Another item from the Origins of Cinema in Asia conference, which took place in New Delhi last month. Stephen Bottomore wrote a short piece for the festival news letter, with a claim for what may well be the first exhibition of film to have taken place in India. Here’s his report:
Over the past twenty years I have been researching aspects of early cinema in libraries and archives in the UK and elsewhere. In preparation for the ‘Origins of Cinema in Asia’ conference, which took place over the past two days, I had a rummage through my unsorted material, and rediscovered an especially interesting article from the Journal of the Photographic Society of India of July 1896. In this article the editor tells us that, while projected cinema shows were by then an established fact, he had seen moving pictures of a different kind in India some months earlier:
‘I had an opportunity last cold weather of viewing Edison’s kinetescope [sic] in Calcutta. It was certainly extraordinary… But the pictures were too small, and the duration of the scene too short, to altogether satisfy me. Looking down through an object glass into a breast-high box one was first conscious of a whirring sound, then a sparking light, and presently a picture about 2” square appeared […] The scene was stirring enough in all conscience, and I gathered that it took a continuous chain or band of 1,400 celluloid positives to represent it. This band ran under an illuminated screen below which was an electric lamp – and to bring out the scene required a special camera invented by Edison.’ [He describes the film that he saw: a staged incident of a rescue of people from a fire.]
Although the writer does not mention the date when he saw this film in the peepshow Kinetoscope, he does state that it was, ‘last cold weather’, which would suggest the months at the turn of 1895 to 1896. Let us recall that the first film projection took place in India on 7 July 1896 at Watson’s Hotel in Bombay – indeed, this was the first film projection in Asia we believe. So this writer’s viewing of the Kinetoscope pre-dates India’s first film projection by several months, and therefore this is apparently the first appearance of moving pictures in India, and perhaps in Asia as a whole. (Although the Kinetoscope was seen in America, Europe and Australia in 1895, in Asia, apart from India, it was only introduced from later in 1896 – in Japan and Singapore).
Perhaps my historian colleagues in India – tireless researchers such as P.K. Nair – might already know about this appearance of the Kinetoscope in India in the winter of 1895/96. All I can say is that I have never seen this ‘first’ appearance mentioned in print histories of Indian cinema. And this suggests to me that many other important facts about early cinema in this region might remain undiscovered.
There is still much terra incognita when it comes to early film history, and still much to be learned about the dissemination of films and the means to exhibit them across the globe in the 1890s. The first film entrepreneurs saw the reach of their product in global terms – we as scholars should do so too. Certainly it would seem more work needs to be done to track the worldwide spread of the Edison Kinetoscope, to understand it as an international business phenomenon, and to pursue its many paths of influence.