On his Twitter account, archaeologist Tathagata Neogi regularly posts trivia and anecdotes about Kolkata’s single-screen theatres. Early this month, there was one about New Empire Cinema, started as Empire Theatre by Bandmann & Stephen in 1908. It used to host plays as well as boxing bouts and began screening movies only in the 1930s, under a new name: Empire Cinema.
Several such stories form part of his documentation and archival project on the city’s single-screen theatres—10 have been documented so far. Some still stand, derelict, while others live on only in memory. Like the iconic Chaplin, demolished in parts between 2008-13, its story lost in the rubble of time.
The theatre was started by Jamshedji Framji Madan, a Parsi entrepreneur and film producer in Kolkata who launched the Elphinstone Bioscope Company to show movies in pitched tents. In 1907, he came up with India’s first purpose-built movie theatre. Located in Esplanade, it was called Elphinstone Picture Palace. This later became Chaplin Cinema.
Neogi, co-founder of Immersive Trails (formerly Heritage Walk Calcutta), has been collecting such stories while creating in-person and virtual experiences focused on the city’s lesser-known aspects—hoping to create awareness of the need to maintain urban heritage through walks and workshops. Part of the income is channelled into independent and collaborative documentation and conservation projects, such as the one on Kolkata’s historic theatres.
“Single-screen theatres and playhouses in Kolkata have long held a fascination for Chelsea (McGill, co-founder, Immersive Trails) and me,” says Neogi. “We knew of their importance historically as cultural spaces and were sad to see them go into a deep decline, faced with competition from multiplexes. We have always wanted to do a documentation project around these spaces and preserve their flavour, at least digitally if possible. But getting access to theatres has been difficult.”
Earlier this year, however, the team made a breakthrough. Film-maker Shapath Das of the Arthouse Asia film festival got in touch with them to organise a virtual trail of Kolkata, as seen through the lens of cinema history. Neogi and the Immersive Trails team proposed the idea of complete, 360-degree documentation of single-screen theatres in Kolkata as part of the virtual trail. Das agreed immediately and even helped them gain access to some of these historic spaces. “But there are a lot many single screens in Kolkata, and other towns and cities of Bengal, left to document. We hope the film fraternity will help us get access so that our project can grow into a complete virtual interactive archive,” says Neogi. The 360-degree experience will be launched in May.
The journey of documenting single-screen theatres has come with its own set of revelations, especially about the pioneering days of “film-showing” in Kolkata. Both Jamshedji Framji Madan and Hiralal Sen, hailed as one of India’s first film-makers (in 1903, Sen filmed the popular Alibaba And Forty Thieves, the first Indian full-length film), started using bioscopes to screen films in tents, travelling around the country. The early films were an amalgamation of short clips about boxing bouts, a train coming in, cockfights, and processions of various kinds.
“It was really fascinating to learn that Hiralal Sen, besides being a pioneer of film showing in India, also probably filmed one of the first advertisements for Jabakusum oil during the Swadeshi movement. He also documented the political rallies organised during the movement on film. Unfortunately, his entire archive burnt down in a 1917 accident, and we lost these early gems,” rues Neogi.
The history behind some of these theatres also shows that the story of film-making and film showing in Bengal was not always about successes. There were failures too. According to Neogi, Sen came into the spotlight for two massive goof-ups, which sealed his fate, and led Madan to become the most successful entrepreneur in South Asian cinema. The first of these took place in 1904/05, when Pathé Pictures of France wanted to enter into an exclusive agreement with him to show their films in south Asia. This would have made Sen the undisputed leader in the region. However, he was hesitant about this, and after months of waiting for his decision, Pathé offered the same deal to Madan, who jumped at it. Soon Madan would open theatres all across India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
The second goof-up happened in 1919-20, when Sen was approached by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s family to sell the rights of all his novels for ₹20,000 (around ₹2 crore in today’s money). Even though Sen could afford it, he proved to be indecisive again. Madan, instead, offered ₹30,000 and purchased the rights to all the novels and made a huge profit while producing films based on them both as silent movies and later as talkies.
Their archive, growing slowly but steadily, also tells us a lot about the changing relationship Kolkatans have had with cinema and these community spaces. Till the 1990s, says Neogi, cinema-going was an event in itself. “I remember my grandmothers, aunts and mother waiting in anticipation for the hour to arrive when they could go to the cinema. They would don make-up, dress us as if for a festival and then go out. Such instances are also mentioned in Bengali literature and other aspects of popular culture,” he adds.
Satellite television, multiplexes and OTT platforms have since taken a punishing toll on single-screen theatres. “We need to make watching a movie in a single-screen theatre an experience again to make them popular. We need to provide that ‘golden-era’ feel by hosting special nights, showing classics from various eras, and more. Once this happens, single screens will thrive again—at least some of them,” says Neogi.
The archive hopes to create a conversation about conservation and restoration of these historic spaces. Just demolishing them cannot be the way forward. But since Neogi is convinced not all theatres will be interested in recreating the classic, golden-era experience, there’s a need to look for ways to repurpose these buildings too. They could keep their classic Art Deco facades and be converted into museums, performance spaces or community centres.
“The idea is to make these spaces relevant to the community and also financially viable for the owners. Selling them off so that these historic structures get torn down and replaced is not the way to go,” says Neogi. “For instance, if you rent your theatre to a supermarket, you need to keep the structure and the interiors intact. Create an ambience so that people feel proud of working in, or buying from, a historic landmark.”