The first film screening in India was held in the iconic Watson Hotel on July 7, 1896. It might have been pouring rain that day in all probability and visibility would have been poor. But it hardly mattered, for all eyes were on the moving images cast by the Lumière Brothers’ newly invented cinématographe, a gadget that projected the world’s first-ever films. Tickets were priced at one rupee, so the audience was inevitably an uncompromising selection of Mumbai’s rich and elite, but the very existence of the cinématographe excited every breathing soul in Bombay. Sensing the high demand for more accessible prices, two Italians, Colorello and Cornaglia, set up cinématographe screenings in tents a few months later.
For years thereafter, Bombayites flocked to the tents for their occasional slice of entertainment. Dotting the Azad Maidan, the tents would be large, airy and white, popping up during the cooler months of November to March. Before the cinématographe came, locals enjoyed the Magic Lantern show in the darkness of the evening, which often displayed scenes from Lord Krishna’s life. The Magic Lantern, or Shambarik Kharolika, as it was called, was an old kind of image projector employing pictures on sheets of glass.
But the Magic Lantern grew stale that year as the cinématographe held people riveted. “Tents that showed films were enticingly promoted as Picture Palaces to the awestruck populace. A travelling businessman by the name of Abdulally Esoofally was the undisputed show master — he had tents that could accommodate up to a hundred people,” says Amrit Gangar, a film theorist. He says film screenings took on a mela-like atmosphere. Families and friends would gather with their tiffin boxes and mattresses to relish the three-hour evening screenings.
But the Bombay plague epidemic of the late 19th century changed everything. As thousands died and many more fled, those who remained in the city vigilantly avoided crowded congregations and public spaces such as the Maidan. “The city’s administration ruthlessly isolated the sick, put travellers in detention camps and forcefully evacuated large areas of the city. In 1898, the Bombay City Improvement Trust, which had just been established, ordered the suppression of the city’s haphazard and temporary structures in favour of more streamlined planning,” says Kruti Garg, a conservation architect.
As the Trust built roads, imposed city grids and razed plots of land, the grand Picture Palaces quietly dismantled, much before their time, and films moved into the cloistered indoors. Also working against the tents were the new safety standards the Trust imposed. They could now be labelled as fire hazards. A completely separate trend that also drove films indoors was the advent of electricity. For the first time, people could enjoy films year-round in relative, though more expensive and comfortable.
Theatre halls were the most obvious choices for screenings, but they weren’t the best ones. Many small irregularities exist between theatre and cinema halls; the biggest difference being the sight line of the audience. Perhaps, one building personifies the journey of film-watching better than any other.
“The Empire building was erected in 1908 to hold plays and screen films after the disappearance of the Picture Palaces. It was torn down in the 1920s and rebuilt many years later in 1948 as single screen cinema,” says Garg. After enjoying a booming business and iconic status for decades, it finally closed down in 2014, unable to compete with the multiplexes that have become the homes of our present daily motion pictures.
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Once Upon A Time