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100 Years of Indian Cinema: Whose Cinema? Whose Centenary? – The Politics of Temporal Film Historiography

Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error is a crucial
factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical
studies often constitutes a danger for [the principle of] nationality.
 —Ernest Renan,
Qu’est que c’est une nation? 

Quoting Ernest Renan, the famous British historian, Daniel Woolfe (2006), wrote not long ago that the national framework predominates in historiography and the temporal scope of the same is anchored along four premises. “…four variants of temporal scope. In other words, the history may purport to describe: (1) the contemporary, that is, very recent events in the history of the entity whose past is being written; (2) a defined intervening period such as a century, a reign, dynasty, or a decade or a particular event; (3) an originating episode or set of circumstances that gave rise to the entity (which, because its origin is being claimed, is more than a special case of a variant event), which we might call history concerning origines gentium, of which the barbarian Western historians from Jordanes to Gregory of Tours are classic examples (doubly classical in that they are often adduced as examples of this sort of history-writing in the West and because their authors literally, as Patrick Geary has observed, “brought their peoples onto the stage of  Greco-Roman history as early as possible” by transplanting barbarian pasts into a chronological scheme previously established by Roman historians; or (4) the total chronological span over which the historical entity has existed. Any one of the variants of this mode may or may not entail a connection to an actual or imputed nation, or to any other sub-variant of the political collective entity.”

This long quote becomes necessary to relate to this writing’s bone of contention: “100 years of Indian Cinema”. In relating to the same, we need to have in context Woolfe’s third and fourth temporal variants. To paraphrase Woolfe, we need to revisit the so called birth of Indian cinema 100 years ago as an “originating episode or set of circumstances that gave rise to the entity (which, because its origin is being claimed, is more than a special case of a variant event), which we might call history concerning origines gentium” or as “the total chronological span over which the historical entity (Indian Cinema) has existed.”

There are different modes of Western historiography ranging from the “Historicism” of the Hegelian/Kantian tradition to the Marxist mode of “Historical Materialism” to the more subdued mode of “Positivism”. There are also sites of counter modes which mistakenly take the pejorative tone of “revisionism”. Karl Popper was the astute proponent of the later. Commenting on “revisionism” Popper (cited by Novick Peter 1988) said, “It follows that each generation has a right to look upon and re-interpret history in its own way. … After all, we study history because we are interested in it, and perhaps because we wish to learn something about our problems. But history can serve neither of these two purpose if, under the influence of an inapplicable idea of objectivity, we hesitate to present historical problems from our point of view. And we should not think that our point of view, if consciously and critically applied to the problem, will be inferior to that of a writer who naively believes … that he has reached a level of objectivity permitting him to present “the events of the past as they actually did happen.” How accurate is the total chronological span of the historical entity, “Indian Cinema”? Is this historical entity the product of the pre-national entity or the national entity? Can the pre-national exist in the national entity as a pure and un-fragmented temporally unified continual state? If the pre-national becomes an integral possibility, were there not many pre-national entities which became mainstreamed as the national framework?

The case of cinemas of the pre-national past in the vast cultural geographies of past seek to militate against the logic of a supposedly unified national entity in the constructions of the 100 years of Indian cinema in more ways than one. Firstly, the birth of cinemas in the pre-national past had a multiplicitous temporal scale and more importantly did not start like a train journey from one origin and did not end in a single destination. More importantly, the distinction between the usages of the words “cinema” and “film” have to be rescued from the nationalist project of identifying single points of origins, the first Indian film, the first Indian dynasty etc., Identifying the first Indian dynasty is as problematic as the first Indian film as both belong to the problematic temporal scale of the pre-national and in a multi-lingual and multicultural geographical canvas, it becomes impossible take sides with any cases that might get pushed up in the national imagination. Secondly, the production of a film does not constitute the birth of cinema. There are as many preconditions for the birth of cinema as there are possibilities for the social, cultural, political, legal and audience constructions of cinema as the universe of conventions, practices, laws related to production, distribution, exhibition and consumption and the fact of the matter is film is a film and it does not constitute the canvas that is cinema. This is to say that the birth of a child in a family does not constitute the family. The family is a sum total of members who number more than the child and whose practices and conventions pre-date the birth of the child. In this sense, the much touted beginning of Indian cinema 100 years ago in the birth of film “Raja Harischandra” has to be read more like the temporal travesty wherein the child is forced to stand in for the larger family in his/her imaginations, in a mistaken state.

Indians are fond of observing centenaries and anniversaries with misplaced sense of history and facts. This becomes more glaring when the Indian government takes the lead as a pied piper in pushing wrongly positioned centenaries and anniversaries and the Indian media gets greedy to get more advertisement revenue and easy content as eager beaver/hungry rats. Not long ago, Govt. of India burned its fingers when the GOI issued a commemorative cover to mark the centenary of the first theatre in India based on a misplaced fact in a book by a film historian. This was about how the Government of India got an important date in the history of cinema wrong. The Electric theatre in Madras came into being in 1913 as a permanent theatre. GOI sought to issue the commemorative cover 13 years before in 2000. Believe it or not. The cover was issued and became a collectors’ item.

“This year”, according to our pied piper and the herd of eager beavers, “marks the centenary of Indian Cinema? This view flows from the logic that the Indian made first feature film was made possible by Dadha Saheb Phalke in 1913. This is possibly correct, if one takes a myopic view of what constitutes the birth of Indian cinema. The birth of the first Indian feature film is one thing that the pied piper and the eager beavers are most keen to paint as the birth of Indian cinema. The the birth of the first feature film in an Indian language no doubt requires celebration as a centenary event in that narrow sense of Indian film history and not in the broader and true sense of Indian cinema’s history which need to factor in all facets of activities ranging from film production, direction, exhibition, distribution, audience networking by technologists, publicists, film buffs and audience themselves.

A true sense of Indian cinemas’ history should also encompass the strikingly remarkable spirits of unsung heroes of cinemas in different regions of India. When we try to idolise a single individual as a father, we succumb to the process of mainstreaming the multiplicities that gave birth to Indian cinemas in different regions of colonial India.

Let’s not forget that we are mistaking film as cinema when we equate the first Indian language feature film, Rajah Harishchandra, as the the birthdate of Indian cinema. This birth was no doubt important, but there were also other equally important pioneers who laboured to get cinema a place in the hearts of audiences and governments. They probably did not make films. But they took cinema to the hinterlands. A case in point is the father of “touring talkies” in India, Samikannu Vincent, who much before Phalke touched camera, touched film equipment, touched the psyche of ordinary Indians through his projections and made possible a revolutionary connect with the audiences at their home ground, far from the urban areas which had permanent theatres. Without touching on the dimensions of exhibition and distribution model pioneered by Samikannu Vincent, the early history of Indian cinemas looks artificial and parochial.

Let’s also not forget the men who laboured hard to get bulky projection equipment from the port cities of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras to the towns in hinterlands. Let’s also not forget the cheering crowds that greeted them when they were alighting from their trains with their equipment. Here is one such incident involving a early film pioneer in South India, Murugesa Mudaliar, who had a lasting relationship with theatre and film arts since his arrival in Madras in 1895 through his ventures, Majestic theatre and Kinema Central. Says Mohan V Raman, an actor-turned-early film historian, “According to the family, Murugesa Mudaliar went to Bombay in 1915 and purchased equipment to screen movies. A huge crowd gathered at the Central Station to welcome him on his arrival and have a glimpse of the equipment. He was taken in a procession led by a band and folk dancers to the theatre. He started screening silent films and business began to boom.”

Another recorded anecdote talks of the signal contribution made by the manager of a electric tramway in Madras when he made possible supply of electricity to the first film show in Victoria Public Hall during 1890s. Here are more good samaritans I mentioned in my earlier post. Here are the real fathers of Indian cinemas, who made everything possible to popularise films when there was no nation called India and no “Phalkes” in one location. “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.” Scholars working in other locations should provide information about the forgotten film pioneers in such locations to correct the wrong history of films/cinemas in India.

Let’s also not forget the contributions of Nataraja Mudaliar (who made first Tamil film in 1917) and the father-son duo, Ragupathi Venkaiah Naidu and R S Prakash, who made a stellar contribution to the birth of Telugu and Tamil cinemas. Ragupathi Venkaiah Naidu involved himself in producing short films, distribution and exhibition since 1909, four years before Phalke made his film.Let’s also not forget the contributions of another great pioneer, J C Daniels, which are being belatedly related to by Kerala government and people. For every Phalke, we remember every year wrongly, we have come to fabricate history on our terms and not on the terms of the forgotten facts. We lack the rigour, sincerity and honesty to counter the propagandistic practices of vested interests such as a babu in a GOI ministry or a powerful and popular arm of Indian cinema such as bollywood or the merchandising spirit of Indian media to profit from anything and everything.


1.Novick, Peter (1988). That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical profession. p. 395

2.Raman, Mohan.V (2011). “End of Another Edifice,” The Hindu, December 19.

3.Ravindran,Gopalan, (2010). “The Bandwagon Effect of Wrong Film Historiography: The Case of Electric Theatre in Colonial Madras” blogs.widescreenjournal.org/?p=179

4.Woolfe, Daniel, 2006. “Of Nations, Nationalism, and National Identity: Reflections on the Historiographic Organization of the Past”, in Q. Edward Wang and Franz Fillafer, ed. The Many Faces of Clio
Cross-cultural Approaches to Historiography, New York: Berghahn Books, pp. 71-103.

1 comment

1 Pandit jugal kishore shastri { 08.05.13 at 12:43 pm }

Between early events of Indian cinema based on the journals of brit historians and the Greco Roman pedagogy, gopalan fails to be readable because prolixity is never a good substitute for comprehensibility regardless of enormous help we might have from Kant, Hagel, Woolfe and what have you. The spirit of history lies not in its repititions but in its rewriting. Gopalan needs to say thank you to Bollywood for creating a masterpiece whose early draft, according to gopalan, was written in madras back in the day.

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