Dr. Adrian Athique, the current Chair of the School of Arts, University of Waikato, New Zealand visited Centre for Culture, Media & Governance to deliver a lecture on ” From Cinema Hall to Multiplex: A Public History“.
The Indian Medialogue presents here the transcript of the lecture.
My present work has to do with multiplexes in India as a specific phenomenon: something which you might all know about, but which I will try to place in context, referring mostly to the policy aspect.
I would like to touch upon the political, economic, sociocultural and geographical aspects, which are things I talk about quite often. The key thing I suppose I’m going to talk about is how the story of cinema in India is often defined by policies which have nothing to do with film. It always disappoints film students that when I get up to speak about cinema, I can do so for hours without mentioning a film – which is not normally done in India at all. This does not mean I cannot recite the outline of a film’s story if I need to, but for now, we are going to think about cinema in a slightly different way. We are going to start off with talking about the colonial and postcolonial eras, proceed to the period before liberalization and then move on to contemporary considerations about multiplexes.
Colonial worries: crowds, morals and commerce
So, thinking back to the colonial period and the institution of early policies on communication, we see how the government of the time is caught up in a particular set of conundrums. The contradiction between British society’s liberalism and its imperial interests is the fundamental contradiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This contradiction plays out in how the freedom of the press becomes more and more important, and in how the control, management and subsequent repression of this freedom become important. This happens simultaneously in different parts of the world. So, just as the first newspapers in India are printed by Anglo-Indian sellers and are then repressed by the British government, similarly certain newspapers in Britain are first set up by the establishment and then repressed by it through an ongoing process of negotiation.
One of the particular problems in the late imperial period is that the British project their legitimacy through their supposed cultural policy [of being ostensibly] impartial and fair to all in the cultural domain, implying that they are therefore legitimate as rulers. The cultural domain is supposedly out of their effective jurisdiction – which of course is completely at odds with the view espoused by cultural nationalism, as some of us heard in the presentation last night. What it also means is that there is a tendency to keep a distance from what is regarded as the proper domain of Indian cultural discourse. So in that sense, the vernacular press gets going and is largely ignored until its significance starts to become apparent, and it is then repressed through the Vernacular Press Act.
In terms of cinema, as cinema halls come into being, they draw attention because of the problems of urban management and law and order. This is the time when New Delhi is being planned and the colonial authorities are focusing on ways to remake urban spaces and manage the movement of people, particularly bearing in the mind the prevention of crowds and the segregation of certain groups. Everything has to be neat and nice and ordered. And of course cinema raises some problems there, because cinema draws crowds, and crowd management becomes an early concern of the policies regarding cinema and continues to be so until the present day.
One of the first big moves in specific relation to cinema is the passing of the Cinematograph Act in India at the end of the First World War, which is prompted by a couple of concerns. One of the stated concerns was that the conflict left the United States as the leading provider of European star films. From the British point of view, American modernity was a threat because it was considered too licentious and therefore had the potential, if shown across the empire, to make Europeans seem bad or decadent or morally corrupt, and therefore undermine their moral authority and standing. So the idea was that you would want to prevent these films being shown.
You may also say there was another argument: that they didn’t want to lose the market to the United States – which was part of a wider series of British attempts to protect their trade markets from the Americans. But in 1918, the main argument was the moral one, which was not necessarily very convincing: the censorship of important films at that time was primarily sought to prevent the degradation of the image of Europeans in general. That’s why censorship brought about particular ways for shaping this kind of moral discourse, especially a gendered focus, which is why there had to be a memsahib on every board to represent those kinds of interest.
But, of course, after seeing the seriousness of critical events in the Independence movement, censors also began to restrict nationalistic sentiments, statements and symbols in films. This is the point at which they introduced police officers into screenings to make sure the censorship was actually being enforced. Of course, this was a response to people just putting the deleted scenes back in when they showed the films, so the authorities started stationing police in cinema halls themselves. Police presence in cinema halls became a mandatory requirement.
This is a very long quote [refers to a slide], but what he is trying to reflect on when looking at cinema in the 1920s is concern about the crowds that collect in the streets. The first picture palaces were built in European districts, where there was very little concern about crowds. But with the rise of cinema halls built primary to cater to Indians – that is, not to the elite but the general public – suddenly there was concern over the presence of crowds in urban spaces, and excuses were made to prevent or move their construction. Cinema halls couldn’t be built in either government buildings or commercial districts, and so they were pushed out. There was the case of an electrical inspector in Madras who used his concerns about electrical safety at almost every cinema hall in the city to have them moved to where he wanted, all in the name of the public safety. His concern, really, had to do with the gathering of people on the streets, and their moving in and out of cinema halls in large groups. There is a notion, of course, that cinema, being a visual medium, produces a kind of emotional state in the illiterate classes which is inherently dangerous, and that is why the police need to be at hand. This was not a uniquely colonial concern: in European countries, which were closely following the Russian revolution, there was a lot of concern about crowds in urban spaces as well as worry about the propaganda value and psychological impact of cinema. So this was seen as a law and order issue in early times.
Victoria Public Hall, Chennai (Courtesy: http://wikimedia.org)
And, of course, it was a commercial issue as well if we look at the work of the Indian Cinematograph Committee (ICC). If you view that in a global context, the Imperial Conference of 1926 was convened with the aim of looking at the status of free trade in the British Empire. Prior to that date, the British were happy with free trade. But at this point, the growing presence of the United States in all the markets led the British to grow concerned, and they began to consider shutting down access. At the same time, the Commonwealth was changing, and the British had to negotiate with the Australians, Canadians and South Africans and the various different parts of the empire about quotas and tariffs of various kinds, and cinema came into this.
One of the decisions made at the time was that the film industry should be promoted by means of a quota for what were called Empire films. A committee was set up to hold negotiations with different parts of the empire. What happened at the ICC took place simultaneously in Australia, Kenya and other places. Of course the situation in India was quite different, because by this time a healthy film industry was developing. While the Australians were treating the quota of British films as mandatory, the Indian members of the committee did not want to acquire British films so as to ensure that there was a quota for Indian films in India. This is not what the British members were sent there to achieve, and so at the end of it they came up with no quota at all.
This instance reflects the complexities of the period with increasing Indian representation on government committees. The British are seeking to include Indians in the administration but they still get their way all the time – an arrangement that is not working. It is a crossover period and there are interesting side projects, for instance some films in which the government attempts to use India as a setting for films based in the United States. Priya Jaikumar, who is interested in this historical period, has written a fine book about this.
The other development which comes out of this is the setting up of state institutions. Films Division productions reflect a government monopoly over documentary-making, All India Radio as a kind of state institution provides pan-Indian coverage, and there is of course a prevailing point of view in Britain at the time that the national media should be used for instructional purposes: it should be educational, and it should help develop people in the way the rulers think they should be developed. This is consistent with why the BBC is set up in the UK. The world of Indian cinema comprises stunt and mythological films – these as well as Hollywood entertainment films are completely antithetical to the instructional mode; the two belong to very separate domains.
(To be continued)
Adrian Athique is also a fellow of the New Zealand India Research Institute. Previously, he was director of the Media, Culture and Society programme at the University of Essex and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Queensland.
Athique has written extensively on media studies and sociology with an international focus. His research interests include media audiences, urban spaces, digital environments and the Indian film industries. His books include The Multiplex in India: A Cultural Economy of Urban Leisure (2010, Routledge, with Douglas Hill), Indian Media: Global Approaches (2012, Polity) and Digital Media and Society (2013, Polity). Athique has also published widely in international journals including Media, Culture and Society, Continuum, South Asia, South Asian Popular Culture and Contemporary South Asia.