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Early Cinema in South Asia: The Place of Technology in Narratives of Its Emergence
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Figure 2. 

Booklet cover for Siren of Baghdad (N. Vakil, IN, 1931). Though the film is lost, the booklet survives.

Courtesy National Film Archive of India.

The tangible, material infrastructures of the cinematic experience are at the center of my research into early cinema history in South Asia. Scholarship over the last two decades reveals that the cinema rapidly found its place, its meaning, its relevance in South Asia by being incorporated into the complex folds of nationalist politics and existing visual and narrative traditions. Much of this research emerged in the 1990s, most prominently in the Delhi-based art-historical Journal of Arts and Ideas (JAI).

In retrospect, the aim of the JAI scholarship was to avoid a hard technological determinism that might stress the cinema’s radical technological newness and its transformative power in Indian popular culture. The JAI scholarship showed instead that an already richly constituted field of visual practices preceded the cinema’s arrival and shaped its cultural meanings and socio-political functions. Personnel and iconography crossed over freely between the painted, printed, photographic, and moving image, between urban commercial theater and other proto-cinematic arts such as the Kalighat scroll paintings. An already inter-ocular field shaped the cinema, not the other way around. This is a salutary and necessary cultural turn in film.

However, I think a cultural history of the cinema, left standing alone, risks letting technological determinism in through the back door. New technologies are not technically neutral apparatuses. Their material and operational specificity gives rise to practices, infrastructures, and forms of expertise that are crucial to the cinema’s commercial and cultural viability. The cinema may have been a transplant from elsewhere, but, more often than not, the technology and its attendant infrastructures had to be refashioned.

Examples of this process of reinvention can include the film prints themselves; the cameras, projectors, and other technological paraphernalia; and the theatrical space. So exhibitors in Bengal, without the capital to build permanent theaters, made the cinema itinerant by setting up tent shows. They widely used pirated and “junk prints,” prints of films that had already undergone extensive circulation and were degraded in quality. And projectors and other technical equipment were borrowed, purchased secondhand, or refurbished.

How do we reconstruct this history of practices? Actually, makeshift cinemas have continued to operate on the margins of permanent exhibition outlets, much like their early twentieth century counterparts. The most obvious example would be the “bioscopewallah,” the picture show man. Elsewhere, I have described the extent to which the traveling showman retrofits hand-cranked projectors, often from the silent era, with secondhand optical readers, lenses used by astrologers, and handmade speakers, all fitted in a large wooden box with peepholes on its side, carted from one location to the next. Prints are decrepit celluloid reels rejected by and salvaged from film studios and strung together into a collage. Some bioscopes use photographic images wound on a roll which appearance is uncannily similar to pre- and proto-cinematic devices, such as the panoramic examiner used in nineteenth century Calcutta for visual amusement. In Delhi, I found a colorful bioscope apparatus. Later, a friend sent me a picture of the same bioscope, but this time plugged into a DVD player with a megaphone speaker on top and a tangle of electric wires behind. This survival of antique methods is not restricted to the cinema. Fairground photographs use manual exposure cameras dating from the 1870s and paper negatives to fix, develop, print, and tint their pictures on the spot. The same assemblage can be updated to digital photography with portable, battery-charged digital printers, as is the case in some tourist venues in India. So here we have an assemblage that is partly tangible and material (the equipment), partly intangible and conceptual (the expertise), and partly performed and gestural (the enactment of the expertise). But given how much of this assemblage dates back to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is also an archive of early cinema. It provides mnemonic access to the technical specificity and materiality of the cinema in its early years, which cannot be found through conventional archival sources. But because this...

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