Searching for the Roots of Cinema in India with Stephen Hughes
After demolishing the “established fact” that Electric theatre was the first permanent theatre in India in his May 2003 Seminar article “Pride of Place,” Stephen Hughes, a well known SOAS (University of London) scholar working on early Indian cinema history, came down heavily on the damage caused by the wrong “chronology of firsts” in Indian film historiography at a seminar entitled “Searching for the Origins of Cinema in Colonial Madras” on Feb.03,2010 at University of Madras.
“Indian cinema’s early history is riddled with distorted accounts of the early film pioneers. What they did, when and where are not revealed by the bad film historiography borne of the “chronology of firsts,” said Stephen Hughes. According to Stephen Hughes, Edison’s Kinetoscopes were traveling in India showing moving images probably much before the Watson Hotel screening. Stephen said emphatically that the massive and calculated marketing strategy of Lumiers across the world had its implications in India as well and that overshadowed whatever the early exhibitors of moving images achieved with their Edison kinetoscope peepshows in India.
While silent film history in U.K boasts of a five volume work by Barnes covering 1894-1901, the early silent film history of USA too is well documented. But in the Indian case, no such authoritative works are available, said Hughes.
According to Stephen Hughes, the early film exhibition practices in India were essentially geared by the global processes of flows of technologies of modernity such as electricity, transport networks, motion pictures. The early film pioneers like Stevenson used these multiple technologies during their journeys through India. The film exhibitors during 1896 and 1897 were entirely foreign and went wherever the railway lines took them and showed moving images whereever they got electricity. There are records of what they did and where they took their kinetoscopes.
Stephen Hughes referred to more specific examples during 1896 and 1897 in colonial Madras to show that what excited the public was the coming together of new technologies of modernity in one place. The spectacles of electric bulbs had their performances alongside the spectacles of moving pictures. For instance, the first public motion picture show in Victoria Public Hall was made possible by the ingenuity of the manager of the Victoria Public Hall and the engineer of the tram line which passed in front of the hall. When the exhibitors were searching for electricity to show the moving images, they found none and the tramway engineer quickly helped to draw the power line from the electrified tramway line. The people in the hall were more dazzled by the glowing bulbs they were seeing for the first time than the moving images. The arrival of electricity was seen as more significant than the moving pictures made possible by the collaboration of railways, electricity and motion pictures.
“The early film audience were the social elites and the common man was not among the audience. Any hour-long amusement show had only a minor slot for the motion picture show. Bulk of the show time was taken by other shows. But what was remarkable was the active and almost immediate screening of events captured by motion picture cameras in other parts of the world. For instance, the films of the golden jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria and the Melbourne Cup 1896 were made available to film audience in India almost immediately. Early motion picture shows were the close cousins of the present day satellite television. However, there were no registers of social memory of the early film exhibition and film audience practices in the public discussions or official records in the years and decades that followed,” said Stephen Hughes. To a question from a member of the audience on whether Phalke was the first Indian filmmaker, Stephen Hughes said: “Phalke was a self-obsessed man and a great publicist and that was more the reason for his share of the first. In fact, there were many Indian filmmakers before Phalke and he was not the first”
As in the ridiculous case of Government of India issuing a commemorative stamp to mark the 100th anniversary of Electric theatre in Chennai in 2000, when the theatre was only 87 years old, all on the basis of recycling of wrong dates as the basis of early history of cinema, the case of Phalke has also been wrongly commemorated every year by Government of India to confer the highest film award in the country. In the case of the first fiasco, there was no corrective statement from the concerned ministry about the wrongly issued commemorative stamp. Going by this, it is very likely that Indian film pioneers before Phalke will remain forgotten every year.