Miasmic Screens: Contagion and Control in Early 20th Century Cinema Halls

As cinema halls in Kerala emerge as sites of pandemic control, Bindu Menon explores a longer history of how moralized notions of public health and contagion played out in Kerala’s cinema halls, and through film as medium.

Bindu Menon

 

Many years later, as I faced the coronavirus pandemic, I was to remember that distant afternoon when my father took me to discover cinema. – Jia Zhangke. 1

The pandemic has led us to think of the cinema halls once again, penning odes to single-screen theatres, pining for the sociality that once was and lamenting the immersive catharsis of its darkness. The immediacy of the pandemic brings to me screens and spaces of the past equally plagued by epidemics, control and contagion; a recalling that brings the cinema hall into sharp relief as a temporal object swollen with history. The decades in which cinema gathered audiences and popularity across the towns and villages of the erstwhile Travancore, Cochin, and Malabar regions were the same ones in which epidemics like cholera, smallpox, and plague ravaged the population. 2 Temporary cinema exhibitions in the first decades of the 1900s thus emerge at the conjuncture of widening social spaces and a quantitative growth in spatial and temporal patterns of public gatherings.

Cinema halls became central to official and public narratives about contagion and epidemic spread in the following decades, effecting changes in the licensing, pricing, and management of these spaces. Often, parts of Thiruvithamkoor were in the grip of epidemics like cholera, dysentery, and smallpox, and the spread of these epidemics only sharpened the feeling that public spaces like cinema halls and drama exhibitions were fundamentally miasmic. During the 1922 smallpox epidemic, a Nazrani Deepika report from Kollam warned the public thus: ‘After successfully spawning the smallpox germs in southern Travancore, the new film and drama company has reached Kollam town.’ 3 In April 1928, the Alleppey Municipal administration served the Emden Cinema touring exhibition with an order to suspend its screenings on the grounds of it being a space posing threats to hygiene and sanitation, spreading epidemics. Large sections of the public, including eminent lawyers and civic groups, came forward to protest the town administration’s ban. 4 In 1935, Anna Chandy, the first woman magistrate of Travancore, urban reformer, and an advocate of women’s rights, filed a petition as first appellant against the construction of the ‘new theatre’ near the women and children’s hospital in Thycaud. 5 The Cochin legislative council discussed the suspension of cinema and drama licenses in the Mattancheri island of Cochin due to the plague epidemic.  The Head Sarkar Vakil, in his explanation, said, ‘…[S]uch forms of entertainment may be suspended for the time being so that infection may not spread.’ 6 Many newspapers emphatically contributed to this discourse by marking cinema exhibition sites as ‘miasmic spaces’ of epidemics like the plague and as a potential threat to the ‘social body’. How did cinema become a space of multiple contagions—epidemic, social, cultural, and moral?

Early decades of the 20th century witnessed powerful oppressed-caste movements demanding access and entry into the public domain, mainly such as schools, temples, and free use of public roads, eventually transforming Thiruvithamkoor into a new social order. 7 Within this newly emerging social order, groups and activities long deemed geographically segregated, socially marginalised, or imperceptible were visible public actors. Accessible and appealing to fantasy and mass consumption, cinema, popular theatre, circus and many such ‘cultural feats’ cumulatively worked towards a ‘democratic’ subversion of the old social order. 8

Accounts of ‘miasmic’ cinema halls construct the cinema hall as an assemblage of subaltern bodies and evince a fear of the ‘mass’ as violent, amoral, contagious, and sensate. Present in these narratives is also a sense of fear towards the new and expanding forms of sociability that the cinema halls initiated, paralleling (unintentionally) the opening up of public spaces that the oppressed caste struggles demanded. Neither customary nor habituated, these new norms of sociability posed novel problems of proximity and touchability. 9 The material divisions that historically govern bodies in Indian social life, as Aniket Jaaware (2019)  argued, is structured significantly around figural touching rather than literal touching. Extrapolating from Jaaware’s insights, the miasma that surrounds cinema halls both then and now are centred around compounding ideas of touch, space, and sociability. 10 The co-existence of cinema with the worst epidemics of the early 20th century intensified these subterranean stirrings. The desire to create a sanguine and healthy cinema was by no means limited to regulating cinema halls.

As early as 1928, the Nazrani Deepika reported that some of the screenings of early documentaries on diseases, sanitation, and hygiene, such as ‘The Hookworm’—a film screened by the Royal Cinema Company at the Excelsior Cinema in the Thampanoor area— might get an extension from the municipality for this most useful screening. 11 Starting in the early decades of the 20th century, Thiruvithamkoor was part of a global network of missionary activities like those of the Rockefeller Foundation and the London Missionary Society. 12 By the 1930s, the avowed philanthropic objectives had shifted to a much more elaborate project of developmentalism that had its links with Thiruvithamkoor state. 13 As a princely state that embraced ideals of progress and national development through welfare measures and rational organisation of the society, propagating those ideas through films such as ‘The Hookworm’ had an important role to play. The foundation’s use of film technology as part of an elaborate propaganda machinery formed part of this discursive fabric of developmentalism. 14 Film was the chosen medium because of its communicability, reproducibility, and mobility across a vast landscape.

A Mobile Van of the Travancore Public Health Department fitted with loudspeakers and projection equipment. Source: Travancore Information, Nov-Dec 1941.

The Health Propaganda Van was a key aspect of this communicability. The Rockefeller Foundation worked with the newly formed public health department of Thiruvithamkoor from the 1940s onwards, and they often had inseparable agendas. The Propaganda equipment included a van fitted with a loudspeaker, a portable cinema outfit, an adequate stock of health movies, a collection of musical and lecture gramophone records, magic lanterns and slides, and also numerous health posters and models. 15 

The equipped van travelled through the interior towns and villages of Thiruvithamkoor since 1941 and was welcomed with much enthusiasm. T. K. Velupillai described the popularity of the propaganda van in the Travancore Manual: ‘Its appearance at the scheduled lecture centres allures huge concourses of people, especially in villages and festival areas’. 16  These propaganda exhibitions were often linked to the networked nodes of the developmentalist state, like schools, local administration, rural education centres, and rural welfare organisations to derive more ‘instructional value’. The mobile vans in these descriptions appear as a powerful architecture of movement that delivered the discourse of health and development across the difficult geographical terrains of backwaters, coastal areas, and inland and mountainous high range villages. 17 

This century-long history allows us to think of the cinema hall in its temporary, permanent, and mobile forms and presents a phenomenon that is spatial, temporal and social. The recent transitions and crisis with the single-screen theatres pose new questions of hygiene and labour for cinema-going. 18 On the other hand, the multiplex industry, governed by the monopoly of chains like INOX, Reliance, and PVR is better positioned to negotiate with the new order of life and livelihood. As the crisis presents challenges to cinema-going and exhibition practices, what emerges as equally relevant is what this tenuous moment offers towards a cultural history of leisure practices, spatial politics, and sociality. 

References

  • Arnold, David. Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India. University of California Press, 1993.
  • Burns, James. The Making and Uses of a Public Health Film, Rockefeller Archives Research Report http://www.rockarch.org/publications/resrep/burns.pdf
  • Dass, Manishita. Outside the Lettered City: Cinema, Modernity, and the Public Sphere in Late Colonial India. Oxford University Press, USA, 2015
  • Devika, J. Individuals, Householders, Citizens: Malayalis and Family Planning: 1930-1970. Zubaan, 2008.
  • Jaaware, Aniket. Practicing Caste: On Touching and Not Touching. Duke University Press, 2019.
  • Menon.Bindu. Re-Framing Vision: Malayalam Cinema and the invention of Modern Life in Keralam, Unpublished PhD Dissertation, Jawaharlal Nehru University, 2014.
  • Mohan, P. Sanal. Modernity of Slavery: Struggles against Caste Inequality in Colonial Kerala. Oxford University Press, 2015.
  •  M., Kabir. Beyond Philanthrophy: The Rockefeller Foundation’s Public Health Intervention in Thiruvithamkoor, 1929-1939, Centre for Development Studies Working Paper 230, 2003.
  • Sivathamby, Karttikesu. The Tamil Film as a Medium of Political Communication. New Century Book House, 1981.
  • Srinivas, S. V. ‘Is there a public in the cinema hall?’ Framework 42 (2000).
  • Sreenath, K. ‘Last Nail on the Coffin: Single Screen Cinemas in Kerala and the Covid-19 Pandemic’, Ala – A Kerala Studies Blog, http://ala.keralascholars.org/issues/issue-27/cinemas-of-kerala-covid-19/
  • Velupillai, T. K. Travancore State manual Vol 1, 2&3 Government Press, Thiruvananthapuram, 1940.
  • Zhangke, Jia. ‘Signs of Life: A letter from Jia Zhangke’. https://filmkrant.nl/opinie/a-letter-from-jia-zhang-ke/

About the Author: Bindu Menon teaches Media Studies at the School of Arts & Sciences, Azim Premji University, Bangalore. She can be reached at bindu.menon@apu.edu.in

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