The Parsi Pioneer of the Bengali Film Industry

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In the heart of Kolkata’s famous Dharmatala neighbourhood is Madan Street, a road not unlike many others in the commercial heart of the city. And yet this unremarkable street is named after a man who once controlled more than half the country’s box office.

Jamshedji Framji Madan | Wikimedia Commons
Jamshedji Framji Madan | Wikimedia Commons

That film pioneer is J F Madan, a Parsi businessman and film magnate who floated India’s first corporate film production company. All but forgotten today, Madan built a pan-India network of cinema halls, cinema tents, a movie distribution network, and he produced over a hundred silent films and 'talkies' in the early years of India’s film industry.

Madan Theatre at night, by Gaganendranath Tagore | puronokolkata.com
Madan Theatre at night, by Gaganendranath Tagore | puronokolkata.com

Madan’s contribution to Indian cinema is so great that it has been immortalised in a painting by noted painter Gaganendranath Tagore. ‘Madan Theatre by Night’ is currently in the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

Early Years

Jamshedji Framji Madan was born in Navsari, Gujarat, on 27 April 1856. He made his debut to theatre as a prop boy while growing up in Bombay. When his father's business failed, Madan moved to Kolkata at the age of 27. Here, he started wholesale as well as retail businesses, in liquor and provisions. Clearly a man with the Midas touch, he soon owned shops across the country and even became a leading supplier of provisions and liquor to the government and the military.

Although a hugely successful businessman, it was drama that Madan truly loved. So he used the profits from his various businesses in the production of Parsi theatre, which was all the rage at the time. He went on to invest in the construction of dance and theatre halls and playhouses, and even bought the then legendary Corinthian Theatre in Kolkata.

At the turn of the 20th century, the first Indian film was yet to be made but movies from the West were being exhibited in India since the late 1800s. In 1902, Madan launched the Elphinstone Bioscope Company, the predecessor to Madan Theatres, to exhibit foreign films in Kolkata.

Elphinstone Picture Palace in Calcutta | Wikimedia Commons
Elphinstone Picture Palace in Calcutta | Wikimedia Commons

The year 1913 was a watershed for India, as Dadasaheb Phalke released the country’s first indigenously made feature film, Raja Harishchandra. After that, Madan began producing and exhibiting silent movies, including the Great Bengal Partition Movement: Meeting & Procession made by Jyotish Sarkar, in 1905. Madan produced the silent films Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra in 1917, a shorter version of Phalke’s pioneering film and the first-ever feature film to be shot in Calcutta.

There was no stopping Madan’s pioneering zeal and he acquired the exclusive rights to Pathé Frères films in the subcontinent. This made his film business expand by leaps and bounds.

India’s First Corporate Film Company

Then, not long after World War I (1914-18) ended, Madan made his most audacious move – he launched India’s first-ever corporate film-making company. He converted his Parsi theatre, mimicry production, and silent filmmaking business into a joint stock company, which is a company limited by shares owned by the public. Thus, Madan Theatres Limited was incorporated on 27th September 1919, and registered with the Registrar of Companies in Kolkata.

At the height of its success, before the advent of the talkies (films with dialogue) in India in 1931, Madan Theatres controlled 127 cinema halls in India. He controlled nearly half the box-office collections in the 1920s and 1930s.

So Many Milestones

Here are some firsts in Indian cinema that we owe to this remarkable pioneer.

* India’s first purpose-built cinema hall, the Elphinstone Picture Palace in Kolkata (recently demolished as Chaplin Theatre)

* The first Bengali feature film - Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra (1917) – and the first feature film shot in Kolkata.

* The first Bengali talkie, Jamai Shashthi (1931). It released in the same year as Alam Ara, India’s first-ever talkie directed and produced by Ardeshir Irani.

* Madan Theatres Ltd was the first exhibitor of the talkies in India.

* Madan Theatres Ltd produced and exhibited the movie Indra Sabha, which has 71 songs, a world record for the largest number of songs in a single film.

* The Electric Theatre (now Regal Cinema), Grand Opera House (now Globe Cinema) and Crown Cinema (now Uttara Cinema) in Kolkata were all owned by Madan Theatres. They are still standing.

* In 1911, J F Madan filmed the historic IFA Shield football final in Kolkata, where Mohun Bagan Football Club defeated an all-English football team, to win the IFA Shield for the first time in India. This is the first time in India that a sporting event was filmed.

Bilwamangal Movie Poster | Wikimedia Commons
Bilwamangal Movie Poster | Wikimedia Commons

J F Madan’s Legacy

Jamshedji Framji Madan died on 30th June 1923, at the peak of his success. Six years later, the film empire he built suffered a huge blow, as a consequence of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. By the mid-1930s, his theatre network and most of the film business he had created had gone.

In 1932, Madan Theatres’ lease on the Royal Opera House in Mumbai ended but it was able to retain Regal Cinema in Colaba, in Mumbai, in its portfolio of cinemas. Over the years, the company was involved in numerous court cases, and, in 1937, Madan Theatres produced its last film and then shut down.

Sadly, although Madan was a pioneer of India’s film industry, he is scarcely remembered today, forgotten even by Kolkata, the city to which he owed much of his success.

Devasis Chattopadhyay is a columnist and communications specialist.

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