Madan Theatres

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Giant distribution corporation and studio which dominated India’s silent cinema. Built by Jamshedji Framji Madan (1856-1923) into one of the country’s premier Parsee theatre companies. J.F. Madan came from a middle- class Bombay Parsee family of theatre enthusiasts: his brother Khurshedji was a partner in the Original Victoria Theatrical Club while Jamshedji and another brother, Pestonji, started as actors. Jamshedji acted in Nusserwanji Parekh’s Sulemani Shamsher (1873, produced by Elphinstone), while Pestonjee played lead roles in two famous plays, Eduljee Khori’s Gul-e-Bakavali and Jehangir, staged by Dadabhai Thunthi. In the 1890s, J.F. Madan bought two prominent theatre companies, the Elphinstone and the Khatau-Alfred, including their creative staff and the rights to their repertoire. Shifted his base to Calcutta in 1902, establishing J.F. Madan & Sons (maintaining his other interests like pharmaceuticals). By 1919, J.F. Madan & Sons had become the joint stock company Madan Theatres, running the Elphinstone Theatrical Co. (expanding from the Elphinstone Picture Palace and the ancestor of the Elphinstone Bioscope) and its flagship organisation, the Corinthian Theatre. They employed several of the leading Urdu-Hindi playwrights (Aga Hashr Kashmiri, Narayan Prasad Betaab) and stars (Patience Cooper, Seeta Devi). Some historians claim that J.F. Madan started showing films in a tent bioscope in 1902 on the Calcutta maidan, but it is more likely that the Madans did not seriously get into film until 1905, financing some of Jyotish Sarkar’s documentaries (e.g. Great Bengal Partition Movement, 1905) which they presented at the Elphinstone.

In 1907 the Elphinstone followed the Minerva and Star theatres and went into exhibition and distribution, winning the agency rights for Pathe, who also represented First National. They expanded by buying or leasing theatres located in urban areas with European residents, commanding higher ticket prices and catering to the British armed forces before and during WW1. On J.F. Madan’s death, the third of his five sons, Jeejeebhoy Jamshedji Madan, took over and expanded the empire, continuing to direct some of the company’s films. By 1927 the Madan distribution chain controlled c.1/2 of India’s permanent cinemas. At their peak they owned 172 theatres and earned half the national box office. Up to WW1 they showed mainly British films supplied by the Rangoon-based London Film, but after the war they imported Metro and United Artists product, mostly bought ‘blind’ with rights for the entire subcontinent. Many of these they appear to have distributed as their own productions, e.g. Wages of Sin (1924) and Flame of Love (1926), which Virchand Dharamsey’s recent filmography of silent cinema (Light of Asia, 1994) identifies as imports, contrary to the claims made in their initial advertising. By the mid-20s they were the first of the five major importers of Hollywood films, followed by PathĂȘ, Universal, Globe and Pancholi’s Empire distributors. In the silent era, their exhibition and distribution were more important than their production work, mainly making shorts for export until Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra (1917) and Dotiwala’s Bilwamangal (1919; the first Bengali feature) both proved successful.

Their early features were mainly filmed plays, converting their playwrights into scenarists and their actors into stars. Many were directed by C. Legrand, formerly a Pathe man, and later by Jyotish Bannerjee. Claimed to have done international co-productions, although Savitri (1923) made by Giorgio Mannini for Cines in Rome and starring Rina De Liguoro opposite Angelo Ferrari, probably was not co-produced but only released by Madan. However, he did work with the Italian cineaste E.D. Liguoro and cameraman T. Marconi. In the early 20s, the Madans also acquired the rights to the major 19th C. Bengali novelist Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s writings, forming the basis of their ‘literary film’ genre which came to dominate Bengali cinema for several decades. By the end of the silent era the group had become too large for its managerial structure. It invested heavily into sound after it premiered Universal’s Melody of Love at the Elphinstone Bioscope (1928) and made the expensive Shirin Farhad (1931, narrowly beaten by Alam Ara as India’s first sound film), Amar Choudhury’s Jamai Sasthi (1931, the first Bengali sound feature) and Indrasabha (1932). Their closure in the late 30s is usually blamed on a failed deal with Columbia but this may only have put the final seal on a decline caused by crippling sound conversion costs, the stabilisation of film imports and the spread of the more efficient managing-agency system able to attract more speculative financing.

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