120 years of watching movies: The first picture show
Cinema as we know it was born on 28 December 1895, in the basement of the Grand Café in Paris. Ten films by the Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste, were screened in a room called the Salon Indien, thereby linking, however tangentially, India and the moment of cinema’s birth. Some six months later, the Lumière Cinématographe—a film camera which also served as a projector and printer—was brought to India. On 7 July 1896, a group of people sat together and watched a movie for the first time ever in this country. Perhaps a few in the audience had seen magic lanterns, devices that allowed a single person to view moving images. But seeing pictures projected on a screen—and sharing that experience with others—was almost certainly new to all.
The man responsible for bringing the Lumière films to Bombay (now Mumbai) was a French chemist-turned-camera-operator named Marius Sestier. He left Marseille with his wife, Marie-Louise Sestier, on 11 June 1896 and reached Bombay on 30 June (the almost wilful misspelling of his name in India begins with the Shipping Intelligence section of the Bombay Gazette, which identifies him as “Cestier”). The Advocate Of India newspaper carried a small story on 2 July announcing the arrival of the Cinématographe—enterprising work by Sestier, considering he knew no English and had apparently taken only a day to acclimatize and find a press contact. The piece compared the Lumière camera favourably to the Kinetoscope, which suggests that Thomas Edison’s magic lantern was well-known enough to require no explanation.
An advertisement for the show appeared in the Bombay Gazette and The Times Of India on the morning of the screening. “The marvel of the century!” the headline read, and beneath it, “The wonder of the world!!” The playbill promised “Living photographic pictures in life-sized reproductions”—perhaps the clearest description that could be offered to readers with little or no conception of cinema.
On 7 July, a small crowd gathered in the grand hall of the swanky Watson’s Hotel in the Kala Ghoda neighbourhood of south Bombay. Exactly how many people attended, and how many of these were Indians, doesn’t seem to have been recorded. Contrary to popular belief, there’s evidence to suggest that Watson’s was not a Europeans-only establishment, so it’s quite possible that wealthy Indians attended the screenings. What we do know for sure is this: There were four shows in the evening, at 6, 7, 9 and 10; admission was a flat Re1; the films screened were Entry Of Cinematographe, Arrival Of A Train, The Sea Bath, A Demolition, Leaving The Factory, and Ladies And Soldiers On Wheels. We can also surmise, from the descriptions of screenings Sestier organized in Australia, that the lights came on after every film, most of which were a minute long. The audience would then wait for the new film to be wound through, after which the room would be plunged into darkness again.
It’s difficult to imagine how close to magic those first flickerings must have seemed to those who witnessed them. Did Arrival Of A Train make the spectators at Watson’s jump out of their seats, as it did those who first saw it in Paris? (Historians Mihir Bose and B.D. Garga say it did.) A report on the screening, published in the Bombay Gazette on 9 July, is vague about audience make-up and reaction. It misidentifies the Lumières as the exhibitors, and bemoans the smallness of the room as the reason for the on-screen figures not being “life-size”, contrary to what the advertisements promised. On the whole, though, the reporter was impressed. “No one who takes an interest in the march of science should allow to pass by the opportunity that now presents itself to see the cinematographe,” the piece concluded.
In a country where most movie-watchers fancy themselves to be decent enough critics, it’s amusing to note that the first report on a screening also doubles up as the first film review. The Bombay Gazette reporter praises Arrival Of A Train, A Demolition and The Sea Bath, but singles out Leaving The Factory as the most realistic. That this elevation appears to have been due to the emotional qualities of the scene (“brings a whole crowd of moving humanity on the canvas”) is a fitting start to the long Indian tradition of approaching cinema heart first and head later.
Screenings followed on 9 July and, with a new set of six films, on 10 and 11 July. Sestier also leased the Novelty theatre, a move welcomed by the Bombay Gazette, which estimated that the “science effect will be greatly enhanced” in the larger venue. As it happened, science didn’t take effect that day; there was a power failure and the screening on 14 July was cancelled, disappointing the “fairly large audience” that had turned up in the rain. The Novelty screening was rescheduled for 21 July: two shows, of 12 films each, at 6.30pm and 9.30pm. They went off without a hitch, and further shows were scheduled for 23 and 24 July.
From 27 July to 15 August, there were screenings every evening (except on Thursdays, for some reason) at Novelty. The shows appear to have been well-attended, though there’s no information on how many of the theatre’s 1,400 seats were filled. We know that variable pricing was introduced: the orchestra stall and dress circle, Rs2; second seats Re1; back seats, 50 paise. Sally Jackson, curator of film at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, says the screenings were accompanied by spoken commentary. “They were narrated, presumably in English,” she says over the phone from Canberra. “This was common for all the Lumière shows.” The last few shows even had musical accompaniment, played on piano by one F. Seymour Dove (“…appropriate to the views exhibited,” the Bombay Gazette noted approvingly).
As with the shows at Watson’s, it’s difficult to say how many of the viewers at Novelty were Indian. However, articles describing the Cinématographe in Gujarati (in Kaiser-i-Hind) and Marathi are an indication that non-European, non-English-speaking audiences were encouraged to attend. One notable audience member at the Lumière screenings was a photographer named Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatavdekar, better known as Save Dada. He was so inspired that he ordered a camera from England and shot The Wrestlers (1899), one of the very first films by an Indian, and inaugurated the newsreel tradition in the country with The Arrival Of Sir MM Bhownaggree and Atash Behram (both 1901).
On 26 August, the Sestiers (recorded as “Sistier” by the unrepentant Shipping Intelligence section) left for Colombo and, from there, for Sydney. Film historian Tony Martin-Jones’ website, which provides a thorough chronology of Sestier’s activities, notes that the cameraman organized Cinématographe shows for his fellow passengers on the FMS Polynésien. Sestier would go on to screen the Lumière films in Australia, and make Patineur Grotesque, thought to be the country’s oldest surviving film.
Back in India, the genie, having escaped the bottle, set about fulfilling an ever-increasing number of wishes. Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Madras (now Chennai) had their first moving-picture shows in 1897. That year, Clifton & Co. had daily screenings at their Meadows Street photography studio in Bombay (by happy coincidence, Sylvia Murphy, a descendant of its founder, provided information for this story).
A lot of early film-watching in India was done in tents, but the move towards permanent structures was inevitable. In 1907, J.F. Madan built the Elphinstone Picture Palace in Calcutta, probably the first dedicated movie theatre in the country. People could now get together for the express purpose of watching cinema. That an overwhelming number of us still get together, over a hundred years later, to gaze at life-sized reproductions on a screen, is more than a little magical.
We would like to thank Rafique Baghdadi, Sally Jackson, Tony Martin-Jones, Sylvia Murphy and Marie-Dominique Petitbois for generously offering information and help.