restricted access What Is “Early” Cinema?
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What Is “Early” Cinema?

At a time when film studies has moved away from textual readings to broader questions of film culture and its circulation, it seems fitting that there has been a resurgence of research on lost cinemas. In the case of South Asian silent cinema, out of a total of approximately 1,313 films, only a tiny fraction has survived, and that too in varying degrees of completeness.1 Among these lost films lies the entire body of work of highly regarded filmmakers like Baburao Painter, as well as almost all the films from the 1920s that showed the diversification of cinema from its beginnings in the 1910s. This should not give the impression that sound era films or extratextual material have survived much better.

In what is housed in archives today, one is confronted with a strong sense of the rather arbitrary nature of what has survived and to what degree of completion. Because of the patchy survival and availability of films from the 1920s and ’30s, Indian film history is also haunted by a sense of belatedness, with historical material from, say, 1939 offering similar challenges to material from 1910 in the US. Because there are so few surviving films, there’s also a tendency to talk about all the silent films from 1912 to 1931 in some of the same terms as one might talk about very early cinema in France or the US. Yet, despite the large gaps in films and film-related materials from geographic areas with fewer archival resources, there’s a tendency in film studies to periodize film history in a standardized way, so that, strictly speaking, it would be wrong to designate Indian films from 1920 as “early cinema.” Unlike the term “silent,” which is much more clearly bounded in scope, the term “early” indicates, in the Euro-American context, certain formal mechanisms of address and narrative that have only a local meaning and do not [End Page 136] translate to other spaces. In principle, of course, a more elastic understanding of the idea of “early” internationally may be welcomed, but such considerations of varied local contexts have not made much of an impact yet in film studies as a discipline. If the study of lost cinemas in diverse geographical spaces produces an internationalization of cinema studies, then that internationalization will demand an expansion of the idea of “early cinema” itself. This impulse toward internationalization must extend to methodology as well.

My own intellectual formation was in Anglo-American film studies, and it was only in the course of doing work on early Indian cinema that I was forced to confront my own unexamined assumptions about how to do film history and how to theorize basic categories such as stars, studios, industry, labor, etc. For example, a labor history of stars in South Asia is beset by the challenge of absent contracts and legal documents, to mention just one example. Likewise, some of the basic methodologies of research one unconsciously uses in working on Hollywood cinema have to be rethought because of the relative unavailability of films, magazines, unpublished papers from studios, etc. What I’ve found in actual practice is that established theoretical frameworks demand constant retooling or even dismantling in response to the realities on the ground, and this is where there are exciting new challenges to film studies as a field. Although new forms of theorization have emerged in other early cinema contexts, these new ideas have hardly infused cinema studies as a discipline. To put it very bluntly, while those of us working in other cinemas read and teach early cinema history, theory, and historiography emerging from the study of Hollywood and French cinema, the reverse is rarely the case.

The absence of films sends those of us working in pre-1940s South Asian cinema to the innumerable strong and weak traces that these lost films and other material objects have left, where with a combination of luck and detective work, other models of understanding film culture emerge. Because of the relatively limited archive, the challenge has been to map out pieces of South Asian film history in ways that privilege fragments over...