Pride of place


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FILM exhibition is without doubt one of the most under-studied, under-theorized and unappreciated areas in the study of cinema in India.1 While scholarship on Indian film has celebrated big name stars, the classic and blockbuster films, leading directors and the lore of production, the importance of exhibition has generally been neglected. Of course, histories of Indian cinema routinely give honourable mention to the chronology of exhibition ‘firsts’ and the pioneer exhibitors who promoted them.2 However, there have as yet been no sustained attempts to study exhibition as a pivotal institution within the history of cinema in India. It is not that exhibition is just a missing piece in the history of cinema in India that can be added on to provide balance to conventional accounts. Rather, once exhibition is taken as a necessary part of film history, we must rethink how we construct Indian cinema as an object of study.

In the first sections of the essay, I argue that the issue of exhibition will help us to reconceive two overlapping sets of relationships: (i) between film texts and their performance and (ii) between spectatorship and audiences. In the second half of the essay, I evaluate some of the implications for how the study of exhibition will alter the research agenda for the study of Indian cinema.

This essay uses the topic of exhibition to pose a series of questions for film studies and film history in India. In speaking of film ‘exhibition’, I refer to a set of institutional practices for the public presentation of and encounter with film screenings. At their most basic, these institutional practices include (i) the organization and maintenance of physical space to accommodate audiences and the projection of films; (ii) the sale of tickets, admission procedures and crowd control; (iii) the selection and rental of film programmes; and (iv) the business of managing, marketing and advertising. My basic question is: why does exhibition matter to the study of Indian film history? In addressing this question I offer a series of related points to suggest some of the major consequences and challenges that exhibition presents for the study of cinema in India.



Exhibition articulates film texts and their performance: The example of exhibition forces us to rethink the centrality of the film texts for the study of cinema. A study of cinema that takes exhibition into account must consider film texts themselves as a kind of performance – a unique interaction of people and projected media at a specific place and occasion. The reconception of cinema as performance has important consequences for how one constructs the object of film studies and how we can relate film texts to historical practice.

One of the basic assumptions of film studies is the apparently tautological notion that it is the study of films. That is, studies of film tend to assume that films present an unambiguous, uniquely differentiated and enduring object of study. Certainly the dominant approaches to the study of cinema in India over the last several decades have mobilized the metaphor of text in constituting film as an object of analysis. However, the general emphasis on internal ‘textual operations’ and ‘narrative structures’ have made it difficult for the study of cinema in India in getting beyond the films themselves. Even when scholars argued that Indian films must be understood in relation to their social contexts and cultural traditions, the substance of their arguments concerning the articulation of society and cinema usually came down to an analysis of ‘narrative structures’ (Chakravarty 1989 and 1993) or reduced to a ‘reading’ of specific film texts (Nandy 1998).

No matter how well one tries to read between the lines, the social existence of a film cannot be read solely from film texts. Even when film studies scholarship employs the broader category of the cinema as ‘institution’ or deals with the larger issues of film stars, genres, modernity, nationalism or politics, the basic units of analysis are films themselves. This raises the problem of how to enable the study of film (defined as textuality) to consider its relationship to larger social and historical settings (Vasudevan 1995; Klinger 1997). The study of exhibition offers a partial solution to this problem.



Once films are considered from the perspective of exhibition we can no longer assume that the film text alone can provide the transcendental horizon for the study of cinema. The study of exhibition renders films as performative social events with multiple histories. This means that seen from the perspective of exhibition, films cannot be studied as finished and timeless objects. Instead, one must be attentive to how films are constantly rearticulated through the specific historical situations of public exhibition and reciprocally constructed through a complex social interchange with audiences. This decentres the abstract objectivist conception of film as codes, narratives and language, and reconceives films as constantly being reiterated, remade and contested as ongoing social events within each act of exhibition.3

With exhibition in mind one must, at the very least, ask a different set of questions about how films are screened at different times and places, for different audiences and social settings. The question becomes: how are films continually rearticulated within specific historical conjuncture of their multiple screenings? This is not to argue that we can ignore film texts, but that we need to consider them as they are continually rearticulated within the contexts of their exhibition. Any consideration of films’ meaning cannot exclude in principle and in advance its living, dynamic and reciprocal relationships with its viewers.



Collapsing the distinction between ideal spectators and actual audiences: One of the major challenges yet to be addressed in film studies and film history in India is to link the theoretical conception of spectators to a more empirically-informed understanding of audience histories. Within film theory, spectatorship is a theoretical concept used to consider how film viewers are constituted and positioned by the textual and representational aspects of films.4 Theories of spectatorship have been explicitly constituted in opposition to the notion of audience which refers to the empirical, historical and sociological understanding of those who actually attend the cinema. The study of film exhibition offers an important and necessary way to help reformulate the relationship between spectatorship and audiences.

The relationship between Indian cinema and its viewers has been primarily theorized from the perspective of the films themselves. Since the 1990s there has been a general shift in the scholarship on Indian film away from a strictly formalist approach to film texts toward issues of spectatorship. For example, Vasudevan has argued that Bombay cinema of the 1940s and 1950s textually constructed the subjectivity of the spectator by inviting him/her to assume an identity defined along an axis of gender, class and nationhood (1995). Likewise Rajadhyaksha (1994) has analyzed Indian silent cinema according to how its modes of address constructed the gaze of its spectators.



One cannot dispute that films position and construct certain ways spectators are able to view films, but it does not follow that films determine the totality of their viewers’ responses. However, the problem is that when the study of film is defined as a kind of textual determinism, the spectator cannot be anything other than a theoretical abstraction, idealized and homogenized as a logical subject produced by the film itself. Once spectatorship is reduced to being a function of textual analysis, the empirical and historical questions of who, where, why or how Indian audiences might have engaged with the cinema become impossible.

Issues of spectatorship can be reoriented around film exhibition such that the object of viewing can be understood in relation to the context of viewing (Morley 1992, pp. 157-158). If a film’s mode of address helps constitute spectators, so too the institution, practices and spaces of exhibition help shape the audience’s experience of films. Especially before TV, video, VCD and DVD, cinema theatres and the practices of film exhibition were the primary means around which the sensual and social experience of the cinema in India revolved. Throughout most of the 20th century, exhibition provided the necessary material, sensual, spatial and institutional conditions for Indian audiences to engage with the cinema. Everything from cinema architecture, decorations, the organization of the compound, ventilation and seating arrangements helped to construct the physical and spatial sense of film viewing.

One can also look to the staging of films, music, narration, live entertainments, intervals and advertising as all helping to frame the experience of films. Even the practices of vending and consuming refreshments and snacks, tobacco, paan, soda and sometimes alcohol and toddy were important as part of how audiences experienced films. Further, the social atmosphere within cinema theatres, made up of noise, talking, intimacies, disruptions and pranks, significantly helped to shape a shared sense of films. Within the context of exhibition, the study of how films address their spectators needs to coincide with how audiences are constituted through the social architecture and phenomenology of film going.5



Exhibition situates the cinema as part of local histories: Much of Indian film studies in the 1990s has been preoccupied with questions about the nation. Generally speaking, recent scholarship on Indian film has tended to collapse the history of the cinema as part of the larger narratives of the nation and its modernities. Of course, one cannot deny that the issues of nation and nationalism are important for Indian film studies. However, these nationalist preoccupations have had the unintended consequence of marginalizing and subsuming other alternative histories of the cinema in India. The study of exhibition necessarily helps to refocus our attention down to the local settings where audiences engage with the cinema.

For the study of exhibition, film studies must be more attentive to situating the cinema in relation to local histories, both urban and provincial. On the one hand, the small-scale study of local histories of cinema are necessary for better understanding the articulation of film and nation. On the other, these local histories may not necessarily correspond neatly with, and may even productively disrupt, the all-India metanarratives of nation.



In my own research, I have tried to study the place of cinema theatres within the urban geography and colonial order of the city formally known as Madras. Using examples from the early 20th century, I have looked at how the location of cinema halls within specific neighborhood settings, the selection of film programmes and the organization of cinema hall spaces helped define the social and cultural geography of the city. The history of exhibition can be read as a crucial articulation where the cinema is mapped out on the urban space of Madras (Hughes 1996). Recently, other scholars have also worked on the relationship between exhibition and urban histories of India (S.V. Srinivas 2000; Grimaud 2002). In particular, Bhrigupati Singh in conjunction with SARAI-CSDS research project, ‘Publics and Practices in the History of the Present’ is currently producing important research on local histories of the cinema in Delhi.

Despite these initial efforts, much research remains to be done on the urban histories of exhibition. Nevertheless, there are also other local histories to attend to. We usually assume that the growth of cinema in India over the 20th century was predominantly an urban phenomenon. However, it is clear from my own research in trying to piece together the expansion and geographical spread of exhibition in south India that the vast majority of cinema theatres over the course of the 20th century were provincial. If those in film studies choose to follow the history of exhibition, I am certain that it will lead them away from the main metropolitan areas into district cities, smaller market towns and rural hinterlands. These places are not currently on any maps of Indian film history and represent an important new research agenda for the field.

Research into the history of film exhibition that pays attention to where cinema theatres were sited and of whom their local constituencies consisted will also offer important new information on the growth and composition of cinema audiences. The history of cinema in India has been largely written without reference to anyone who might have watched films. Beyond vague generalizations about the masses and unfounded assertions about ‘the film-going public’, we know little about the historical composition of film audiences in India. Through careful documenting local histories of exhibition we will for the first time be able to begin to address the questions of who saw what kinds of film, where and when.6 Details such as ticket classes, admission prices, promotional activities, public transport, local population, employment and residential patterns are all relevant for investigating who attended the cinema.



Methodological challenges for the study of exhibition: Any social and cultural history of the cinema is impossible without reliably knowing how, when, where and to whom exhibition made access to films possible. However, the basic facts of exhibition history in India have largely gone undocumented and much of what there is has not been based on solid research and merely perpetuates misinformation on the subject. Before we can begin to evaluate how the study of exhibition might help us to rethink our understanding of the history of film in India, we must first start by seriously questioning what has already been published on the topic.



My own research has exposed some of the difficulties in knowing what to believe about the history of exhibition in India. Take for example, the case of the first purpose built cinema theatre in Madras. In his ground breaking book, The Message Bearers, Baskaran (1981) claimed Major Warwick established the Electric Theatre during 1900 as the first cinema theatre in Madras.7 Ever since, the details of this account have been universally accepted as an established fact and reproduced by many authors as being authoritative (e.g., Chabria 1994; Baskaran 1996; Rajadhyaksha and Willemen 1999; Thoraval 2000). As it turns out Baskaran made an honest mistake. The Electric Theatre was established in 1913 and the proprietor’s name was not Major Warwick but Warwick Major.8

The problem here is not with Baskaran’s scholarship which despite this error is nonetheless based on careful and solid research. Rather, the problem is more generalizable to the way that Indian film history has been built upon predigested materials and ready-made narratives. What started as an honest mistake was picked up by Chabria (1994) and further elaborated by a new and much larger claim that the Electric Theatre was India’s first permanent cinema hall. After this publication, the erroneous 1900 date for the Electric Theatre was further authorized, this time without citation, by the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema (Rajadhyaksha and Willemen 1999). To make matters worse the Government of India has commemorated the Electric Theatre (est. 1900[sic]) with the special postage stamp as part of the 100-year anniversary of cinema in India.



You might ask, what difference does this 13-year discrepancy in dates make? In the first instance, the revised date of 1913 requires us to rethink completely the early history of cinema in Madras.9 However, this example is more generally indicative of the historiography of Indian cinema. Most of what passes for the history of cinema in India has been recycled from earlier accounts without critical engagement or attempting to do any original research. The study of exhibition is a necessary part of a thorough-going and critical interrogation of the historiography of cinema in India.

Exhibition as an object of study also presents specific methodological problems for film history. The study of film exhibition is necessarily a dispersed activity that involves historically particular, heterogeneous, contingent, widely scattered and fleeting practices and people. In terms of theory, exhibition defies the kind of abstract generalizations that are common to approaches to the study of cinema based upon psychoanalytic and semiotic film theory. Instead, exhibition histories tell specific stories about local people, institutions, events and communities that can never be theorized in advance of research.

In terms of research practice, the study of exhibition is very different from analyzing a film and requires more than the armchair approach common to many versions of film studies. Exhibition helps to undermine the older presupposition that one can study the film as a definitive textual object, and that, after having been viewed and studied, the film can provide the basis upon which one can make a set of authoritative claims about how to interpret it. In this regard, the study of exhibition continues the recent trend in scholarship on Indian cinema in pursuing a wider range of archival, oral and ethnographic research at cinema theatres.10



When compared to the possibilities of textually analyzing early Indian films, which for the most part no longer exist or are difficult to obtain access to, historical research on exhibition is potentially spoilt for choice. Newspapers, city directories, government documents and reports, legal records, court documents, oral history and interviews are all relatively available and can be put to much better use for rewriting and challenging Indian film history than is currently the case. Perhaps the most urgent research needed at present is at cinema theatres themselves. The history of film exhibition, languishing at the moment in every city and town of India, is just waiting to be investigated. In Chennai some of the oldest (dating back to the first decades of the 20th century) cinema theatres – the Gaiety, the Crown, Select, Murugan Talkies and Minerva – are all still in operation, but one suspects that they may not last much longer.

The enormity of film exhibition in India requires a collaborative effort. No one scholar could ever hope to do more than work on small fragments of history of exhibition. It is my hope that others will take up the call to research exhibition as part of the study of cinema in India. I am certain that through a collective effort on this topic we will be able to radically alter our understanding of Indian cinema.



1. Throughout this essay I will use the terms ‘film studies’ and ‘film history’ interchangeably. For my purposes the two terms always mutually imply each other.

2. All the standard overviews on Indian cinema start with the obligatory reference to the first exhibition in 1896. For example, Erik Barnouw and S. Krishnaswamy (1980), Firoze Rangoonwalla (1975, p. 9), or most recently, Yves Thoraval, (2000, p. 1-4).

3. My use of the term ‘abstract objectivism’ is drawn from V.N. Volosinov’s (1973) critique of structural linguistics.

4. Judith Mayne (1993) provides a comprehensive review of film studies scholarship and has approached the questions of spectatorship.

5. For example, see Robert Arnold’s (1990) attempt to link the textual and spatial dimensions of spectatorship.

6. For more on the importance of exhibition as part of cinema audience history, see Robert Allen (1990).

7. As the source for this claim, Baskaran cited a passage from the Indian Cinematograph Committee Evidence, 1827-1928 (vol. 3). This passage apparently corresponds the oral testimony of Thomas H. Huffton (sole proprietor, The Peninsula Film Service), but I never managed to find any mention of the Electric Theatre therein.

8. For a review of the theatre’s opening performance, see Madras Times, 28 July 1913. The Electric Theatre only ran for two years before being shut down when the government took over the building in order to build a new main post office on Mount Road in early 1915. For information on recent restoration work. see, T. Ramakrishnan, ‘Electric Theatre gets a New Lease of Life,’ The Hindu, 3 November 1997.

9. For a more detailed discussion of the early history of cinema exhibition in south India, see Hughes (1996).

10. For an example of this range of historical sources, see Hughes (2000). Also, see Ravi Vasudevan’s (2000) overview of recent research strategies on Indian cinema.



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