The Bandwagon Effect of Wrong Film Historiography: The Case of Electric Theatre in Colonial Madras
Despite several volumes on the varied dimensions of Indian cinemas by numerous Indian, non-resident Indian and foreign scholars, film historiography remains a patchy area of study in India. In the absence of dependable archival sources on the early attempts by film pioneers in different parts of the country and their silent films, what circulates are accounts woven around the mainstreaming practices of the histories woven by inaccurate and ethnocentric accounts of film historians taking a peek at the fairly distant past and its fluid and unverified circumstances, particularly of the first four decades of India’s tryst with the moving images.
Such histories hide the true trajectories of the development of cinemas in different languages in different parts of India. Such histories also give rise to wrong projections of the landmark dates in the history of Indian cinemas. A case in point that deserves a critical scrutiny is the mainstreaming of Dada Saheb Phalke as the first Indian film pioneer and Raja Harischandra as the first Indian film. Without prejudice to the pioneering role of Phalke, what must be unraveled in Indian film historiography is the much larger and more significant roles played by non-film makers and non-Indians as film pioneers in India’s other regions. One such category is the early film exhibitors in the erstwhile Madras Presidency. To be specific, one can cite the pioneering roles of M.Edwards, who screened the first moving images in 1897 at Victoria Public Hall (next to Chennai Central Station); Cohen (Lyric1907 ? ), Mrs.Klug (Bioscope 1911) and Warwick Major and Reginald Eyre (Electric theatre 1913), who supposedly built the first three permanent theatres in Madras during 1907-1913; Samikannu Vincent, who gave birth to the concept of “touring cinemas” in south India in 1905 and Ragupathy Venkiah, who wanted to steal the sheen from Warwick Major’s Electric theatre by building the first Indian-owned permanent theatre, Gaiety, in Madras in 1914.
The mainstreaming of Dadasaheb Phalke as the first film maker foreshadows the contributions of the scores of other invisible pioneers in different language cinemas in the areas of film exhibition, film distribution and filmmaking. But this points to only one dimension of one of the several problems faced by film historiography in India.
Among the other vexatious problems, mention must be made here of the penchant of film studies scholars to thrive on the bandwagon effect of wrong historiography. A specific, albeit most notorious, case in point is when a wrong date was picked by one non-academic author (Baskaran, 1981) to relate to the advent of something as central as the first permanent film theatre in colonial Madras (Electric theatre). Several non-academic and academic scholars (Chabria,1994; Rajadhyaksha and Willemen,1999; Thoraval 2000) took Baskaran’s wrong claim to new heights by circulating it as the “established fact” and falsifying the history of early film exhibition in India by claiming that it was the first permanent theatre in India. Elsewhere, such misadventures in film historiography would have attracted quick scholarly interventions. But in the case of India, scores of fellow scholars had institutionalised the wrong date ad nauseum to the point where even the Govt. of India felt compelled to commit a historical blunder by issuing a commemorative stamp in 2000 to mark the “100th anniversary of India’s first permanent theatre, the Electric theatre“!!!
What becomes obvious in this particular instance is not only a bandwagon effect of wrong historiography of early film exhibition in India, but a plethora of wrong leads scholars working in other realms of film studies would probably have picked from such a wrong claim and made inadvertent damage to their constructions of film historiographies.
It took Stephen Hughes of SOAS, University of London, who has been studying for the past twenty years the exhibition and audience related dimensions of early cinema and the pre-cinema performing arts scenarios in Tamil Nadu, to put a spoke in the wild wheel when he pointed to the fact that the Electric theatre was started only in 1913 and not in 1900, as wrongly reported by Baskaran in Message Bearers (1981).
According to Stephen Hughes (2003), “the problem here is not with Baskaran’s scholarship which despite this error is nonetheless based on careful and solid research. Rather, the problem is more generalizable to the way that Indian film history has been built upon predigested materials and ready-made narratives. What started as an honest mistake was picked up by Chabria (1994) and further elaborated by a new and much larger claim that the Electric Theatre was India’s first permanent cinema hall. After this publication, the erroneous 1900 date for the Electric Theatre was further authorized, this time without citation, by the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema (Rajadhyaksha and Willemen 1999). To make matters worse the Government of India has commemorated the Electric Theatre (est. 1900[sic]) with the special postage stamp as part of the 100-year anniversary of cinema in India. You might ask, what difference does this 13-year discrepancy in dates make? In the first instance, the revised date of 1913 requires us to rethink completely the early history of cinema in Madras. However, this example is more generally indicative of the historiography of Indian cinema. Most of what passes for the history of cinema in India has been recycled from earlier accounts without critical engagement or attempting to do any original research. The study of exhibition is a necessary part of a thorough-going and critical interrogation of the historiography of cinema in India.”
According to S.Muthiah (2007), there were theatres such as Bioscope on Broadway, Chennai, in 1911 (established by a person named Mrs Klug) and Lyric, located in Misquith&Co building on no.3,Mount Road, Chennai, a stone’s throwaway from Electric theatre even as earIy as 1907.
Of course, we need to find more proof of the same even as we go in search of more revealing and startling facts of early history of film exhibition in one corner of of the subcontinent, Chennai. Think for while about the gargantuan task of avoiding the trap of mainstreaming the wrong as the right and right as the wrong in structuring the impossible national narrative of film history in the subcontinent. It is evident from the above and the case unearthed by Stephen Hughes that the bandwagon effect of wrong historiography is only an effect of the mindless mainstreaming of the wrong in the place of the right and right in the place of the wrong. Obviously, the challenges before those who are aiming to strike the right chords in Indian film historiography are as many as there are blind alleyways and unexplored missing links in the narratives of mainstream film history of Indian cinema (s).
1.Baskaran, S. Theodore, The Message Bearers: The Nationalist Politics and the Entertainment Media in South India, 1880-1945, Madras: Cre-A, 1981.
2.Chabria, Suresh, Light of Asia: Indian Silent Cinema, 1912-1934, Pune: National Film Archive of India,1994.
3.Hughes, Stephen, “Pride of Place,” Seminar 525 May 2003.
4.Muthiah.S, “Madras’s First Cinema Theatre,” The Hindu, July 16,2007.
5.Rajadhyaksha,Ashish and Willemen,Paul, Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, London:BFI,1999.
6.Thorval, Yves, The Cinemas of India (1896-2000), Delhi: Macmillan, 2000.