“Elphinstone Elphinstone Everywhere”: The story of Elphinstone Theatre in Madras, the first with a balcony!

The Indian Express carried a PTI (Press Trust of India) story yesterday about tent cinemas returning to Delhi as a part of the ongoing “100 years of cinema” celebrations. We found a couple of paragraphs at the end of the story rather interesting (click here to read the entire piece):

In India, among the pioneers of tent cinema, the most important name is that of J F Madan, a Parsi businessman who started ‘Elphinstone Bioscope Company’ in early 20th century in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and would do tent shows in the Maidan there. He later started the cinema halls by the name of ‘Elphinstone Picture Palaces’.

His ‘Elphinstone’ was also one of the few Indian companies, among other European production houses, which filmed the historic 1911 Delhi Durbar attended by King George V and Queen Mary.

His legend has survived today in the form of various ‘Elphinstone’ theatres spread across India.”

Now, we were aware that a New Elphinstone Theatre was operational up till sometime in the 1970s, off Mount Road. So, we did some searching and it turns out that there was indeed an Elphinstone in Madras as well. Manish Raj, writing for the Times of India, mentions the cinema hall in his piece of theatres in Madras of the yore (click here to read his entire story):

New Elphinstone Theatre in 1916 was inaugurated by the governor general of Madras and it was one of the first theatres in India to raise funds for the World War I through its shows. It housed the most unusual indoor sport — a boxing ring where amateurs sparred. When the film bubble burst, it later became Elphinstone Soda fountain, which sold beverages.

Given that there was a New Elphinstone, we realised that an Old Elphinstone had to be a part of this history. Historian S Muthiah, in his lovely piece titled “Cinema at Round Tana”, fills the gaps:

A New Elphinstone meant there had to be an old Elphinstone – and there was one, rooted in almost the beginnings of cinema-screening in Madras. The Elphinstone was located across Round Tana from the New Elphinstone on the site of Misquith Building, just west of the old Hindu building at the junction of Ellis Road and Wallajah Road. (Wallace) Misquith & Co., established in 1842 built itself a magnificent brick-exposed Indo-Saracenic building to house on the ground floor its showroom for musical instruments and, on the first floor, music salons which could be rented by the hour for anyone wanting to play any instrument.In time, Misquith’s’ became Musee Musicals and moved further down Mount Road, but in its heyday it housed the Lyric, a hall of entertainment that a man named Cohen established on the first floor when he took over Misquith’s in 1907.

In 1913, the Lyric began screening films, calling itself the Empire Cinema, but a fire in March 1914 closed it down. Later that year, J F Madan of Calcutta, owner of India’s biggest cinema chain at the time, took over the Empire and renamed it with that of his flagship, the Elphinstone. In 1915, Madan bought the Misquith Building and made the Elphinstone a permanent cinema theatre, the biggest and the first with a balcony in Madras.

Given that Dadasaheb Phalke’s “Raja Harishchandra,” the first feature length Indian film was released at around the same time that Empire Cinema was started (1913), we at TCRC were thrilled to find the various strands of our cinematic history crisscrossing. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find a single image or photographs of the Elphinstone Theatre and this only served to remind us of the importance of archiving  images of our cinemas’ golden past. Interested in helping this sort of archival effort? Volunteer at TCRC!

7 thoughts on ““Elphinstone Elphinstone Everywhere”: The story of Elphinstone Theatre in Madras, the first with a balcony!

  1. This piece reminded me of my previous visit to Chennai where I was trying to visually document the origins of the first official theatre of Madras. From whatever research I did ( which was largely from Stephen Putnam Hughes’s writing, like this piece: http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/our-tryst-with-celluloid-magic/article570403.ece) I was left a little confused if it was the First Electric Theatre or Mrs Klug’s Bioscope on Popham’s Broadway.
    Please help, TCRC 🙂

    • Thanks for writing in, Anvitha. We’ve been trying to retrace some of these chronologies ourselves and it’s incredible how hard it is becoming to obtain credible information about our past, in this age of instant access to info. All the references to Mrs.Klug’s (or Mrs.Klugg, as some spell it) Bioscope online seem to emanate from Stephen Putnam Hughes’ work. Bishwanath Ghosh’s book on Chennai, titled “Tamarind City,” also mentions Mrs.Klug’s Bioscope as the first permanent cinema theatre. No other information seems to be available about Mrs.Klug. But you can be assured that we at TCRC will keep looking. And if there are updates, you’ll certainly find it updated here :).

  2. New Elphinstone was famous for its superb icecream parlour Jaffars, where uniformed waiters served freshly made icecream of great variety. Its Peach Melba was perhaps the most popular flavour. The soda fountain with its gleaming steel table top made it a very special place where you were on your best behaviour, careful to order in English, and so awestruck that you thought the management was doing you a favour by letting you in.

    • Thanks for writing in about Jaffars, Ramnarayan. We’ve never been there. But your description just brought it alive for us :). S Muthiah also seems to share your views about this legendary place:

      “When the New Elphinstone came up, this became the Elphinstone Soda Foundation – a `must’ for every film-goer here. When `Barney Dorai’ left for England after Independence, Jafar, who had worked with him, took it over and made what he renamed Jafar’s Icecream Parlour, a Round Tana landmark. Jafar’s painstakingly made icecream confections, its huge icecream and jelly menu, the large jars of colourful sweets and marshmallows that lit up the place, and the gleaming soda fountain with its tall bar-style stools made it a social legend in mid-20th Century Madras. For old-timers, there’s never been anything since, not like Jafar’s 23 icecreams and even more numerous sundaes, despite the city now being an icecream parlour-coffee pub haven.”

      (excerpted from his “Cinema at Round Tana” piece for The Hindu –> http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/mp/2003/06/25/stories/2003062500120300.htm)

  3. Pingback: Cinema | My digital camera and me

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