted to not only an official recognition of the vastly different material conditions within which cinema exhibitors operated, but also the official institutionalization of a two tiered hierarchy of modes, places and practices of exhibition.

The Government measures for regulating the

cinema theaters defined a set of differences between permanent and touring cinemas which had the effect of privileging certain exhibition practices while discouraging others. 140

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The Cinematograph Act of 1918 elaborated detailed safety regulations for cinema shows in permanent buildings which mandated certain standards for fire proof construction materials, sanitary conditions, ventilation and exits.


Act stipulated that permanent theaters be constructed out of more expensive fire resistant materials, such as iron, brick and cement.

However, touring cinemas which operated out of

temporary structures (first tents and then later thatched halls) were not held accountable for the same building safety requirements. Greenwood himself justified the differential treatment of permanent and touring cinemas: traveling cinema using a tent does not require the careful examination and approval that a cinema working in a building requires. The tent is always the same, it must be pitched in an open space and there are never any difficulties as to exits or proximity37of fire spreading to neighboring houses. A

Greenwood made this assertion based on the assumption that touring exhi bitor usually used tents or temporary thatched sheds located in open areas on the outskirts of towns with no residential quarters near by.

Touring cinemas with their

tents or other temporary structures were an easier, less expensive means of extending or entering the exhibition business.

In legislating the disparity of standards between

touring and permanent, the government helped to officially



Tamil Nadu Archives, Law (Gen), G. O. no . 466, 27·




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institute touring cinemas as both less prestigious and more profitable. The other important distinction recognized in this legislation was that touring cinemas moved from place to place while permanent theaters were fixed to a specific locality.

The Government used the length of stay at one

venue to define the exhibition category of touring cinemas. The Act dictated a somewhat arbitrary frequency of movement which defined the distinction between the two kinds of exhibition.

In order to qualify under the rules for touring

cinemas, exhibitors were required to move from a location after three months.

Local authorities only issued licenses

to touring cinemas for a maximum of three months in one location.

By defining and enforcing exhibition as either

permanent or touring, these regulations placed the Government in the middle of increasing competitive tensions and struggles between these modes of exhibition and figured centrally in both sides claims and counter-claims about the Government's supposed preferential treatment of the other. 31 Officials followed touring cinema operators in order to make certain that a film show using a temporary structure could not be covertly turned into a permanent establishment disguised as a touring outlet to avoid the more strict building codes.

In offering touring cinemas concessions on

safety requirements, the government did not want to give an see, "Penianent Theatre vs. Touring Cinemas," (April 1949) . 142 l1

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unfair competitive advantage to their exhibitors over other exhibitors who had invested large amo~nts of capital in permanent facilities.

The three month rule put government

regulation in the middle of an ongoing competition within the exhibition trade for the best locations with the highest collections which has been carefully legislated ever since. The Cinematograph Act also created some new and unintended administrative problems in trying to enforce the distinction between touring cinemas and permanent theaters. Exhibition situations did not always conform to the Government's definitions.

Just as they had done in Madras

city ten years earlier, many touring cinema companies used already existing theaters for their film shows. 39


once touring cinema companies did so, they became subject to government regulations similar to those in effect for permanent cinema theater buildings.

In so far as touring

cinemas performed at permanent buildings, they fit the official category of a "place of public resort," and required an examination to certify its suitability for the purpose of hosting a film show: In addition to this older requirement, the touring cinemas also came under the Cinematograph Act of 1918 and 39 For

example, until the Kama~chi Amba Cinema started in

1921, Tanjore District had no permanent theaters, but listed three buildings which were used for film exhibitions, Alahambra Theatre (seating 500) in Tanjore, the Havelock Theatre Hall (seating 800) in Nagapattinam and the South Indian Railway Institute (seating 300) also in Nagapattinam. Tamil Nadu Archives, Law (Gen), G.O. no 1545, 29 September 1921. 143

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required another certification by Greenwood.

The result was

that exhibitors sometimes needed to obtain two separate licenses and pay two licensing fees for one engagement. 40 These cases presented problems in issuing l i censes in a timely manner which sometimes produced long delays before approval . ~1

Though the Government attempted to expedite

these licenses with the direct intervention of Greenwood, delays in obtaining official approval may well have discouraged touring companies from using such venues when using tents or thatched sheds presented fewer administrative delays and complications.

This probably contributed to the

fact that the practice of using already existing halls on a touring basis tended to decline throughout the 1920s. 42 The problems concerning the regulation of touring cinemas raised by Greenwood were registered in the collected evidence of the Indian Cinematograph Committee in 1928, but were not directly answered.

By that time the government was

more concerned with centralized film censorship, and touring cinemas seemed to be only a small and local factor in the comprehensive totality of the cinema in India as it was constituted by the Committee's investigation.

When compared

to permanent cinemas, touring cinemas represented a much 40

E. J . 8. Greenwood as cited in the

ICC Evidence,

vol. 3, p.

39 . '


Tamil Nadu Archives , Law (Gen), G.O . no. 466, 27 May 1921.

•~ See A. Venkatarama Iyer (B . A., Evidence, vol. 4, 241-243.

8 . L.),

as cited in the


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smaller proportion of all cinema outlets out of the total in all of British India.

Government sources figured that in

1927 there were about 350 (75%) permanent theaters as opposed

to only 116 (25\) touring cinemas. 43

In Madras Presidency

there were 16 touring cinema companies in 1917 and by 1928 that number had only gone up to 26. 44 The Indian Cinematograph Commit-tee found that, "The people in general of the mofissil places both small town and villages have absolutely no access to these [cinemas in the cities and important towns) in spite of a few moving cinema companies." 45

In their estimation the cinema in India was

still mostly exhibited at permanent theaters in urban areas and the impact of the medium "has yet scarcely touched the fringe of the rural population. " 46 The problems posed by touring cinema exhibition on the all India level may not have seemed significant, but the Government's regulations

pertaining to them helped to create a preferential system of licensing which touring cinema operators in the south eventually capitalized upon.

This officially brokered

division has significantly structured the development of the



ICC Report, 180-182.


Tamil Nadu Archives, Judicial G.O. no. 132, 18 January

R. Balakrishna Hudaliar, Acting Superintendent, School of Arts and Crafts, Madras as cited in the ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 230. ◄ !N.


ICC Report, 21. 145

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exhibition trade in south India to the benefit of touring exhibitors. Especially from the l930s, the rapid expansion of talkie films in south Indian languages, low operating costs, better electrical facilities and government regulatory concessions all helped touring cinemas emerge as an increasingly important part of the exhibition business in south India.

By the early l940s touring talkies, as they

were common known, were the fastest growing sector of the exhibition business and by the late l940s they had reached a position far more important and numerous than in any other part of India. 4'

In 1948 touring cinemas outnumbered

permanent outlets in the southern exhibition circuit (Madras, Mysore, Travancore-Cochin and Hyderabad) 743 (54\l co 630 (4611 . 48

Ten years later in Madras State alone

touring cinemas outnumbered permanent cinemas 706 (6711 to 355 (3311 • 49

Despite their temporary status and generally

smaller seating capacities, by the 1950s touring cinemas reached larger audiences in more places than any other mode of exhibition in south India.


B. o . Bharucha (President, Cinematograph Exhibitors Association of India), ~Exhibition Trade in India" in Handbook oE the Indian FilJA Industry (Bombay: The Motion Picture Society of India, 19491, 379 . 41

Report oE the Film Enquiry CoJ11112ittee, 1951 (New Delhi :

Government of India Press, 19521, 336. 49

Madras Film Diary, l 958


(Madras : Vi. Rama Rao E>ublisher,

958 l • 146

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As the cinema business established itself permanently ~n Madras, local authorities defined their policies around a cluster of confused, unfounded, yet seemingly urgent anxieties about the cinema.

Through the 1910s, local

authorities, police, district magistrates and a zealous electrical inspector worried about the physical safety of film audiences inside of theaters, the location of theaters and film crowds within certain neighborhoods, the alleged harmful effects of cinema content on public morality and the possible propagation of discontent with colonial rule. Officials variously mobilized these apprehensions in regulating the places of exhibition where audiences had access to cinematic entertainment. Changing government rules relating to exhibition and film censorship not only imposed limitations and standards on the cinema but also helped to produce and shape the basic conditions of the cinema's availability in south India. Following various episodes during the 1910s and 1920s, my narrative examined the ongoing government strategies to cope with the growth of the cinema in south India.

The colonial

state shifted the primary emphasis of its cinema


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interventions from the public spaces of exhibition to the representational politics of films. Despite Greenwood's concerns, the physical safety threat posed by cinema theaters became less of an issue for the Government throughout the 1920s.


it turned out there

were very few accidents at cinema theaters in south India. 50 They were much safer than officials had originally feared. In 1928 Greenwood claimed that since there had been no cinema-related fatalities during his entire 15 years of inspecting exhibition sites, "- the present standard of safety cannot be insufficient.# 51

This assertion can, in

part, be read as Greenwood congratulating himself, but also marks an important shift in the perceived danger of the cinema, especially coming from a man who had more than anyone else in the south been obsessed with the physical safety at cinema theaters. 52

By the late 1920s the government was

generally satisfied that the system of licensing cinema

'~The only mishap at a Madras cinema theater during the 1920s was reported at the Empire Theatre, an establishment which did not last much lllOre than one year between 1920 and 1921 on Wallajah Road near Mount Road at the site of the present day Paragon Theatre. On the night of S June 1921 there was a slight fire in a dustbin which was put out before anything serious could happen. From an unsigned letter to the editor, The Hindu (Madras), 21 June 1921. Sl ICC


vol. 3, 42.

szEven as early as 1921 Greenwood took personal credit for the fact that there had been no cinema fire or accident during his tenure administrating the public safety precautions at cinemas. See, Tamil Nadu Archives, Law (Gen), G. O. no. 1S4S, 29 September 1921. 148

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theaters worked well enough to protect the public safety of film-goers. As the problems of the physical safety of film audiences were resolved through the 1920s, the newly institutionalized work of film censorship dealt with the more pressing and fraught concerns posed by the mental effects of films.

With the creation of a state apparatus for the

censorship of film content, the government further strengthened its regulation of the cinema to better define and enforce the limits of public morality in relation to films.

Yet, even under the system of film censorship,

official intervention at the sites of film exhibition continued both in the licensing of theaters and in the enforcement of film censorship. I have focused on the spatial dimensions of early government engagements with the cinema in south India in order to restore a sense of place to our historical understandings of the relations of power between the colonial state and the cinema.

This is part of a larger project to

recast the history of the cinema in India to include not only films, but the emergent social institutions of exhibition, the growth of audiences and the conventions of film-going. Only in recognizing the historical articulation of colonial power and the cinema at the sites of exhibition can we begin to appreciate the material conditions and concrete situations which brought film texts together with Indian film audiences . 149

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Chapter three discussed the location and neighborhoods of cinema theaters in relation to emerging patterns of film patronage and the growth of film audiences in south India. While the cinema was still a relatively recent development during the 1910s and 1920s, exhibitors created new accessibility to the cinema by taking their film shows to new locations across south India, which in turn, led to the formation of habitual film-going practices associated with the public places of exhibition.

Even those outside the

cinema trade generally recognized the importance of locality in determining film attendance at cinema halls: "The composition of an audience mainly depends upon the locality in which cinemas are located." 1

However, once settled


S. Nataraja Pillai CB.A., 8.L.) Councilor for the Corporation of Madras and High Court Vakil, as cited in the Evidence of the Indian Cinematograph Collllllittee, 1921-1928 150

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within a particular neighborhood market, permanent exhibitors learned to maintain their local and regular clientele by establishing a standard film program. By the late 1910s exhibitors in south India were moving away from variety formats and adopting feature films as the

main focus of their entertainment.

Exhibitors used the

various emergent silent film genres and action serials as a means of drawing and sustaining particular audience segments.

Based on the different local markets in the

neighborhoods of Madras and in the districts, each cinema theater acquired a reputation for its own settled policy and film program.

Exhibitors drew on their own practical

experience and did their best, given the constraints of finance and availability, to match appropriate films to what they thought were the tastes of their regular audiences. Exhibitors used silent film genres in multiple and complex ways according to the local conditions of exhibition to help define, conceive, constitute and cultivate specific audiences in south India. This chapter deals with how exhibitors in south India correlated both Western and Indian silent film genres with specific audiences.

From the mid 1910s film genres became

an important means by which those in the cinema business [hereafter ICC Evidence) (New Delhi: Government of India Press, 1928), vol. 3, 190. 151

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conceived, calculated and to some extent contributed to the social differentiation within the market for their entertainment.

As the exhibition business grew throughout

the 1910s and 1920s, exhibitors developed a stereotyped hierarchy of film tastes, that is, a working theory how each film genre appealed to an increasing majority of Indian cinema-goers across a wide social geography of south India. Better than anyone else, film exhibitors understood that most film goers were discriminating and would not pay to see any film show merely because it was being screened.


addition to what cinema halls they regularly did or did not attend, film exhibitors knew that film-goers also carefully chose between their film options and kept up with the releases and first runs of new films. 2

Among those in the

film trade there was a surprising degree of consensus on the social hierarchy of film tastes, about how each film genre designated particular audiences, what classes saw what films and who bought what class of ticket. To understand how film exhibitors used film genres to appeal and attract different local audience segments, we must link the history of film production to the exhibition contexts where audiences engaged with the cinema.


purpose here is to situate the development of silent film ·' For example, see S. K. Vasagam in the ICC Evidence,

vol. 3, 317 .


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genres, first western film serials and feature films, and then the development of Indian film genres, as they relate and are related to film audiences in the context of their exhibition in south India .

This move is meant to shift the

analysis of film texts into the historically contingent and culturally specific locations, institutions and practices which mediated them to their audiences.

This chapter

follows the emerging patterns of silent film programs offered by cinema exhibitors in south India from their early reliance on imported films in the early 1910s through their increasing use of Indian films by the late 1920s . foreign ailent

fil ■•

for Indi•n audience•

Before Indian films reached the cinema theaters of Madras Presidency in the 1920s, south Indian audiences were fed an exclusive diet of film.s from abroad.

These early

films were basically the same as those which were being screened by other exhibitors world-over.

The films screened

at the Madras cinema theaters during the 1910s and 1920s were largely determined by the changing trends of film production in Europe and the United States.

As world cinema

production shifted away from the variety format of short 153

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attractions, and famous stage artists started to move into the field of cinema acting, multi-reel narrative feature films emerged as a new standard for cinema entertainment. 3 The early silent films exhibited in India were part of a world film market, yet as exhibitors screened these global entertainment commodities in local conditions, they addressed what they considered to be the tastes of audiences in south India. Before the First World War, the majority of films screened in Madras came from Europe with Pathe films leading all others. 4

The French company Pathe Frcres was the first

international film company to open offices in India and went on to dominate the early film import business.s

In 1913 a

United States Consul in Bombay wrote that Pathe Frcres had practically no competition in the local cinema market, " ·supplying mostly good quality second-hand film prints and a 3

Tom Gunning dates the transition between the cinema of attractions and that of narrative films in the United States between 1907 and 1913. See, "The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, its Spectator and the Avant-Garde," Wide Angle, vol. 8 (1986): 66. In Madras however, because of the time lag between film production abroad and its arrival at local theaters, this shift occurred a bit later during 1912-1915. 4

In addition to Pathe-Frcres, there were also a number of other, smaller, film importers and agents who offered films from Europe by Warwick, Lubin, Gaumont and Nordisk film production companies. See Oevasankar Aiyar, Amateur Cinematographer, Madras, dated December 1, 1927 in ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 338. sPanna Shah, The Indian Film (Bombay: The Motion Picture Society of India, 1950), 21. 154

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very popular weekly news gazette."'

Pathe-India was known

initially for supplying actuality films or short sketches about the "incidents of everyday life," but went on to specialize in multi-reel film dramas under the title of "Pa the Plays" in the early 1910s. 7

While Pa the-India

dominated the film trade in India during the early 1910s, their films were not the only ones in circulation.

On the

contrary, Pathe-India imported and sold films from other European production companies and, along with a growing number of other film dealers, helped bring silent films from all over the world to India. Even during this early period, the film trade in India began to inflect imported film entertainment for local conditions.

By 1910 Pathe-India already offered a series of

short films specifically marketed for Indian audiences, which were, no doubt, sold elsewhere in the world as travelogue scenes of far off, exotic places. Pathe-India advertised films with titles such as "Indian Home Life," "Rope Manufacturing at Howrah, Calcutta," "Women's Life in India," "Borders of the Ganges," "Agra," "Bombay," and 'Edward J. Norton (Consul, Bombay), United States Daily Consular and Trade Reports, no. 109 (10 Hay 1913): 726-727 . •

·somerset Playne, compiler, The Bombay Presidency, the United Provinces, the Punjab, etc.: Their history, people, commerce and natural resources, (London: The Foreign and Colonial Compiling and Publishing Co., 1917-20), 300.


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"Colombo." 8

These non-narrative actuality films of Indian

tourist sites, evderyday scenes and native crafts and manufacture probably constituted one of the earliest attempts at marketing films with Indian content to exhibitors in India in order to cater to Indian audiences. At the time these films circulated, the film exhibitors in the major colonial cities throughout India still relied on European venues, contexts and variety formats to project their entertainment for elite, educated and European audiences.

In this context, these films of "Indian

subjects" would, no doubt, have been of interest to resident Europeans, but Pathe also advertised them as being specifically strategic for attracting Indian audiences. This isolated yet significant experiment opened a new direction to cater to Indian audiences with familiar film images and scenes, but represented only a small part in the flood of foreign films which swamped the film markets in India for the next twenty years.

During the 1910s Indian

audiences in the south learned to enjoy and experience silent cinema watching films from foreign places.

'Madras Times, December



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The age of American

■ i1ent



The changing trends in world film production during the 1910s and 1920s set constraints of what Madras exhibitors could offer their local audiences.

During most of this

period, exhibitors in the south had little or no recourse but to use the supply and range of films which was available to them through the global traffic in films.

Just like

exhibitors the world-over, those in south India were heavily reliant on the film offerings of Hollywood.

From 1914

onwards when European film production was disrupted by the First World War, film companies in the United States attained a very strong position in the world cinema trade . Over a span of five years, 1914-1919, films from the United States completely took over the Indian film market.


in 1913 the estimated share of U.S. film imports in India was a mere 3.8%, by 1919 American films constituted 95% of India's film imports. Pathe continued their dominance of the Indian film market until the late 1910s by shifting their film production to the United States. Pathe-India also began to distribute fil~ for the U.S. producers, First National Pictures, which later merged into Warner Brothers and eventually during the same period became more of an importer 157

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of U.S. films than of European. 9

At the time when Hollywood

emerged as the center for production of the American film industry, the Universal Film Company led the way for other U.S. film companies by opening their first distribution offices in Bombay in 1916 and another in Calcutta in 1917. 10 During this early period of American ascendancy in world film trade, a new serialized format for action films emerged as an important and persistent trend in film production. 11

Serials consisted of a series of films with a

continuous story usually screened over the course of a few weeks or months.

During the 1910s and 1920s silent film

serials relied on an entertainment formula of fast-paced action and melodrama to build up a climax of suspense and anticipation which could bring audiences back for the next installment.

Film scholarship from Europe and the United

States routinely ignore or discount the significance of silent film serials as a low budget, unsophisticated, 9

From the testimony of Alex Hague, the manager and sole proprietor of Pathe-India for over twenty years in the ICC Evidence, vol. 1, 503. :oKristin Thompson, Exporting Er.tertainment: America in the World Film Market, 1907-1934 (Lo,1don: British Film Institute Publishing, 1985), 43, 48, 72, 144. 11

For what little scholarship there is on this largely ignored part of film history, see Kalton C. Lahue, Bound and Gagged: The Story of the Silent Serials (Cranbury, New Jersey: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1968; and Alan G. Barbour, Days of Thrills and Adventure, (London: The Macmillan Company, 1970). 158

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passing fad which lost popularity as film-goers tastes matured.

As an action genre, serial films continued for

children well into the sound period in western countries. Yet overall serial films fell into disfavor and compared poorly to the more successful feature film format which set the basic standard for the classical Hollywood cinema from the 1920s to the present. 12

However, in south India, action

serials played a relatively more important role in the early formation of film audiences. After a gap of two years from its release in the U.S. the first film serial, "What Ever Happened to Mary?" in 12 parts (Edison Company, 1912) arrived in Madras as a proven success and played twice within eight months at the Electric in April 1914 and again at the Elphinstone in December of the same year. 13

The Pathe film serials with Pearl White

produced in rapid succession from 1914 established this film genre as the most popular with all Indian audiences, except the educated elite.

Playing in Madras repeatedly from 1915,


For a comprehensive discussion of the historical ascendancy of the narrative feature film in the west, see David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style


Mode of Production

to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985). 11

This serial started as a tie-in with an already running series of adventure stories in a popular newspaper, McClure's Ladies World in the United States. See Alan Barbour, Cliffhanger, (New York: A, w, 1977), 15. For details about the serial's run in Madras, see The Hindu (Madras), 15 April 1914 and Madras Times, 12 December 1914. 159

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serials like the "Perils of Pauline" and the "Exploits of Elaine," both starring Pearl White, gained Pathe a reputation for film serials which "drew forth amazement as well as admiration from lovers of pictorial plays. " 14 By the late 1910s the Universal Film Company based in Hollywood took over as the world's leading producer of action serials.

From about 1917 these Universal serials

started to create a loyal following amongst Indian filmgoers in Madras.

Looking back on this phase of film

entertainment from the perspective of ten years, one Madras film enthusiast in 1928 singled out two particular Universal serials, "Lucille Love" and "Trey of Hearts," as constituting a turning point in history of film exhibition in south India.

On this account these films were the first

serials to catch the imagination of Indian audiences in Madras and to demonstrate to film exhibitors how, " ... a feverish interest could be aroused and sustained in the desire of the people for seeing a story continued on the screen for a number of weeks." 15

These serial films,

"visualizing all sorts of life, domestic, social, official and savage human emotions such as fear, jealousy, love,

14 1

Playne, Bombay Presidency, 300.

~5. Devasankar Aiyar, a self-described amateur

cinematographer who worked as a clerk for the Maharastra and Southern Railways, as cited in ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 338. 160

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tenderness for women._ full of quick action, quick thinking and thrilling deeds_. came to be the order of the day. " 16


seems that for many Indians in Madras silent film serials were the first films to inspire regular cinema-going habits. In south India exhibitors screened serial films according to a different pattern than was the habit in western countries .

In the U.S. and Britain one episode of a

film serial was exhibited per week along with other features so that one serial could be stretched out up to six months or more .

In contrast Indian exhibitors tended to screen

serial films as the featured attraction with as many as six episodes shown during every film show.

In this way serial

films in India were relatively condensed into much shorter engagements at each cinema hall than was the case in United States or Britain.

By exhibiting serials in this fashion

exhibitors in India offered a faster pacing of an already speeded-up action genre which, undoubtedly, helped to concentrate and intensify the experience of watching these films.

This exhibition pattern also speaks to the relative

importance accorded to film serials by exhibitors in south India.

The distinctive exhibition of silent film serials

reached greater prominence and status in India than in the


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west, where they were of more marginal importance and were eventually marketed exclusively to young audiences. In Madras starting in the late 1910s Venkiah's Gaiety Theatre (seating 885) gained a reputation for showing the

first run of all of the Universal serials with Eddie Polo's "The Lure of the Circus,• Elmo Lincoln's "Elmo the Mighty" and Francis Ford's "Broken Coin• being some of the most popular. 11

Once established this reputation for showing

action serials at the Gaiety was difficult to break.


Venkiah went bankrupt in 1924, the new management at the Gaiety tried unsuccessfully for a period to change the established policy of film programming at the theater from Hollywood serials to Indian films. 11

These attempted

changes disrupted the theater's regular clientele. Attendance dropped off to the point that, the theater lost revenue when screening Indian produced films because their box office take could not match the generally higher rental rates of Indian films. 19 ·••C. B. "Flash" Oevaraj, Indian Talkies Era: Silver Jubilee, (Madras: 1957), 11. 11

See the oral statement of F. H. Wilson, official assignee in charge of liquidating R. Venkiah's holdings after bankruptcy. He took over the Gaiety along with the Crown and the Globe in November 1924 and continued to run the Gaiety until leased it and then sold it the Madan's exhibition chain. In the ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 150-158. 1 ~.

A. Hayles, Representative, European Association, Madras as cited in the ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 274.


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The mistake made by the new ownership/management of the Gaiety Theatre was that the European area of their Mount Road location could not support or sustain steady attendance for screening Indian films.

In response to this the

management shifted their program back to a policy of exhibiting western films, both features and serials for about one year.

When the Gaiety was leased and sold to

Madan's theater chain in 1926, the stable film program at the theater switched back with great success to the older standard of action serials.

Even in an area with two or

three other theaters and despite changing ownership several times, the Gaiety developed a distinctive reputation by establishing a settled policy of serials during the late 1910s and early 1920s .

The other Mount Road picture palaces

also screened serials, but did so to a lesser extent and without earning the same kind of notoriety for screening serials as did the Gaiety. An Indian cinema theater in Madras also gained a

reputation for routinely screening serials from the mid 1920s- the Liberty Theater (seating 600), located in Georgetown.

Like the Gaiety, this theater also exhibited

all of the Universal serials, though mostly after their first run.

The audiences at the Liberty could expect a

standard program of American film serials.

According to the


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manager of the Kinema Central, another cinema hall in Georgetown, the Liberty was a "low class# theater which only drew a crowd when they screened "serials of the sensational type."

He claimed that the popularity of serials at this

theater was a function of the fact that "no decent people" would go to the theater.

Further, when Indian mythological

films came in the 1920s, they "-· did not pay nor attract on account of the locality,* when occasionally shown at the Liberty even though these same films did extremely well at most other theaters and at some nearby halls as well. 20 What this rival exhibitor failed to mention was that the primary audiences at the Liberty were predominately middle and lower class Muslims. N. R. Desai, the manager for the Universal Pictures film distribution office in Madras, who had also earlier worked at the Liberty, explained that at the Liberty, "Indian pictures do not pay.

Most of our patrons on that

side are Muhammadans and they do not care much for Indian pictures."21

As the supplier for the most popular film

serials in south, Desai was clearly aware of the fact that

Muslims were not part of the same Indian film market which had originally been constituted around the Hindu :os. K. Vasagam as cited in the ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 317.

:tree Evidence, vol. 3,



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mythological film genre.

For exhibitors in south India,

Hollywood film serials were proven throughout the silent period to be an enduring favorite at theaters with a majority of illiterate Muslim patrons. In relation to their own local conditions, film exhibitors in south India relied on serial films as proven standard formula for success.

Silent film serials were

initially instrumental in creating a sustained interest for watching films among both rich and poor Indians alike in the south.

The success of serials with Indian audiences in

south India was further reflected in the fact that the film serial stars were the first film personalities to be widely known and recognized by name.

At a time when there was

virtually no film journalism in Tamil, numerous publications about Eddie Polo and his serials were some of the very few items published in Tamil relating to the cinema from about 1919 until the early 1930s . 22

Even by 1928, after film

serials had lost much of their appeal in the west, one film distributor in Madras claimed that Pearl White and Eddie

•• ··see the Fort St. George G,1zette Supplement, Cat•logue

(Madras: Government Press, 1919-1930) for details on the various Eddie Polo publications in Tamil which ranged from serial story synopses, biographical sketches to folk songs in praise of his strength .

of Books


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Polo were still the most popular film stars in the south and commanded "universal appeal for all audiences". 23 During the period in the late 1910s when Madras exhibitors extended the cinema to include a majority of Indian audiences, silent film serials provided the first genre which could be specifically marketed to the widest possible Indian audiences.

For those born into the

generation between 1900 and 1915 in south India, serial films often provided their first experiences of the cinema. For example, C. S. Chellappa vividly remembered seeing his first film show sometime around 1920 at the age of seven in Tirunelveli where he saw six parts of a serial called "Elmo the Mighty" starring Elmo Lincoln accompanied by two short comic films. 24 Despite the success of serial films in south India, their popularity with Indian film audiences, especially amongst the elite and educated, was said to have waned throughout the 1920s in the urban areas. 25

However, serials


Thomas H. Huffton, sole proprietor of the Peninsula Film Service as cited in the ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 357. ~'Interviewed by author, Madurai, November 1992. Also for another account of film serials as forming the first experiences with the cinema in south India, see T. K. Canmukam, Enatu Nataka Vazhkka1, 3rd ed. (Madras: Vanati Patippakam, 1986). 5 ~

K. V. Acharya, film producer and owner of the Mysore Pictures Corporation and the Theatre Majestic, Bangalore as cited in the ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 383.


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continued on until the early 1930s in the districts and touring cinemas as the basic fare at most cinema shows outside of the first and second run theaters.

During this

period exhibitors increasingly considered serials to be a lower class of entertainment which appealed to poor, uneducated and young audiences.

According to exhibitors,

serials constituted a film genre whi ch was most suited for the majority of south Indians for whom multi-reel dramas and literary adaptations were too difficult to follow without prior knowledge of the story.

Serials had a pronounced plot

and fast paced actions which did not require reading complicated inter-titles in order to understand the films . In describing his own early experience with the cinema, T. K. Canmukam, a well-known Tamil dramatist, claimed that the general public (potumakkal) avidly followed film serials every week for a month and were able to fully understand the entire story. 26

For exhibitcrs in south India the visual

immediacy of serial film stories made this genre, more than any other, the most important for cultivating new lower class and illiterate Indian audiences and for selling cinema entertainment beyond the urban areas . Even though south Indian exhibitors generally associated serial films with this stereotyped lower classes



Enatu Nataka Vazhkkai,



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of audiences, the attendance at serial films was never limited to poorer and uneducated Indians.

In 1928, one

Madras exhibitor, A. Narayanan, explained that generally in Madras the crowd for serials consisted of 701 wage earners, 20\ middle-class and semi-literate and 101 rich and literate. 27 was that

Another factor working in favor of film serials

they were more readily available and were less

expensive for either outright purchase or rental.

As action

serials fell out of favor in the west and at the higher class theaters of India they became increasingly more affordable and available for Indian exhibitors when compared to the relatively small number of Indian silent films which enjoyed great demand and commanded high prices.


the smaller, poorer and touring exhibitors could not compete with their competitors at large and successful theaters for the relatively few Indian silent films in circulation.


action serials were by all accounts the most consistently popular film attraction offered by small-time and remote exhibitors into the early 1930s.

The enduring importance of

American silent film serials in south India began in the late 1910s when film exhibitors first used them to specifically cater to Indian audiences.

While action

serials were the first film genre which can be correlated

:'ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 284.


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with the rise of Indian cinema audiences in the south, they were, of course, only one of many different kinds of films throughout the 1920s which film exhibitors in south India had at their disposal.

Pila pnrea ~rca the - • t i n the picture palace• oE Hedr"'•

During the 1920s there were four large picture palaces in Madras, the Wellington, Elphinstone, Gaiety and the Globe.

These theaters primarily exhibited films imported

from the west and catered to Europeans, educated and rich Indians and Anglo-Indians.

The Mount Road neighborhood

continued to be known for its prestigious, high-class and European picture palaces.

While the Gaiety Theatre screened

serials, the Wellington Theatre and the Elphinstone Picture Palace were, perhaps, the grandest and most luxurious cinema halls in south India.

In addition to their setting on Mount

Road and their architectural opulence and elaborate decor, these cinema also tried to project a standard for high-class entertainment.

Even though Indian films were occasionally

screened at both the Wellington and Elphinstone theaters during the 1920s, they almost exclusively offered the first


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runs of western silent films, including the best and most popular feature films from the United States and Europe. From the mid-1910s, the film exhibitors on Mount Road marketed the high-class film adaptations of historical, literary and dramatic classics to their predominantly elite and English educated audiences.

In addition to their

European clientele, exhibitors targeted the Indian students from the nearby university and colleges.

Along the Marina

just to the east of the Mount Road cinema halls, the two most important institutions of higher education in south India, Presidency College and the University of Madras attracted thousands of Indian students from all over the Presidency.

The film exhibitors on Mount Road made efforts

to cultivate these young, relatively affluent and educated Indians by offering occasional concessions on ticket rates and some special showings of films with historical, literary or dramatic interest.

For example, the Elphinstone

advertised that "at the Special Request of the Student population of the city Preparing for the University Examinations" they would hold a second showing of a film version of "Hamlet. n 2•

"Shakespearean productions for

college students and educated classes," along with films

=•Madras Times,

9 December 1914.


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based on "well-known novels of the West" were considered particularly suited for educated Indian audiences. 29 The Globe Theater in the Vepery neighborhood of Madras showed a similar program of higher-class, western films as did the big picture palaces of Mount Road.

This cinema hall

was locked into a pattern of predominantly Anglo-Indian patronage such that the manager of the concern felt that he was forced into a certain policy of film programs.

In 1928,

the manager of the Globe admitted that the theater could only show films from the West even though they did not always draw large crowds, for fear that they would lose their regular audiences if they showed Indian films . 30


a theater had a habitual clientele based on location and film programming, exhibitors were reluctant to make changes. Madras exhibitors generalized that high class American and European film productions appealed to more limited elite and educated audiences, that they only did well when exhibited in more European oriented cinema halls . generalization needs to be further qualified.

But this

It was not

that high-class western film productions exclusively attracted more elite audiences, but that these films 29

Sambandam Mudaliar, a lower court judge, an important amateur dramatist and playwright and eventually a Tamil cinema actor and director, as cited in the ICC Evidence, vol . 3, 238. 30

ICC Evidence,

vol . 5, 40. 171

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attracted a higher proportion from the wealthy and educated classes.

One Madras exhibitor, A. Narayanan, estimated that

"a western film of a famous literary work or a high class feature film" would attract 501 wage earners, 351 middleclass people and students and 151 rich and educated. 31


when the films were supposed to specially attract elite audiences, these targeted patrons never constituted a majority of film-goers. Almost every major film produced in Hollywood during the 1920s played at cinema theaters in south India sooner or later.

Madras exhibitors had difficulties in obtaining

their pick of films available in the print markets of the world, but they eventually managed to acquire almost every major film success during the silent period.

Some of these

films and their stars routinely drew full houses from all classes.

Even in India, "Some of the foreign film stars

have established a name in the world of cinema and their films are attended by all classes alike." 32 Comic films were popular with all classes and exhibitors usually included them in almost every film show at every theater.

31 3

In 1928 the films of Charlie Chaplin,

ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 284.

Balakrishna Mudaliar, acting Superintendent, School of Arts and Crafts, Madras as cited in the ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 230. :N.



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Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton were repeatedly cited as some of the most popular in the south, but there were, of course, countless other comic films as well.

Madras exhibitors

considered comic films as the best for specifically catering to children.

The attendance of children at Madras film

shows was a unique development which distinguished cinema halls from the attendance at most other competing commercial entertainment, especially Indian professional drama performances. 33

Cinema exhibitors in Madras created a new

public space for commercial entertainment in which children figured prominently.

One film-goer described the situation

in this fashion, "Of late there has been a tendency for boys of lower secondary classes, say, of less than 14 years in age to take a great fancy for the cinema houses and their presence can be seen mostly on holidays and at matinee shows. " 34 For Madras exhibitors, children comprised an important constituency among their local audiences.

The presence of

children at cinema shows lent the entertainment a certain respectability.

Boys attended film shows in groups and

children were often accompanied by adults, family members


From the written statement of A . Venkatarama Iyer (B.A., B.L.), Madura, ICC Evidence, vol. 4, 240. 34

E. Rama Rao, Triplicane, Madras. Cited in the ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 213.


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and servants.

Exhibitors considered children to be the

easiest within any given audience to please and could be certain that comic films would always delight young filmgoers.

Exhibitors included more comic films along with the

feature in their matinee shows and on Sundays or whenever they considered children to be more likely in attendance. The attendance of children at cinema theaters in south India was directly related to the fact that from early on exhibitors provided film selections and special accommodations specifically with them in mind. Probably the most popular silent film to be screened in India of all time was Douglas Fairbanks' "Thief of Baghdad" (1924) which was said to have "universal appeal" whether to the educated or illiterate, Indian or European, urban or moffusil audiences. 3 s

In a series a films during the early

1920s Douglas Fairbanks created a new combination of an action and romantic hero put together in large budget, lavish productions which never failed to fill cinema halls in south India. 36

When this film played in Madras during

1925 it generated a great deal of enthusiasm and attracted 35

See Joseph A. David, Cinematographer, Madras in the ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 320 and U. B. Romesh Rao, Manager of the Radha Picture Palace, Calicut as cited in the ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 442. 3

'one could even say that this style of film production was consciously reproduced by the actor, M. G. Ramachandran's in a series of successful Tamil films of adventure, athletic stunts and romance from the late 1940s on. 174

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many who would not otherwise go to see the cinema.


~rincipal at Queens Mary's College for women remarked the, "even students of this college who rarely go out at all went to this film. " 37

The oriCJin• o~ ci..- •

As argued earlier, the cinema started in south India as a western form of entertainment with films from Europe shown by Europeans for predominantly European audiences.


the cinema operated within the European cultural sphere in the south, mostly Indian exhibitors also extended the cinema, that is, foreign produced films, to Indian audiences during the 1910s.

This point is important in that most

historical accounts of Indian cinema assume that Indian film audiences and film-going habits began only with the production and exhibition of Indian silent films, and particularly those of D. G. Phalke.

However, it should be

clear that the early growth of Indian film audiences in the south, at least, was not merely a function of Indian silent film production.

Before Indian film productions made a

difference in south India, Indians had already reoriented, 37



vol. 3, 124.


la Hay (M.A.) as cited in the

ICC Evidence,


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instituted and framed the cinema trade around the majority Indian film audiences at most theaters in Madras city and in the districts.

This is not to argue, however, that Indian

silent films were unimportant in the formation of Indian film audiences in the south.

Rather, they were introduced

to south Indian audiences only after western filins had been established as the standard cinematic entertainment and after, at least, some Indians had acquired regular cinemagoing habits. Against this background of foreign domination of the cinema in India the grand narrative of Indian cinema usually begins with the pioneering efforts of Dadasaheb Phalke, who in 1913 produced his first feature film entitled "Raja Harischandra."

With this film Phalke, a Maharastrian

brahmin, is usually credited with inventing the Indian mythological film genre which emerged in the 1910s as the first indigenous cinema alternatives for Indian audiences. In a now famous quote, Phalke created his own myth of origin for his mythological films based on his own viewing of a motion picture entitled "The Life of Christ."

He wrote,

"while witnessing Christ on the screen, I was mentally visualizing in its place the gods Sri Krishna, Sri Ramachandra, their Gokul and Ayohdya ... Could we, the sons of


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India, ever be able to Indian images on the screen?" 38


distinguished Indian mythological films from their foreign counterparts was that they were based on stories taken from the Hindu puranas and epics, or were about religious saints and devotees.

Phalke's film-making project, though

incorporated foreign film technology, was self-consciously nationalist, "in the sense that the capital, ownership, emphasis and stories were swadeshi. " 39 extensive writings that his

We know from his

explicit purpose was to create

an Indian national cinema by adapting Hindu mythological stories for the screen. Even though Phalke was responding to cinema from the west, he also used the new medium as both a continuation and improvement on older Indian performing and visual arts with their vast repertoire of widely shared stories and modes of representation.

Just as the formation of the cinema in the

West had borrowed freely from many different forms of popular culture, Indian silent film producers created the mythological genre from a wide range of cultural practices, including literature, drama, music, dance, the visual arts and Hindu religious festivals and worship.

Perhaps the most

obvious precursor for Indian cinema was the mythological 31

See Ph•lke Commemor• tion Souvenir, (Bombay: The Phalke Centenary Celebrations Committee, 1970). 39

Ibid . 177

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drama which had been popularized by Parsi Drama companies in the late 19th century.

By the early 20th century Parsi-

style dramatic productions were the most popular form of commercial entertainment for Indians. 40

Phalke drew on his

own considerable educational and professional experience in the visual and performing arts to conceive of the cinema as a cultural composite made up of "drawings, painting, architecture, plaster molding, photography, drama and magic."

But Phalke also felt that the cinema was a more

expressive than the other visual arts and stage dramas especially in the use of trick photography for making gods appear and disappear, for making miracles real. Mythological subjects were an obvious choice for creating a cinema which had a distinctive appeal for Indian audiences already familiar with the stories.

Not only

Phalke, but also other Indian film-makers and exhibitors clearly realized that mythological subjects had a wide enough appeal and familiarity to secure an all-India market for their films.

Mythological films created the first

Indian cinematic formula for commercial success based on this all-India appeal of Hindu religious stories.

This was


°For a good discussion of the relationship between Parsi drama and Hindu mythological materials see, Anuradha Kapur, "The Representation of Gods and Heroes: Parsi Mythological Drama of the Early Twentieth Century" in Journal of Arts, Ideas, nos . 23-24 (1993):8S-107 . 178

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particularly the case during the years until 1923 when about 701 of all Indian silent films produced were based on mythological stories.

After 1923 mythological films only

accounted for about 151 of the total production of Indian silent films. 41

l'halk• •nd the prolilerat:ion of Indi-.n feature fila genre•

The historical importance of Phalke's mythological films in creating a steady Indian cinema clientele in south India can only be understood in relation to the conditions within which these first Indian films circulated and engaged local audiences.

Phalke's Hindu mythological cinema did not

radically transform the film business instantaneously nor did it evenly affect all parts and peoples of India.


only did Phalke's films reach south Indian film audiences later than in other parts of India, they were also screened in different contexts and conditions.

If we are to

understand the cultural significance of Indian film productions and their role in the formation of film markets in the south, we must consider the local exhibition spaces 41

8. V. Dharap, "The Mythological or Taking Fatalism for Granted" in eds., A. Vasudev and P. Lenglet, Indian Cinema Superbazaar (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1983), 79.


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and practices which preceded their introduction and allowed for their success. Though Phalke's first five feature films were screened to enthusiastic Indian audiences throughout western and north India, they do not seem to have been exhibited much, if at all, in the south.

It was Phalke's sixth film, "Sri

Krishna Janman (1918) which was the first to attract a great deal of attention and be widely screened in Madras Presidency during 1920.

This film was the first product of

Phalke's new partnership in the Kindustan Cinema Films Company and was produced and distributed on a larger scale than his previous efforts.

This probably explains why "Sri

Krishna Janma" was Phalke's first film to be widely recognized in south India, even though it is now considered to be one of his "lesser-known" films by some film scholars. 42

The film consisted of a series of well known

episodes from young Krishna's life which began with his birth and ended with his final destruction of Kamsa. 43


stories were familiar to all, including mcst non-Hindus, which meant that most viewers could follow the films even without being able to read the captions. 42

P. K. Nair, "Those illuminating aspects," Cinema In India, vol. 3, no . 9 (October-November 1992):21. 43

For a detailed description of the surviving portions (about 500 feet out of 5500 feet) of this film see, P. K. Nair, "Those illUJllinating aspects," 21-28. 180

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Phalke's "Sri Krishna Janma" was extremely successful in the south during the 1920s.

When the film first screened

at the Wellington on Mount Road it ran for, at that time, an unprecedented one month with extra shows running from 3pm to 3am on the weekends by special permission from Madras police.

This first run at the Wellington was a major film

event during the early 1920s in Madras.

The film ran for

about one month at the Wellington and was said to have drawn two hundred thousand in attendance over this period.


Wellington's Bombay owner, Rustom Dorabji, who purchased the south Indian exhibition rights for only three or four thousand rupees, was said to have a fortune on this one film alone. 44

By one estimate Wellington and Company made about

Rs. 60,000 and by another they "made up the whole capital of their concern." 45

Almost one decade after its debut in

south India "Sri Krishna Janma" was still drawing large crowds and doing good business for exhibitors outside of Madras city. Phalke himself came on a promotional tour to south India with portable projection equipment in order to give

''see the testimonies of s. Devasankar Aiyar, Amateur Cinematographer, G. Narayanswamy, President, Corporation of Madras, and A. Venkatarama Iyer (B.A., B.L.), all as cited in the rec Evidence, vol. 3 and vol. 4.

•se. Nicolas, rec Evidence, vol. Venkatarama Iyer,

3, 208; and A. ICC Evidence, vol. 4, 240.


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private screenings to prospective investors.

One such

screening was given at the court of the Maharaja of Pudukkottai, where Phalke gave a short introductory speech and ran the projector himself while assistants supplied sound effects from behind the screen.

According to one man

who attended the event, this film was the first Indian film ever screened in Pudukkottai albeit to a very small and select audience. 46 Even though there had already been several silent mythological films produced in Madras by R. Nataraja Mudaliar from 1917, 47 everyone interviewed by the Government appointed Cinematograph Committee in 1927-1928 remembered only Phalke's "Sri Krishna Jaruua" as the first "completely Indian film" and "true Indian representation" to be screened in south India. 48

For many Indians, mythological films were

a celebration of India's spiritual superiority and an affirmation of a distinctive Indian national culture. Mythological films demonstrated to the Indian film trade a

''Anonymous interview by the author, Kodaikkanal, September 4, 1992. 0

see T. M. Ramachandra, "R. Nataraja Mudaliar: South India's Pioneer of Silent Cinema" in T. M. Ramachandra ed., 70 rears of Indian Cinema (l9l3-l983), CINEMA IndiaInternational, Bombay, 198S, pp. S4-59. 49

G. Narayanswamy, President of the Corporation of Madras, ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 388. 182

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new and successful way to compete with Hollywood films at the box office. When compared to the usual fare of Hollywood films,

exhibitors considered Indian mythological films to be more respectable and morally unobjectionable for Hindu audiences. These purana films even attracted religiously orthodox people who would never otherwise attend any other public entertainment not related to worship or festivals. 49


cinema exhibitors and distributors advertised that the seeing of mythological films was an act of religious merit

(puniyam in Tamil).

Exhibitors tried to use the religious

content of these mythological films to their advantage by holding extra screenings of these films on Hindu religious holidays and temple festivals, as many as five and six a day during Ekadasi and Sivaratri.

Mythological films were said

to draw steady crowds the Hindu lower classes as well as higher a proportion of women than any other kind of film entertainment.

Many of those in the cinema business who

catered primarily to Indian audiences preferred mythologicals because they drew more respectable crowds, family audiences and most especially, women.


'written statement of V. Venkataramama Aiyangar (B.A., B.L.), Member of the Legislative Council in the ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 211. 183

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In terms of box office draw purana films had a special reputation for attracting women audiences.

According to the

exhibitors women were very few in number at all film showings, except for mythological films, at which they could account for as much as a quarter of the entire audience. 50 One distributor even claimed that most men did not want to see purana films, "but with every woman six gentlemen are going due to the force of the ladies. " 51

Women did not

generally go alone to cinema theatres but usually came along with their families and children or in groups.

The presence

of Hindu women not only lent a social respectability to cinema shows which had not previously been associated with other forms of public entertainment, but was also seen as a guarantee of good box office returns. Even though exhibitors especially associated mythological films with Indian women audiences, this class of film-goers never formed a majority of the total attendance.

Narayanan's social breakdown of a typical

audience at an exhibition of an Indian mythological film to have been 601 poorer classes and wage earners, 251 ladies and 151 literate Indians. 52 50



Rather, it was relative to

ICC Evidence,

vol. 3, 284.


Thomas H. Huff ton, Sole Proprietor, The Peninsula Film Service, Madras, ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 355 52

ICC Evidence,

vol. 3, 284. 184

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other kinds of film entertainment that mythologicals attracted a higher percentage of women and girls.


general Indian women did not attend the cinema in large numbers.

One Madras government education official explained

that, "Hindu women have a natural reluctance to go to any public affair, to attend any show in a public place."


any given film show, "at most there are about a dozen [women) sitting in a roped off section or behind a purdah if there is one. " 53 Despite the success of mythological films there were limits to its popularity with Indian audiences.

Muslims did

not generally attend Indian mythological films. Mythological films could only be promoted as the Indian national film genre on the basis of a series of social, religious and cultural exclusions, in particular Muslims and Christians. 54 The initial enthusiasm for mythological films quieted to some degree throughout the 1920s as the novelty began to ware off.

Not every mythological silent film proved to be


From the written statement of Miss I . ff. Lowe, Deputy Directress of Public Instruction, ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 82. 54

Somnath Zutshi problematizes the inclusive project of Phalke's Hindu cultural nationalism in questioning the series of exclusions through which it was translated into the medium of film. "Women, Nation and the Outsider in Hindi CinemaH in T. Niranjana, et. al., Interrogating Modernity: Culcure and Colonialism in India, (Calcutta : Seagull Books, 1993), 83141. 185

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According to one estimate, mythological films

comprised some 70\ of all Indian silent film productions up to 1923, while for the remainder of the decade they only accounted for about 151 of the total output. 55

While the

older mythological films continued to circulate, the Indian cinema industry expanded their repertoire in developing a number of other film genres- historical, folklore, stunt and social. In the early 1920s, Bombay film producers started a cycle of historical films based on stories of Rajput kings, "which sought to win public favour by spicy tales of martial heroism and chivalry presented with all the adventure and thrill of a Wild West film.H 5 '

A whole series of Indian

silent films were made in the 1920s which adapted from the successful examples of Hollywood "Wild West" and action films.

Especially on the model of the already proven

success of American serial films in India, stories, scenes and styles of representation were translated and adapted into many Indian silent films. 57


0harap, "Mythological or Taking Fatalism for Granted,"

79. 56

Panna Shaw, The Indian Film (Bombay: Motion Picture Society of India, 1950), p. 29. ~, The Report of the Indian Cinema tograph CollJlll.i t tee,

1921-1928 (hereafter ICC Report)

(New Delhi: Government of

India Press, 1928), 83.


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Also in the 1920s Indian film-makers began to experiment with "social" films, a genre distinct from either mythological or historical films in that they featured contemporary settings and costumes.

Usually adapted from

popular novels and dramas, the stories in social films revolved around crime and romance in urban settings.


social films tended to focus on the lifestyles of wealth and luxury enjoyed by new classes of social elite sometimes as a parody of Indians who have adopted western habits, clothes, and attitudes.

These also dealt with other Indian social

problems such as child marriage and dowry. By 1928 some observers noted that themes of Indian film productions were changing any from religious, medieval or mystery plays to "modern plots involving everyday experience. " 58

A. Narayanan claimed that while mythological

films were still by far the most successful in "moffusil stations," Indian social pictures were increasingly becoming more popular in the urban areas of south India.

One theater

manager from Calicut explained that the "mushroom-like growth of social films" was due to audiences getting tired of the usual puranic films and wanted films which depicted present day life, modern times. 59

s•rcc Report,

Indian mythological films


s•u. B.

Romesh Rao, Manager of the Radha Picture Palace, Calicut as cited in the ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 442. 187

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were not the only "authentic• Indian film production, but were part only a part of the overall entertainment strategies deployed by the film trade to connect with Indian film audiences.

It is quite easy to claim that in general Indian silent film production increased throughout the 1920s.

It is more

difficult, however, to gauge the changing position of Indian films in relation to the dominance of foreign films in India.

At the time that ~sri Krishna Janma• arrived in

Madras during 1920, the total production of Indian silent films was still small enough that the screening of an Indian film was a rare occurrence anywhere in India.

For example,

in 1919 there were a total of eight silent films produced throughout all of India and in 1920 the total went up to 18. 60 In 1928 the Indian Cinematograph Committee with all its government resources tried to calculate the relative and changing positions of Indian films and western films.


found that in 1927 there were a total of 23 Indian film '°Firoze Rangoonwalla, 75 Years of Indian Cinema, (New Delhi: Indian Book Company, 1975). 188

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producing concerns, 15 of which were in Bombay Presidency alone.

Of these 23 companies only eight or nine maintained

a more or less steady output over the six year period between 1921 and 1927.

The Committee compiled their Indian

production statistics with information provided by the censors boards about the films which they examined.

On this

basis they estimated that in 1921-1922 Indian film producers made 63 feature films, a level which remained basically the same until 1925-1926 when their number increased to 111 and 108 the following year. Despite steady growth in Indian feature film output , these films were continually outnumbered by the total of imported feature films throughout the decade .

The number of

imported feature films gradually rose from 615 in 1921-1922 to 775 in 1926-27.

Overall, the Committee found that there

had been a growing proportion for Indian films between 1921 and 1927 with the percentage of Indian film footage examined by the censor boards increasingly from 9 . 51 to 15.51 . 61 The numbers and statistics of increased production, however, were not by themselves adequate for understanding what these changes meant for exhibitors and how they were worked out in specific locations through different exhibition practices.



ICC Report,

Even the Conunittee realized that

29 .


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their production figures did not take into account the disproportionate screen time given to Indian features as opposed to imported films.

Indian films had much longer

runs at theaters and often had more daily screenings than foreign films.

Except for a few fil~ like the "Thief of

Baghdad" and a few stars like Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, Western films, whether in Bombay, Calcutta or Madras, were screened for a matter of days, about half of a week and then changed with something new.

Indian films, on the other

hand, remained at theaters for weeks at a time and had longer continuous screenings with more film prints at more theaters. 62 The total number of Indian feature films produced may have been dwarfed by the number of imported feature films each year, but the cumulative effect of Indian film production meant that from 1921 there were less than 100 films potentially available for circulation, while by 1927 there were up to 500 somewhere in circulation throughout India, not even taking into account the number of prints for each film. lives.

Indian silent films had longer circulation

If Indian silent films proved popular and did not

ware out, they were continued to be screened at different


Shah, Indian Film, 34-35. 190

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venues in the south until the transition to sound in the 1930s. By the early 1920s, the frequency and number of Indian silent films shown at Madras cinema halls became another way that exhibitors distinguished their theaters as being Indian and for Indian audiences.

Through their own practical

business experience, it was abundantly clear to exhibitors that nfor most Indian audiences, Indian films with Indian settings and themes were the most popular.n 63

Indian films

were preferred by the great majority of Indian audiences and usually attracted larger crowds than all but the best of foreign films.

Even in the European cinema halls on Mount

Road and in the Bangalore Cantonment, on the few occasions when Indian films were screened, they sometimes attracted large crowds of Indian film-goers despite the location and reputation of the theaters. Exhibitors in the south also claimed that there was a regional preference for those silent films with south Indian language captions and set within the cultural milieu of the south.

The films from Bombay were not generally as popular

in Madras Presidency compared to other parts of India on account of differences in costume and dress as well as in the written language of the captions.


The few silent films

?K. V. Acharya, ICC Evidence, vol. 3 , 384.


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produced in south Indian languages were almost exclusively in Tamil and Telugu which were, likewise, not fully intelligible for Malayalam and Kanada speakers. 64


though the trade in Indian silent filJll.S was organized on an all-India basis, Madras exhibitors knew that, "There is a great need for local vernacular titles to be introduced in the Indian films, it goes a long way to increased patronage." 65

Encouraged by the success of Indian films in

attracting Indian audiences, exhibitors in Madras did their best to exploit this tendency throughout the 1920s. Especially during the early 1920s, the dema:1d for Indian silent films in south India was much greater than the exhibitors were able to meet.

However, by the end of the

decade, the supply of Indian silent films had increased enough so that these films were generally exhibited more often at most Indian theaters.

By 1928 there were four

cinema halls in the Indian neighborhoods of Madras which were known for predominantly and competitively exhibiting Indian films- Cinema Majestic, Kinema Central, Cinema Popular and the Crown Theatre.

These cinema halls all

maintained, as best as possible, a standard program of

usee both the written and oral evidence of U.B. Romesh Rao, in the ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 442-455. '




Vasagam in

the ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 316. 192

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Indian silent films as the best way of satisfying their local audiences in the highly populated areas of the city. The Cinema Majestic (seating 700) was the first Madras cinema hall to show exclusively Indian films from the early 1920s.

More than any other in Madras, this theater was

successful in acquiring and maintaining a steady program of Indian films.''

A rival exhibitor claimed that the

Majestic, " ... always had a steady house, whatever Indian films they put on, good, bad or indifferent. " 61

They built

up a specific clientele at their Georgetown locality who preferred Indian feature films whether they were of the mythological, social or historical genre.

If they tried to

change their program to western film serials, for example, their business would suffer on account that, " ... they have an established reputation for a particular film and a particular set of audiences go to them. " 68 The Kinema Central (seating 650) was also started in Georgetown during the mid 1920s with the expressed purpose of exclusively screening Indian films for the majority of Indian audiences in that locality.

Eventually the theater

also had to show western films occasionally because of the "This claim is made on the basis of the theater advertisements in the Swadesamitran (Madras). 61

A. Narayanan as cited in the ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 284.




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difficulties in obtaining a steady supply of Indian silent films.

Yet, this small theater managed to generate a good

business and maintained a steady urban Indian clientele.


1927 the manager of the cinema hall, S. K. Vasagam, claimed

that there was a growing demand for Indian social films of high quality, such as Kohinoor's, "Why Husband's Go Astray. " 69

These films were said to draw from a cross-

section of the Indian, urban, educated, middle classes and students according to the theater. Vasagam calculated the class composition the audiences at Kinema Central according to who purchased what seating classes.

The four and eight anna admissions consisted

primarily of students and merchants.

The two anna tickets

always sold best and went to wage earners and children. further, the attendance did not always have much to do with what kind of film program was showing.

Vasagam figured that

those who purchased the lowest class of tickets, especially children, visit the theater regularly regardless of what was showing, " ... more to be amused than for the type of picture. " 70 A. Narayanan's Cinema Popular (seating 1000) on Triplicane High Road mainly attracted audiences from the

''ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 316.


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Indian wage earning and laboring classes.


estimated that the audience at the Cinema Popular (which in the 1930s became the Star Cinema) estimated that 901 of the income of his cinema was derived from the lowest classes of admission- the 2 and 4 annas tickets- which attracted the poorer classes. 71 Matching films with the tastes of paying film-goers could be a matter of survival in the exhibition business. In the early 1920s the Crown had done well when screening Indian silent films, but business suffered when, because they had difficulties obtaining them at affordable rental rates and the other competing Madras theaters had already secured supply from the major Indian producers.

The Crown

was for a time forced to mostly show foreign films and serials which were not as popular with their Indian audiences.

In 1924 Venkiah was forced into bankruptcy and

the Crown theater was eventually purchased by Madan and Company who, on the basis of their own film productions and theater chain, were able to maintain a steady supply of Indian silent films at the Crown. 72 11

As reported by A. Narayanan who eventually became an important silent and Tamil film-maker, but owned and operated the Cinema Popular during 1924-25. The ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 280-295. 'ZAs far as F.H. Wilson, the official assignee in charge of liquidating Venkiah's holdings after bankruptcy, his financial failure was due to the, " ... large amounts which had been spent building the theaters, large loans and high 195

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Since a steady supply of Indian silent films continued to be a problem at these Indian cinema theaters in Madras, their exhibitors may not have had much of a choice as to which Indian films they could screen.

These exhibitors

probably made do with whatever Indian feature films of whatever genre they could arrange to exhibit. Over the course of the 1920s the marked increase in the number of cinema outlets, both touring and permanent in the south was matched by a growth in film attendance .

For the

city of Madras the increase was attributed to the "poor classes of people (rather) than the middle and richer classes. " 73

Even though

cinema audiences were always a

mixed array of classes, communities, generations and genders depending on the location and film offering, i t was clear to those working in the Madras cinema trade that the lower, uneducated and working classes increasingly represented the primary referent of their entertainment. By the end of the 1920s, the cinema in south India had acquired a reputation as being an entertainment medium for the Indian masses, for the urban working classes and among interest rates, bad management and robbery on the part of the staff." The problems the Crown had in maintaining a steady run of Indian films was, no doubt, symptomatic of these other problems. ICC Evidence, vol . 3, 1S6.

'3N. R. Balakrishna Mudaliar, acting superintendent

School of Art and Crafts, Madras as cited in the ICC Evidence, vol. 3, 230 . 196

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the poor.

But compared to other forms of entertainment, the

emerging public institutions of the cinema in south India also accollUl\odated women, children and families in new ways within the social space of the cinema.

During the 1920s the

proliferation of various film genres, both Indian and foreign, helped the film trade address and appeal to the multiple constituencies of local film-goers in south India.


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Up to this point this dissertation has primarily dealt

wi t h the history of south Indian film audiences in two ways. first, the development of film audiences were discussed as a function of the changing institutions, practices and discourses of film exhibition.

Second, film-goers were

dealt with as they were implied and implicated through the colonial government's early efforts to regulate the ci"ema . This narrative has focused on film exhibitors and theater spaces as providing the institutions within which film audiences were organized and gathered for the shared experience of cinema . In contrast, this chapter shifts attention to the discursive construction of silent film audiences in India during the 1920s.

Apart from exhibitors' attempts at

categorizing audiences' film-going habits, film audiences in India were also produced and construed as an object of


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debate and discussion about the cinema.

Virtually all

claims about the meaning and power of the silent cinema in India implicitly relied on some notion of who the cinema was for or what it did to some class of film-goers.


chapcer investigates a series of discursive claims abouc film audiences and their relationships to the cinema as another way to understand the historical development of indigenous cultures of film-going. This chapter discusses the Indian Cinematograph Committee (hereafter ICC) of 1927-1928, which has been excensively cited throughout this dissertation yet not specifically addressed, as an important and formative event for understanding the discursive construction of film audiences in India.

As the culmination of a set of debates

in the 1920s, the ICC's documents provide a window onto the assumptions, beliefs and anxieties about the cinema's relationship with its audiences which have, in many respects, been operative ever since.

The focus in this

chapter is less confined to the south India since the emergent discourses discussed here cannot be so easily contained on a geographic basis. Before I move on to discuss the ICC and the various claims about the cinema and its audiences contained within its documents, it is important to consider what prompted the appointment of the Committee in the first place, as well as


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how the Committee fra_med and produced its Report and


The ICC and its documents were initially an

outgrowth of government policy concerns and public criticism, both in England and India, about the effects of exhibiting foreign films on Indian film audiences.


worries about the uncertain effects of the cinema on Indians framed the entire ICC project and its evidence, but their importance ultimately went beyond issues of government policy .

During the early 1920s when film censorship was still a new form of government regulation, a series of political events- the Home Rule League, the agitation against the Rowlatt Acts, the massacre at Jallianwalla Bagh, Gandhi's sacyagraha, the Khilafat movement, Congress Non-Cooperation and the Russian revolution- all helped to create a heightened sense of Imperial angst and vulnerability.


cinema raised anxieties related to the specific political situation of .colonial India which were explicitly addressed in the work of official censorship of the cinema. The censor boards sought to prevent film representations of sensitive political issues, such as the


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depiction of the Indian nationalist struggle, revolution, mob violence, the benefits of communism or anything which might offend Indian religious sensibilities, particularly those of the Muslim communities. 1

However, most of the

political objections to specific films addressed by the censor boards were in relation to Indian silent films which were numerically much less significant than foreign films imported to India.

The censor boards considered Indian film

productions to be much more likely to contain explicit or subtly implied political messages against the colonial regime than films from the other places in the world.


general, films from the west were produced with markets other than India in mind and they were not intended to make any direct political intervention or promote any agenda specific to the political situation in colonial India. In contrast to the fears about Indian filN encouraging political insurrection, films from the west posed a different kind of threat to the prestige and moral authority of British rule in India.

Throughout the 1920s, complaints

about the exhibition of western films in India were repeatedly raised in the British press, Parliament, the Indian Council of State, the Legislative Assembly in India 1For

examples of political excisions made by film censors in India during the early 1920s see Aruna Vasudev, Liberty and License in the Indian Cinema (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House,

1978), 23-27 .


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and by British social reformers.

For British critics one of

the most significant threats posed by the exhibition of western films in India was the extent to which they revealed the moral depravities of western civilization.

The fear was

that the cinema was presenting the wrong images and messages about the west to Indian audiences and would lead to misconceptions about the moral character of India's colonial rulers.

British critics of the Government of India's cinema

policies did not feel that the system of film censorship adequately protected the reputation and respect for west~rn civilization in India. The policy of film censorship was, in part, meant to address these concerns.

For example, in 1921 the Calcutta

Board of Film Censors issued a circular to help importers and exhibitors understand the principles upon which films would be considered objectionable.

On the basis of the

experience they had gained during the first year of operation, the Calcutta Board enumerated specific scenes which commonly rendered films undesirable: "Rape, leading of young girls astray, ·prostitution, feminine nudity, scenes showing women in a drunken state, exaggerated scenes of debauchery at cabarets and saloons, scenes based on the desecration of religious places of worship, and torture or


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cruelty scenes by white versus black or vice-versa."2


from preventing insults to Indian religious sensibilities, these censorship guidelines were centrally concerned with protecting the well cultivated image of western cultural and moral supremacy. Despite the Government of India's efforts at film censorship, there were many, in both Britain and India, who questioned the effectiveness of this means of controlling the content of cinematic representations.

One article on

the subject in the British press written by a prominent member of the British clergy caught the attention of the India Office in London.

This article squarely blamed the

exhibition of western films in India for subverting the moral authority of British colonial rule. One of the reasons for the hardly-veiled contempt of the native Indian for us may be found in the introduction and development of "moving pictures" in India_. Imagine the effect of such films on the Oriental mind. Like us, the Indian goes to see movies, but he is not only impressed by the story of the film, but by the difference in dress, in customs and in morals. He sees our woman in the films in scanty garb. He marvels at our heavy infantile humourhis own is on a higher and more intellectual level. He forms his own opinions of our morals during the mighty unrolled dramas of unfaithful wives and unmoral husbands, our lightly-broken 2"Fil.m

Censorship in India, Points Producers Should Observe,"

Sioscope, (23 June 1921): 48.


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promises, our dishonored laws. It is soaking into him all the time, and we cannot be surprised at the outward expression of this absorption. It is difficult for the Britisher in India to keep up his dignity, and to extol, or to enforce moral laws which the native sees lightly disregarded by the Britons themselves in the "Picture Palace[emphasis mine).wl The main point of this passage was that though the films may seem harmless and amusing to Western audiences, the very same films would lead Indians to form a very low opinion of the British and western civilization in general.


representations of both the high life and obvious social problems of western civilization seemingly contradicted the colonial self-image of cultural and moral superiority.


cinema did not live up to the British self-conception of the colonial civilizing project.

Instead, cinematic

representations of the high life in the west kindled the fear that the colonized subjects might begin to regard their rulers in a less than favorable fashion.

In this light, the

cinema threatened to dismantle the carefully constructed moral edifice of the colonial project.

Most importantly,

the colonial anxiety about the cinema was rooted in the fear

This article was part of a circular memorandum sent to the provincial governments which drew attention to the alleged problems posed by western fil.Jlls in India. Originally published in the Westminster Gazette (17 November 1921) as cited in Tamil Nadu Archives, Law (Gen), G.O. no. 804, 24 March 1922. 3


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of losing control over their monopoly of representing western civilization to Indians. The alarmist article cited above was similar to the series of criticisms aired throughout the 1920s which basically followed the same arguments about the need to protect British colonial prestige from the threat of the cinema.

However, increasingly most of the British criticism

was explicitly directed at "cheap American films" as being more frivolous and potentially damaging to the colonial regime in India.

American films, which practically speaking

all came from Hollywood, were a favorite target of British criticism on several grounds.

First of all, the British

film industry was engaged through the 1920s in a competitive .• trade rivalry with film producers from the United States to control their domestic film market.

The criticism of the

cinema which specifically targeted American films, was no doubt related to efforts in Britain to promote and support their own national film industry from what they saw as a cultural invasion from American. In the political context of colonial India, American films were also singled out as more damaging for other reasons besides cinema trade rivalry.

In the face of an

increasingly aggressive and organized Indian nationalist movement in the 1920s, the cinema was a highly visible scapegoat for British critics and officials who might prefer


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to blame the political problems of colonial India on American films rather than on their own mistakes and excesses. Another specific concern about American films was that Indians would not be able to differentiate between what was American and what was British and they would therefore be led to generalize that all westerners were innoral and debauched.

By identifying American films as the primary

cinematic menace in India, the British attempted to distance themselves from the immorality depicted in the cinema, and preserve the fiction of a benevolent and moral colonial rule based on the inherent superiority of western civilization. For the British in India, the image of white women portrayed by the cinema was one of the most disturbing representations of the West.

As had been the case with the

Government of India's first efforts in 1913 to prevent the dance performance of Maud Allen at cinema halls (discussed in chapter four), the policy of film censorship linked film representations of white women directly with the problems of maintaining the prestige and moral standing of British rule in India.

A 1920 report in the British cinema trade

journal, Bioscope, informing film exporters about the new system of censorship in India claimed that the main motivation of these regulations was, "-· the fact that there have been numerous complaints that films were being imported


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into India which held up Europeans to ridicule and lowered the native estimation of the white woman.H•

Women depicted

in "scanty garbu, or as "unfaithful wives# (see footnote 3), dancing in cabarets, and in explicitly sexual behavior like hugging and kissing were all cited as "degrading the white woman in the eyes of the Indians." 5

More than any other

issue related to the cinema in India, the depiction of white women as less than morally virtuous or as victims of sexual violence seems to have struck at the core of British insecurities about their colonial project. The entire moral edifice and ideological justification of British colonial rule in India had been constructed around the project of civilizing the native peoples.


of this effort was to convince and educate Indians about the bankruptcy of their own traditions in relation to the projected superiority of the more civilized and rational social order of the colonizers.

In particular British

officials, missionaries and educators in India had for centuries morally condemned the Indian treatment of women in their campaigns against sati, child marriage, and the 'Bioscope (2 September 1920): 7. These are the worcis of a Bishop, who was said to have had a long association with India, as quoted during 1925 in the British press. Quoted from the Report of the Indian CineJJJatograph Committee, 1927-1928 [hereafter ICC Report) (New Delhi : The Government of India Press, 1928), 3. 5


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devadasi system.'

Within British colonial discourses on

Indian culture, the "women's question# was constituted as one of the major problems of Indian tradition which, in curn, helped to justify the moral imperative of the colonial project.

In relation to this line of reasoning, the

representation of women in western films seemed to contradict these claims of western


Another prominent voice in sounding the alarm about Western films being screened in India was Miss Constance Bromley, a cinema theater manager at the Opera House in Calcutta in the early 1920s.

She explicitly singled out

American films which depicted acts of violence perpetrated by Mexicans on white women as being particularly offensive in the context of colonial India.

As a white woman living

in India she considered the conflation of racial difference and sexual violence in these films to be dangerously suggestive for Indian men. 7

The fact that Hollywood cinema

exposed the sexuality of white women to Indian audiences played into already established British fears about their women being raped by Indians.

The masculine protection of

English women from Indian sexual violation had also come to

'see Partha Chatterjee, The N4tion and Its Frag11ents:

Colonial and Postcoloni•l Histories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 117-119.

'From an article based on an interview with Constance Bromley, "Films in India" in Bioscope (14 October 1920): 18d.


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play a vital part in British colonial representations of their own authority since 1857. 8

The cinema helped to

refigure the British debate on the sexual threat to white women in India by establishing a new, increased and intensified visibility to the sexual practices of white women.

Cinematic representations helped to refocus c~rtain

colonial moral debates away from the sexual violence and desires of Indian men toward the sexual promiscuity of white women. The cinema became a site, an experience, a suggestion of a vague, free-floating sexuality which seems to have been associated with everything about the silent cinema in India during the 1920s.

In the years just before the formation of

the ICC, all these anxieties about the relationship between the cinema and public representations of western sexuality in colonial India culminated in the visit and subsequent report from the British Social Hygiene Delegation.


India during 1926-1927, they singled out the cinema as one of the main causes for the encouragement of improper sexual behavior and the propagation of sexually transmitted diseases.

In their memorandum on the subject they claimed

that, •see Jenny Sharpe, Allegories of Empire: The Figure of Women in the Colonial Text (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1993) .


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In every pr_o vince that we visited the evil influence of the cinema was cited by educationalists and representative citizens as one of the major factors in lowering the standard of sex conduct, and thereby tending to increase the dissemination of disease. 9 The cinema conveyed a commonly perceived sense of sexual possibilities and promiscuity which disturbed relations of colonial power and racial distinction in British India.

The foaaat.ion of th• Indi-.n

Cinz □ «togzaph

C:z jtt••

At the British Imperial Conference held in England during 1926, delegates raised questions about the adequacy of censorship ta deal with the problems posed by the exhibition of American films.

They were, in part,

responding to the complaints registered by the Federation of British Industries to the Board of Trade about what they considered to be a virtual monopoly enjoyed by American films within the Empire.

This trade organization had

represented their case not merely as a matter of protecting British business interests, but also because American films were, " ... detr_imental to British prestige and prejudicial to the interests of the Empire, especially in the Dominions 9

ICC Report, 4-5.


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which contain large coloured populations." 10

In connection

to these concerns, the Imperial Conference passed a resolution recommending that appropriate action be taken to combat the dominance of Hollywood films by encouraging their production within the Empire. The British Government responded to these concerns in 1927 by imposing import quotas for films from the United States.

However for its part, the Government of India felt

that the problems posed by American films needed more careful consideration before such action was warranted.


!CC was appointed in September 1927 for the task of determining the effectiveness of the existing system of film censorship and to consider whether films from the British Empire and Indian films in particular should be encouraged through import quotas, financial supports or other means. While the primary purpose behind the formation of the ICC was to consider ways of curbing the dominance of American films in India, they were also to more generally investigate and report on the growth and condition of the cinema covering the period from 1920 when the Indian Cinematograph Act of 1918 had taken effect. The fact that the Government of India went to the trouble of creating the ICC itself suggested that the topic 10

ICC Report, 3.


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of the cinema posed politically sensitive problems.


committee format for studying the cinema was already a well established strategy that the British Government of India used for dealing with pressing or controversial issues.


formation of such a committee amounted to an official recognition that a specific problem had reached sufficient importance and complexity to begin considering government legislative action.

These topically motivated committees of

inquiry were designed to produce official and representative bodies of knowledge presented in the form of reports which were, then, to serve as the basis for policy decisions. Whether any legislative action eventually resulted or not, the process of a committee investigation, itself,

constituted a form of government action on a specific problem which could be used to diffuse any public agitation on the issue. Government officials in India had difficulties throughout the 1920s in answering critics of their policies on the cinema and were themselves uncertain about what the cinema was becoming·and their abilities grasp and control the enormity of its extent and potential effects.


appointment of a Committee to investigate the problems of the cinema was seen as a way to help settle the bothersome issue of the cinema by producing a definitive and comprehensive review of the subject.


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The composition of the committee was a politically contested matter and great care was taken to provide a socially and religiously balanced selection of both official and non-official members.

In this way the formation of a

committee was meant represent all sides of a sensitive issue.

Accordingly, the ICC was composed of six

representative members of three Indians and three Europeans. 11 Despite the careful and balanced composition of members, the formation of a committee to investigate the cinema was received with suspicion from many quarters within the Indian press and among Indian politicians.

The 1926

Imperial Conference resolution on cinema protectionism had already encountered harsh criticism in India by nationalists on the grounds that equity of Imperial welfare had never been applied in the development of India. 12

For these

critics the primary concern was that the ICC would be used by the colonial government to artificially support the 1:For

a more complete discussion of the different backgrounds of the coanittee members and the process of their selection see Brian Shoesmith, "The Problem. of Film: A Reassessment of the Significance of the Indian Cinematograph Colllll\ittee, 1927-1928" in Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media, culture, special issue on Asian cinema (December 1989): 74-89. 12 The

Times of India, 21 April 1926 as cited in the Evidence of the Indian Cinematograph Committee, 1927-1928 [hereafter ICC Evidence], vol. 1 (New Delhi : Government of India Press, 1927), 98.


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British film industry in India through the implementation of an Empire Preference Scheme.

In its final Report, the ICC

acknowledged a certain resistance and lack of cooperation on the part of some witnesses from the Indian cinema trade on chis account. 13

The suspicion was that the ICC would

legislatively foist unwanted British films on India in order to replace the monopoly of American silent films with yet another monopoly of foreign films.

Though the arguments

advanced against American films within the context of India had primarily been articulated in terms of their moral and cultural inappropriateness, skeptics believed that the Government was more concerned with the interests of the British film industry than with the promotion of good taste. 14 Before the ICC could get on with their more prescriptive work of defining a government agenda and recommending policy, the cinema had to be constituted as an object of knowledge.

Their first task was to conduct a

comprehensive survey of information and opinions about the state of the cinema in British India. i l ICC

They prepared

Report, 16.


For one example of such concerns which coincided with the creation of the ICC, see The Times ot India (6 October 1927) . Because of such criticisms the ICC was careful throughout their investigations to distance their project from any Empire Preference Scheme and to avoid anything that might suggest a prejudice against the Indian film industry and Indian interests.


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detailed a questionn~ire, distributed it in advance and traveled all over India from Karachi to Rangoon, and from Lahore to Madras' for over three months to interview and gather first hand information and opinions about the cinema. In the end they compiled five volumes of evidence consisting of 320 written questionnaire answers and 353 transcriptions of oral testimonies from witnesses who included government officials, leading citizens, educators, politicians, social reformers, and those involved with the cinema business. Sifting through these wide ranging, fragmentary, and often contradictory sources, statistics, information and opinions about the cinema, the ICC synthesized the evidence into a report which was published in 1928.


the reaulta o~ the :Indian

Cin-■ to~aph

Cc-a ittee

Many contemporaneous and subsequent historical accounts have miscalculated the importance of the ICC in several respects.

Some have written off the entire endeavor off as

having made virtually no impact on shaping official policy towards the cinema.

The Government of India is said to have

-completely ignored" the Committee's recommendations and no


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action resulted from the massive undertaking.ts


one cannot so easily dismiss the importance of the ICC on the grounds of government inaction.

Shoesmith has argued

against this position in claiming that the Government of India carefully considered the ICC Report by circulating it internally to various departments for comments, but did not implement any changes due to financial restrictions and more pressing political considerations.t'

As far as the

Government of India was concerned the ICC was successful insofar as it had examined the existing system of film censorship and theater licensing and found them to be satisfactory.

No action was required since the ICC

reaffirmed the overall effectiveness of government policies .• on the cinema .

In effect the ICC told the government what

they wanted to know and justified the maintenance of the status quo. Another way that the significance of the ICC has been discounted is that even while the Committee carried out its laborious task of e-amining silent cinema, sound films were on the verge of radically altering the ci~ema trade around 1

sror a discussion of the ICC and its reception by the cinema industry and in the press see Panna Sba11, rhe Indian Fila (&0 L:iy: The Motion Picture Society of India, 1950), Erik Bamouv ands. ICrisbnasvaay, Indian Fila (Nev York: Cold b' • Oniversity Press, 1963) and Firoze bngoonvalla, 75 rurs of Indi•n Cin. . .