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Empire Seen from Within. Cinema Objects, Spaces and Edifices in the Limelight in Colonial India and Ceylon (1899-1950)

L’empire vu de l’intérieur. Coup de projecteur sur les objets, espaces et édifices cinématographiques dans l’Inde et le Ceylan de l’époque coloniale (1899-1950)
Vilasnee Tampoe-Hautin


While research on material culture has focused abundantly on objects of everyday life as a way of observing societies and understanding our past, only in recent times has it concerned itself with the study of those related to cinema, one of the ‘more readily consumable forms of entertainment’ (MacKenzie 2), which came out of the late 19th century workshops of the geniuses of the day, Edison, Urban or Lumière. And yet, nowhere is it more relevant to include conventional cinema hardware in scientific research given that in the first instance, cinema as an art, but also an industry with a massive following, came accompanied by a vast array of optical, audio and mechanical devices. Further, it was the Victorians and the Edwardians who bequeathed us the first objects, edifices and spaces of cinema, adding to the iconic and material wealth characteristic of the age. The scope widens further for research when one contemplates the way technical innovations in Europe, first in photography, then in picture animation as well as in printing and reproducing fixed or moving images, contributed eminently to the promotion of Empire within Empire, in what Michel Foucault qualified as a fin de siècle ‘frénésie neuve des images’ (Exhibition catalogue of Gérard Fromanger’s ‘Le désir est partout’, 1975, Leutrat). I will venture down this less beaten track in what will also be a reverse perspective. I will consider the way the inhabitants, both indigenous and expatriate, of the British colonies in the Indian Ocean (in particular Sri Lanka and India) engaged with cinema objects but also its sites and edifices (auditoriums and studios) which, from their architecture to their interior, also paid tribute to the splendour of Empire. How did objects, equipment and sites manage to secure bioscope a massive and captive market in every nook and cranny of the British Empire and either enhance or bear on the perception of Empire amongst the colonized? I will linger on those cross-cultural encounters of the most serendipitous kind between objects, ideas and individuals converging to bring reels on wheels to the edge of Empire: a WW1 British Army tent, a projector, a rifle and a gramophone hoisted onto a bullock cart, travelling through the jungles of colonial Ceylon, reminiscent of Leonard Woolf’s uncelebrated novels… Finally, although beyond the scope of this volume, the question has at least to be raised of the restoration of these devices, capable of producing images whose rich nuances remain to date unequalled by digital technology. The well-established film industry in South Asia with its high rate of cinema attendance, largely, though not exclusively in view of the gigantic Indian film industry, justifies that these issues be addressed and resolved urgently, both at the level of research as well as relevant authorities.

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1I would like to engage with the question of Empire in relation to cinema, more specifically, film and non-film archives, in colonial and post-colonial contexts. As a Day-Speaker at the SFEVE Conference on Material Culture in the Empire, I had the opportunity to share my views on this subject with those present. What follows picks up some of the ideas I presented at the conference as well as other perspectives, in what is essentially an essay addressing both scholars and non-specialist readers.

  • 1 ‘Matérialité, esthétique et histoire des techniques, La collection François Lemai comme laboratoire (...)

2While research on cinema has focused mainly on the critical reading of author films, in particular in France and in francophone countries, through its early association with linguistics and literature, since of late, there have been substantial changes in research practices and mentalities. Cinema technology has recently caught the eye of scholars. The largely obsolete optical mechanical equipment, such as cameras and projectors, as well as studios and cinema halls have become increasingly popular objects of academic inquiry. A conference held in Canada in 2018 is evidence of the changing patterns in academic approaches to the study of cinema and film.1 As a cultural historian I must have got caught in the whirlwind somewhere, since this subject has also become one of my areas of research. A cultural studies approach therefore implies considering all aspects of the assembly line in the construction of a film, from conception to exhibition, from reception to preservation, from the art movie to the mass-market blockbuster. The concrete side of cinema, and how it interacts with the environment open up vistas: in fact, no other art justifies that we tackle it through its hardware, so dependent is it on the latter, from the cameras, microphones and rods, projectors and editing tables to ambulant cinema sites such as tents and state-of-the art auditoriums. It therefore comes as a surprise that cinema objects, edifices and spaces should have taken so long to be recognized as worthy of academic investigation. No doubt the complexity of working on non-textual material has been a major hurdle. The challenge, overall, is to tap this material corpus, and tease out meaning from objects and places, which while being ‘mute’ illuminate questions of society, and in our case, imperial politics. What feelings, thoughts and emotions did these spaces and objects bring up in the people, who used them, from the builder and manufacturer to the consumer? How did they modify the course of their lives?

3In the case of cinema objects, their owners do not wear them, but carry them, handle them lovingly, hold them close to their body, (eye on the view-finder), cherish them, clean them. Cinema ephemera like letters, memos, official documents, charts, photographs, films, posters, cut-outs, songbook covers, working stills or shots or in recent times, the ‘making ofs’ add further layers to what a scholar would have to confront.

4By placing cinema hardware at the core of academic study, aren’t we likewise paying tribute to primitive cinema practices of the early 20th century, which incidentally coincided with imperial expansion, and which were very much anchored in materiality and technology and not particularly in style, genres and themes? Before it became the 7th art, cinema was all about cranking a fixed camera to record reality. But even in this day and age, without the hardware, no film, whatever its category, can exist. A director’s first tool to craft his art is his camera, a cherished object. Cinema genres and geniuses grew in large measure out of the increasingly sophisticated machines and technology that were imagined, manufactured and perfected throughout the 20th century, and which continue to do so, even in this era of digital technology and virtual imagery. The appreciation of the final product also depended on the location, size and comfort of an auditorium. In the final analysis, the study of the material aspects of cinema from studio to screen can only complete the theoretical and intellectual analyses of the final product. This is especially true in a South Asian context where the 3-hour spectacle, interspersed with songs, dances and fights typical of Indian cinema, for example, needs a whole paraphernalia of equipment and sites, from the painted decors and lights to studios and laboratories for production and post production work, such as song ‘picturization’. So, while questions of caste, class, religion, language interplay with cinema in a multitude of ways, and an abundance of studies exist on the subject, how did its traditional objects and spaces engage with the people who were once part of the British Empire?

5On another note, what about Empire and film content? How was Empire inscribed on celluloid and projected in the colonies between 1900-1960s? In India and Ceylon, what early footage carried representations of Empire? How did certain categories of films like the works of the British Documentary Movement, under John Grierson, or Empire films (those grand frescoes by the Korda Brothers portraying the glory of Empire at a time when the latter was struggling to survive. . .) contribute to the perceptions of Empire in Great Britain or in her colonies?

6In this essay, I would also like to connect Victorian and Edwardian cinema material culture and projections of Empire on celluloid to the issue of the restoration and preservation of cinema heritage today. Whether in relation to Empire or not, research on the material aspects of cinema brings up the vexed question of their conservation for posterity. While films, especially the classics of our silver screens, are being given the attention and care they merit, what of cinema objects, spaces and edifices that are scattered around the world? What are the unfavourable conditions and threats that exist to film and non-film cinema heritage, in the countries that were once outposts of Empire? Which organisations are willing to overcome the obstacles to the preservation of this particular cinema heritage? Enfin I have to confess that my interest in non-film archives is also grounded in personal reasons, for having had a father and grandfather who were film producers and directors, as well as owners of theatres and studios in Sri Lanka and South India. As a child I fell into the cine-cauldron, surrounded by equipment of all manner, shapes and sizes from the tiniest microphone to the bulkiest of projectors typical of the pre-digital era. Barely did I make a distinction between an editing table and a dining table, or cranking a cine-camera and an egg-beater. Taken together, they were pieces of Empire sprinkled in an indigenous house: Bioscope magic, and its hardware ‘Made in England’ were within the reach of the colonized, from the urban sophisticates of the capital city to the villagers in the far corners of the island.

  • 2 N. Wickramasinghe’s Metallic Modern. Everyday Machines in Colonial Sri Lanka, Berghahn (2014) offer (...)

7The first objects, edifices and spaces of cinema came to us at the end of the 19th century, as part of the Victorian and Edwardian technological revolution, adding to the iconic and material wealth characteristic of the age. The invention of cinema was the result of remarkable technological advances made by scientists in the United States, Europe, and Great Britain, at the height of her imperial glory. The efforts of a number of Anglo-Saxon and French inventors converged to develop the art of animating images. Some worked as partners, but most were rivals. When the Lumière Brothers and Thomas Alva Edison succeeded in breathing life into a static image, they moreover rounded off an array of other mechanical inventions such as the photograph, the bicycle, the revolver, the sewing machine and the electric bulb. Some of these objects and machines made their way to the colonies, as far as Australia and Fiji, and transformed the lives of the people in the colonies.2 Then again, ground-breaking though it may have been, cinema hardly made any waves in the 19th century technological revolution, overshadowed as it were by the innumerable other machines being crafted by creative minds of the day. In fact, the first Lumière Brothers cinema projection held in England just managed to draw an audience. The Times of London announced that a screening of the moving image was organized at the Polytechnic in Regent Street in 1896. Then, cinema ceased to be mentioned for another 8 years (Chanan 25). Within a few decades, however forerunners of picture animation had combined sufficient ingenuity with business acumen to make cinema one of the most ubiquitous, economically viable and popular modes of expression, subsistence and entertainment, and more recently a fascinating object of scientific inquiry. The war of patents soon cleared the way for a gigantic industry whose tentacles would reach out to the colonies, caught in imperialist propaganda on the one hand, and rising anti-colonial movements on the other.

  • 3 J. F. Madan forged a cinema empire during the 1920s, building hundreds of cinema auditoriums in Ind (...)

8While nothing was more natural than for cinema to extol the virtues of the colonial enterprise, and for colonialist literature to be adapted to the screen (Shohat and Stam 100–10), it is relevant to mention here that technological innovations complete with their panoply of equipment left the European capitals to travel to the margins of existing empires, in particular the British Empire. Between 1885 and 1900, audiences in a host of colonies, like India, Singapore, Malaysia, Burma and Ceylon,—were held spellbound by the magic of bioscope, as machines made of steel, glass and wood projected images onto a screen. The roaming emissaries of the fixed and animated image, mostly British citizens, established photographic and cinema studios and firms in the colonies, between 1868 and 1898, like the Bourne and Shepherd studio in Calcutta, the Madras Photographic Stores and Clifton and Company of Bombay (Radhyaksha and Willemen 17). They played a crucial role in putting ‘living pictures’ and their technology within the reach of the general public in the colonies. Soon these pioneers would be joined by the indigenous. The traditional ruling elite, and prosperous merchant communities of Bombay, including the Parsis, like J. F. Madan, with a strong tradition in theatre, or parsi natak, were now keen on integrating the new art of animating images into their existing cultural and commercial interests.3

  • 4 As I was writing my thesis in 2006, I discovered the advertisement for a screening of Living London(...)

9Empire was showcased in the colonies not only through images recorded on film, but also through cinema objects, equipment, studios and auditoriums. Films that circulated within Empire were either footage of political events, typical of early film production or Empire Films that marked the 1930s or realist cinema that developed in inter-war Britain. Taken together, they were the tangible symbols of a Western art and technology, a show of strength and superiority against the backcloth of an Empire reaching its zenith. Like the bridges, clock towers, museums, statues, wall tiles, powder puffs and hairpins, cinema too, in its multiple modes and functions, stood for European presence in the colonies. Just as the colonial enterprise was elitist at heart, cinema likewise was reserved at the beginning for the ruling classes, the indigenous aristocracy and the English-speaking local bourgeoisie. An early example of picture animation that showcased Empire was Charles Urban’s Living London offering vistas of life in the imperial capital. The Australian-based Corrick Family Entertainers travelled around the colonies including Ceylon and presented this film as part of their variety act.4 In August 1907, the Corrick Family also showed Leonard’s beautiful pictures, a sequence of animated photographs to Colombo audiences. The animated images were described as ‘both educational and entertaining’, and ‘a real discovery in the art of cinema’ (Tampoe-Hautin 2011, 50). The announcement appearing in the newspaper offered viewing comfort obtained by electric fans (Ceylon Observer 24th August 1907). In colonial Ceylon, official screenings are said to have taken place in 1903. A ‘private’ screening was organized under the aegis of Governor Joseph West Ridgeway where footage of the English victory in the Boer War, Queen Victoria’s funeral and the coronation of Edward VII were presented to a public of British residents and the English-speaking elite of Colombo (Savarimutthu 14). A striking feature of this initial Colombo screening was the presentation of a multiple-episode film on the British victory at the Boer War to an audience comprising South African prisoners. They had been deported to Ceylon at the turn of the 20th century (Wright 858). One may contemplate the coincidence between the introduction of cinema into a colony and the concentration of three films of imperial propaganda, in particular, the screening of a film on the English victory of the Boer War to the very victims of the latter.

10In India, on July 7, 1896, Maurice Sestier, made a stop-over on his way to Australia and showed footage shot by the Lumière Brothers to an audience gathered at the Watson Hotel in Bombay. As Joël Fargès, in his study ‘Rasa Cinematographica’ points out, India had, if only in name, already made an appearance six months earlier at the initial Parisian screening, since the screening took place in the Salon Indien of the Grand Café. In Bombay, among these first spectators were the future builders of the cinema empire in the Indian Ocean, prosperous citizens of the commercial capital of the British Raj, British officials, English traders and expatriates. In the wake of the first screening in 1896, two Indian entrepreneurs rushed to obtain the exploitation rights for the cinematograph, the machine that ‘animated’ the image. Barely a week after the departure of the French operator, the machine, now owned by the Indians, was installed in the Novelty, a popular theatre in downtown Bombay. For one rupee, the Indian public discovered movie magic (Fargès 546).

  • 5 Cinematograph Films Act 1927, 17 & 18, GEO. 5, ch 29, Part III: Provisions for Securing Quota of Br (...)
  • 6 Cinematograph Films Act 1927, 17&18 GEO. 5, ch 29, Part IV, p.16-18.
  • 7 The Arriflex was built by the Arri Brothers in Germany during the first quarter of the 20th century (...)

11Empire was also promoted through the agency of producers like Arthur Rank or Alexander Korda. Empire Films, as they came to be termed, displayed blurred frontiers and predictably so: shot in the colonies or in Great Britain, with mixed Anglo-American crew and cast, they explored grand imperial themes with post-production done in English laboratories. If Empire Films idealize Great Britain in the colonies, as a superior culture (plots, rebellions, the value of English education, of honour, military prowess. . .) they likewise herald the decline of the British Empire, motivated, consciously or not, by the weakening of colonial power coinciding with the 1930s. The British industry also struggled to compete with the American Majors. By the mid 1920s, it was clear that Hollywood posed a threat to the British film industry, the decline having begun around 1910. There was also the need to counteract the effects of the American partnerships with Indian producers, and recover the lost imperial Indian market for British films, and restore the glory of the British Empire. Nearly 90% of foreign film imports in the British Raj came from the US, flooding the colonial Indian Ocean market (Bose 62). The 1927 Cinematograph Films Act thus contained a quota legislation which attempted to protect the British film industry.5 But in doing so, it raised the question of the national identity of a film, and what made a film ‘British’, given the existence of the British Empire and the increasingly vibrant Indian film industry straddling Bombay and Calcutta, soon to be joined by Madras. To obtain the classification of a ‘British film’, the producer had to meet a certain number of criteria defined in the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927 among which was that any film produced after December 31, 1928 which had scenes filmed in a British Empire studio and produced by a British subject at the time of production could obtain the title. The author of the scenario too must have been a British subject at the time of shooting.6 In 1927, Meyrick Milton argued that ‘In restricting the exhibition of foreign films, or to express it more diplomatically, in imposing an exhibition quota, Government would in no way depart from the classic role of policeman, assigned to it by the bagmen-economists in the fallacious days of Queen Victoria’. The idea was to play the game in the ‘interests of the Nation and of the Empire at large. . .’ (Meyrick Milton 25). In the 1920s, another movement began, as Robert Flaherty shot Nanook of the North. Flaherty, followed by John Grierson, Alberto Cavalcanti, Harry Jennings, Basil Wright, and others will venture into instructional or realist cinema. A convergence of reasons enabled the documentary to develop in Britain, and then in the colonies. One of them was that Great Britain needed to give a visual reality to the reconstruction of the country during the inter-war period, leading successive British governments to set up film units within the various ministries and to hire these young filmmakers to shoot the restoration work carried out in the various sectors that had suffered during the world conflicts (Russell 2). These young directors moreover rose up against excessive commercialism by Hollywood to support the national film industry and turned to the British state for help, offering their services in return (Armes 45). If the documentary became a tool of state-sponsored social testimony at home, the British colonies provided additional themes and spaces for the documentary genre to flourish, as well as a market for exhibition. Films shot in Jamaica, New Zealand, Ceylon and Burma as well as in the African colonies were shown to British as well as to colonial audiences. Basil Wright’s award-winning Song of Ceylon (1935) is an illustrious example of a documentary begun for imperial commercial purposes (to improve the imperial tea industry after the Great Depression), becoming one of the jewels in the British documentary crown, lauded for its audio-visual qualities (Boyle 2000, 4). On the technical side, the invention of sound as well as techniques in outdoor sound taking gave an even further realistic dimension to instructional cinema. The lightweight hand-held German Arriflex 35 camera, came at an opportune moment, in the early 1930s, enabling mobility and outdoor shooting, using natural light.7

  • 8 ‘Britain and the Colonies: A catalogue of material about the Colonies available to schools and the (...)
  • 9 ‘The Three Italians’, Lester James Peries’ speech given at the conference ‘The changing face of the (...)
  • 10 ‘Pity women are giving up the saree and men their chew of betel’, interview with Giulio Petroni on (...)
  • 11 My thanks to Richard Boyle for precious information on Ceylon’s documentary film heritage.

12From 1933, the Imperial Institute in London accepted to preserve documentaries shot by Grierson and his collaborators, so that these films would reach audiences of all social categories, including the working classes (Stollery 173). Indeed, as Empire declined to give way to the Commonwealth, the Imperial Institute in London made available a treasure trove of filmstrips and lecture notes on the colonies to the British public so they could discover ‘the life, the landscapes and the industries of the Empire, extending from Canada to Ceylon’.8 Audiences also comprised schoolchildren, orphans, boy scouts and girl guides, accompanied by their teachers. Arthur Creech Jones, Secretary of State for the Colonies, in his foreword to the catalogue of such films, considered the corpus of films as a ‘message of hope for the future’ with the expectation that the British public would ‘realize the vast interest of the story of the Colonies’ and learn about this ‘fascinating and vital subject’, adding that the publication of such a catalogue would also make critics of Empire understand that to maintain the British Commonwealth was ‘no sinister imperialism in the worst sense. . .’ (‘Britain and the Colonies’ 3). If the fixed and animated image remained at the service of imperial policy, colonial cinema also strengthened the cohesion between the colonies and the mother country. Travelling film directors and animators reduced the sense of territorial discontinuity generated by geographic distances, fostering common markets for film distribution and exhibition and the commercialization of cinema equipment, not to mention the adoption and development by the indigenous inhabitants in the colonies of cinema infrastructures like studios, laboratories and film units. The concept of the film unit is an eminent British colonial legacy to the world of cinema, beginning with the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit, which was set up in 1928. Both the documentary and the film unit were adopted in the colonies. Around the mid 1940s, one such film unit was set up in colonial Ceylon, on her way to independence. From 1948 to 1951, the fledgling film unit occupied a number of sites, including an abandoned British Air Force hangar, in a coconut grove, which had served as a makeshift cinema auditorium for British soldiers stationed in this Indian Ocean island during the Second World War.9 Italian film director, Giulio Petroni, was appointed as head of the Ceylon GFU. He was offered a driver, an assistant and a utility vehicle and shot documentaries using the combat cameras which the British Military forces had left behind when they returned to Great Britain. There were no sound recording facilities, nor a laboratory for post-production.10 The Italian director’s filmography in Ceylon, includes The First Year Anniversary Celebrations of Independence (1949), which he shot in what was still a colonial atmosphere. Richard Boyle writes that Petroni’s film captures the spectacular display of fly-pasts by Lancaster bombers and Sunderland flying-boats, complete with ceremonies and parades by the Royal Air Force and Royal Marines personnel. The chief guest at the celebrations was the country’s Governor-General, Sir Henry Monck-Mason Moore, because Ceylon was a Dominion (Boyle).11

  • 12 My thanks to the late Hans Van Starrex for precious information on Imperial Talkies equipment and t (...)
  • 13 The distribution of foreign films in Ceylon continued unabated in the mid-1930s. Between April 1934 (...)

13As concerns early cinema spaces, they ranged from the colonial hotels like the Bristol in Colombo, or the Watsons Hotel in Bombay, to village playgrounds, sports fields and disused British Army Tents. An enterprising young Ceylonese, Andreas Van Starrex, bought British Army tents and a projector at the end of the 1st World War, to begin a mobile cinema business in Ceylon. He called his film company ‘Imperial Talkies’, a name resonating the times. Van Starrex travelled through the jungle, with his equipment strapped onto a bullock cart, complete with a team of workers, helpers, hunters with rifles, so that they could hunt deer, grouse and other means of subsistence, as they moved from village to village (Tampoe-Hautin 2008, 77–83).12 Then as cinema became more sedentary, Van Starrex imported Ceylon’s first ever projector to equip his fixed cinema. In the colonies, in particular India and Ceylon, edifices made specifically for screening films increased during the 1930s, buttressed by the vibrant American film industry, and bespoke imperial grandeur, through their elegant interiors and exteriors, their names, their architecture as well as the films they screened. The rounded and illuminated façades, the famous limelight, the neoclassical entrance halls, the box office in the literal sense of the word, the curving staircases, the colonnades, the draperies all mirrored a way of living, on and off screen. Complete with names like Elphinstone, Imperial, Majestic, Regal, Crown, or. . .Empire, these buildings played the role of promoter of Empire even when the owners were indigenous, and the colonials had long since departed (Tampoe-Hautin 2011, 56–57). The layout of the cinema auditoriums, their geographical locations as well as the types of audiences that attended were also eye-openers on socio-economic disparities in Indo-Sri Lankan colonial or post-colonial societies. They too spoke of relations between the colonizer and the colonized, based on hierarchy, racial or class segregation, or sex. Yves Thoraval recalls the context in British India, where the audience of early cinema were divided according to their sex (Thoraval 1), to which will be added distinctions of caste. Seating was graded according to the distance from the screen and stage, with ticket prices affordable for all budgets. The balcony and box, located furthest from the screen hosted the ruling elite, the ODC (or the ordinary dress circle) drew the middle classes while the gallery, or the third class, was where the lower social ranks sat, practically under the screen (Tampoe-Hautin  2011, 59). Through the initiatives of the remarkable Madan Theatres, Ceylonese and Indian cinemas screened American and British films, including Empire Films to local audiences.13 By the 1940s, most of these theatres had become part of the existing British and American distribution circuits, like the Rank Organisation or the U.S. Majors, caught in the US-GB competition to capture colonial markets.

14What about traces of these objects and images today? Which organisations, institutions or means of communication are in charge of restoring and preserving cinema heritage and educating and informing the public? Sanogo Aboubakar, writing in the Journal of Film Preservation, about the challenges to film restoration in Africa, makes the relevant comment that ‘in many ways, the moving-image camera is one of the most propitious means through which to record an already-existing heritage; in addition, everything we record becomes heritage by virtue of this recording. The place of conservation of this heritage is itself a heritage site and is also the place that turns the film heritage object further into heritage by virtue of holding it within its vaults’ (Aboubakar 9).

15The Fédération panafricaine des cinéastes (FEPACI), Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film (FIAF) and Film Heritage of India (FHI) are some of the organizations actively involved in protecting our audio-visual heritage as well as non-film archives the world over. Their work involves restoration and digitization, classification and indexation, accessing, handling, transporting and storing cellulose nitrate as well as other film. Shivendra Singh, film director and founder of the Film Heritage of India, too is an active campaigner, committed to raising awareness on the questions of preserving film and non-film, reaching out beyond cinema professionals to even school children. The FHI offers intensive training workshops and congresses, gathering film professionals from all over the globe, in places as exotic as in the foothills of the Himalayas, in Hyderabad, and of course in Mumbai. Such efforts are all the more laudable in view of a renewed interest for analogue film equipment, due to its ability to produce images of superb quality, which the ubiquitous digital technology cannot match.

16Having said this, despite the efforts towards conservation of film and non-film archives in the ex-British colonies in recent years (research projects, restoration schemes, academic publications), cinema heritage remains fragile and an endangered species, lacking both recognition and subsidies. India and Sri Lanka are eminent examples of how late we are in recognizing non-film aspects of cinema as witnesses of our recent and distant past. While castles, temples, statues are the focus of conservationists, the question may be raised as to who, in South Asia, would consider setting up a museum of cinema, of preserving a studio, an auditorium or a camera. Political and cultural authorities need to rid themselves of prejudices with regard to cinema, still considered as a ‘modern’ invention, a vestige emblematic of European power. The fact remains that the notion of heritage and the modalities of conservation vary according to whether we are in Japan, Laos, Sri Lanka or Germany or as seen from the vantage point of UNESCO. Pending fruitful collaborations, the tropical environments continue to destroy whatever is remaining of our cinema heritage. During the FIAF’s 2018 Prague Congress, archivist David Walsh warned against the innumerable disasters that could hit our film heritage, from too-high temperatures and tsunamis to destruction through self-combustion and the vinegar syndrome (Walsh 23–31). A rescue mission to Sri Lanka by the FIAF to save a part of the national film collection was a step in the right direction.

  • 14 My grateful thanks to Thamby Navaratnam, current owner of the Rio for providing me with information (...)
  • 15 My interview with Thamby Navaratnam, at the Rio Cinema, Colombo, December 2019.

17If most of us stand helpless and watch the slow decay of film and non-film archival material in many parts of the world, especially in hot and humid environments, the current trend is also to rid cinema halls of traditional equipment, because of their volume and weight, despite its ability to show superb quality images, unmatched by digital technology. Many auditoriums have been demolished and replaced with multiplexes, better adapted to today’s needs, thus erasing another part of film and cinema history. And yet, bulky, space-consuming and cumbersome as they may be, auditoriums and objects of the cinema of a by-gone era are invaluable, tangible witnesses of the past, not to mention that some of the most treasured classics of the silver screen owe their existence to this materiality. As I write in 2020, a number of such icons of cinema exhibition have disappeared. Amongst those that are still standing, is the elegant Rio Cinema, in Colombo, belonging to the Navaratnam Family.14 The ‘moving’ story of the Rio is worth reflecting upon as I end this essay: it was post-independent Ceylon’s premier auditorium inaugurated in February 1965. Broadway musicals were shown using the 70mm Todd AO technology. Then during the 1983 ethnic riots (Black July), the Rio was looted and then razed to the ground. Today, despite its dilapidated state, it has immense beauty and atmosphere, so much so that it hosted a trendy event, the Colomboscope . . . where artists and musicians converged (Smriti; Razi). The Rio is also one of the rare cinema halls which has not converted to digital technology, and continues to offer an optimum cinema experience through the very high quality images that only traditional projectors and polyester films can provide.15

18Researchers have fortunately joined cinema professionals and politicians to highlight the extreme urgency of preserving this heritage. These issues should be addressed and resolved urgently at both the levels of scholarship and cultural politics. It is with regret that I end this discussion on a further pessimistic note: if cinema spaces and objects of yesteryear need attention, then at the time of writing, in August 2020, even those in use are under threat due to the current health crisis, a situation that is worrying for film distributors, theatre-owners and the cinephile public, even if it will provide further food for thought for scholars, and a new area of research.

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Aboubakar, Sanogo. ‘Africa in the World of Moving Image Archiving: Challenges and Opportunities in the 21st Century’. Journal of Film Preservation 99 (Oct. 2018): 9.

Armes, Roy. A Critical History of British Cinema. London: Secker and Warburg, 1978.

Bose, Mihir. Bollywood: A History. New Delhi: Roli Books Pvt, Lotus Collection, 2006.

Boyle, Richard. ‘Basil Wright’s “Song of Ceylon”’. Cinesith 2 (2002): 4–11.

Boyle, Richard. ‘Preserving “the little bastards”’. Himal Southasian, June 2010. Date of consultation 15 December 2020

Ceylon Observer, 24th August, 1907.

Chanan, Michael. The Dream That Kicks: The Prehistory and Early Years of Cinema in Britain. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1996.

Fargès, Joël. ‘Le Cinéma en Inde : Rasa Cinematographica’. L’Inde Contemporaine : de 1950 à nos jours. Ed. Christophe Jaffrelot. Paris: Fayard, 1996, 545–68.

Leutrat, Jean-Louis. Le Cinéma en Perspective : Une Histoire. Collection Cinéma 128. Paris : Nathan Université, 1992. 12.

MacKenzie, John, ed. European Empires and the People. Popular Responses to Imperialism in France, Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Italy, “Introduction”. Manchester University Press, Studies in Imperialism, 2011. 1–18.

Milton, Meyrick. Concerning Legislation to Encourage Empire Films. London: Austin Leigh, 1927. 25.

National Film and Sound Archive of Australia Date of consultation : 9th September 2020.

Radhyaksa, Ashish, and Paul Willemen. The Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema. New Delhi: BFI/OUP, 1994.

Razi, Hafsa. Up in Smoke: The Rio 35 years after Black July’. Groundviews: Journalism for Citizens. 23rd July 2018. Date of consultation: 7 December 2020

Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Film Industry in Ceylon. Sessional Papers II, Government Publications Bureau, Colombo, 1965.

Russell, Patrick. ‘Industrial and Corporate Films 2’, BFI : Date of consultation 11 Dec. 2020.

Savarimutthus, Ranee. Development of the Sinhala Cinema (1947–1967). Colombo: OCI, 1977.

Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. ‘The Imperial Imaginary’. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. Ed. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam. London: Routledge, 1994.100–36.

Smritis, Daniel. ‘At The Rio: Exploring the Uncertain Future of a Colombo Institution’, Commonwealth Writers, July 15, 2015. Date of consultation: 7 December 2020

Stollery, Martin. Alternative Empires: European Modernist Cinemas and Cultures of Imperialism. Exeter: U of Exeter P, 2000.

Tampoe-Hautin, Vilasnee. Cinéma et Colonialisme: la genèse du cinéma au Sri Lanka (de 1896 à 1928). Paris: L’Harmattan, collection Champs Visuels, 2011.

Tampoe-Hautin, Vilasnee. ‘Reels on Wheels : Mobile Cinema in Rural Colonial Ceylon (1910-1974)’. Asian Cinema 19.2 (Fall/Winter 2008): 77–83.

Thoraval, Yves. The Cinemas of India. New Delhi: Macmillan, 2000.

Walsh, David, Mick Newnham, and Shivendra Singh Dungrapur. ‘A Movement Begins in Sri Lanka’. Journal of Film Preservation 99 (Oct. 2018): 57–63.

Walsh, David. ‘Slow Disasters: How Neglect Continues to Destroy Our Film Heritage’. Ed. Elaine Burrows. Journal of Film Preservation 99 (Oct. 2018): 23–31.

Wickramasinghe, Nira. Metallic Modern: Everyday Machines in Colonial Sri Lanka. New York/Oxford: Berghahn, 2014.

Wright, Arnold. Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon: Its History, People, Commerce, Industries and Resources. Asian Educational Services, 1999.

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1 ‘Matérialité, esthétique et histoire des techniques, La collection François Lemai comme laboratoire’, international conference, Université Laval, Québec, 29 October-2 November 2018.

2 N. Wickramasinghe’s Metallic Modern. Everyday Machines in Colonial Sri Lanka, Berghahn (2014) offers a fascinating study of how the sewing machine transformed the lives of people in India and Ceylon.

3 J. F. Madan forged a cinema empire during the 1920s, building hundreds of cinema auditoriums in India, Singapore and Ceylon. With a penchant for American cinema, Madan also established a distribution network in the British Indian Ocean colonies, importing US films. 1925 saw the peak of the astonishing career of this man, a visionary and a key figure in Indian cinema.

4 As I was writing my thesis in 2006, I discovered the advertisement for a screening of Living London in Ceylon, in the Press archives of Colombo. The single surviving print of Living London is at present held by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, <> (Date of consultation: 9th September 2020).

5 Cinematograph Films Act 1927, 17 & 18, GEO. 5, ch 29, Part III: Provisions for Securing Quota of British Films, Renter’s Quota, p. 7-13.

6 Cinematograph Films Act 1927, 17&18 GEO. 5, ch 29, Part IV, p.16-18.

7 The Arriflex was built by the Arri Brothers in Germany during the first quarter of the 20th century. This remarkable camera became popular in Ceylon during the 1940s, in particular with the Government Film Unit directors like the award-winning Pragnasoma Hettiararchi and Lester James Peries.

8 ‘Britain and the Colonies: A catalogue of material about the Colonies available to schools and the public’, London, His Majesty’s Stationery Office, London. Foreword by Arthur Creech Jones, Secretary of State for the Colonies, 1947, p. 18.

9 ‘The Three Italians’, Lester James Peries’ speech given at the conference ‘The changing face of the documentary’ at the South Asian Documentaries and Short Films Symposium, Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, Colombo, 1991.

10 ‘Pity women are giving up the saree and men their chew of betel’, interview with Giulio Petroni on his visit to the island in 1993, Ceylon Daily News, 8 March 1993, p. 5.

11 My thanks to Richard Boyle for precious information on Ceylon’s documentary film heritage.

12 My thanks to the late Hans Van Starrex for precious information on Imperial Talkies equipment and theatres, which are some of the best preserved in Sri Lanka today.

13 The distribution of foreign films in Ceylon continued unabated in the mid-1930s. Between April 1934 and January 1937, the four main cinemas in Colombo (the Regal, the Elphinstone, the Majestic Talkies and the Empire) released The Kid from Spain (1932), Ben Hur (1925), King of the Ritz (1933) Don’t Bet on Love (1933), Bombshell (1933). Screen and Stage, Ceylon Observer 1st April 1934. Alexander Korda’s biopic Victoria the Great (1937), directed by Herbert Wilcox, was also released in Ceylonese cinemas. Ceylon Theatres 50th Anniversary (1928-1978), Colombo, 1978.

14 My grateful thanks to Thamby Navaratnam, current owner of the Rio for providing me with information and photographs of his father’s auditorium.

15 My interview with Thamby Navaratnam, at the Rio Cinema, Colombo, December 2019.

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Electronic reference

Vilasnee Tampoe-Hautin, “Empire Seen from Within. Cinema Objects, Spaces and Edifices in the Limelight in Colonial India and Ceylon (1899-1950)”Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 93 Printemps | 2021, Online since 01 June 2021, connection on 21 September 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Vilasnee Tampoe-Hautin

Vilasnee Tampoe-Hautin is Professor at the University of La Réunion. Her research has addressed various aspects of Indian Ocean cultural history, with a focus on cinema and identity politics in colonial and post-independent contexts in India and Sri Lanka. Other areas of proficiency are socio-cultural and political movements in 19th-century Ceylon and their impact on nascent Sinhala cinema. She is the author of a number of articles and books, including two biographies of Sri Lankan filmmakers, Robin Tampoe, Last of the Big Ones (2008) and Sumitra Peries, poetess of Sinhala Cinema (2011), as well as a two-volume study Cinéma et Colonialisme: la genèse du cinéma au Sri Lanka (de 1896 à 1928), and Cinéma et Conflits ethniques au Sri Lanka: Vers un cinéma cinghalais “indigène” (de l'indépendance en 1948 à nos jours). Ethnicity, Politics and Cinema in Sri Lanka: Casting a Celluloid Mould from Sinhala Cinema (2015) completes her bibliography. The issue of the conservation of Sri Lanka’s film and cinema heritage recently entered her ground of predilection and is the focus of her forthcoming book, Bringing Back a By-gone Empire Seen from Within. Cinema Objects, Spaces and Edifices in the Limelight in Colonial India and Ceylon (1899-1950).
Vilasnee Tampoe-Hautin est Professeur des Universités à l’université de La Réunion. Sa recherche porte sur divers aspects de l’histoire culturelle de l’océan Indien, avec une attention particulière portée sur le cinéma et les identités politiques dans le contexte colonial et postindépendant de l’Inde et du Sri Lanka. Elle a développé d’autres champs de compétences comme les mouvements socio-culturels et politiques du xixe siècle à Ceylan et leur impact sur le cinéma Sinhala naissant. Elle est l’auteur d’un certain nombre d’articles et de livres, dont deux biographies de cinéastes sri-lankais Robin Tampoe, Last of the Big Ones (2008) et Sumitra Peries, poetess of Sinhala Cinema (2011), ainsi qu’une étude en deux volumes : Cinéma et Colonialisme: la genèse du cinéma au Sri Lanka (de 1896 à 1928), et Cinéma et Conflits ethniques au Sri Lanka: Vers un cinéma cinghalais « indigène »” (de l'indépendance en 1948 à nos jours). Un autre ouvrage Ethnicity, Politics and Cinema in Sri Lanka: Casting a Celluloid Mould from Sinhala Cinema (2015) complète sa bibliographie. La question de la conservation des films sri-lankais et du patrimoine cinématographique est récemment devenue un élement clé de sa recherche et sera au centre d’un ouvrage à paraître dont le titre sera : Bringing Back a By-gone Empire Seen from Within. Cinema Objects, Spaces and Edifices in the Limelight in Colonial India and Ceylon (1899-1950).

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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