Marius Sestier and the Lumière cinématographe in India

The first motion pictures shown in India

When the Lumières1 saw how immensely popular their cinématographe shows were after the first public (and paying) exhibitions in Paris from 28 December 1895 on, they fully realised the commercial potential and determined to spread the image. Over the following months, they trained several operators in the use of their cinématographe and their business procedures. One such operator was Marius Sestier, who had been a pharmacist; he was commissioned by the Lumières to exhibit the cinématographe in India and Australia.

Sestier and his wife left Marseille, France on 11 June 1896 on board the steamer Yarra of the Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes, and arrived in Bombay [Mumbai], India on 30 June.2 They had with them a Lumière cinématographe and a collection of films to be shown therewith. Within a week, Sestier had secured a venue to demonstrate the new technological invention. Billed as "The Marvel of the Century!" and "The Wonder of the World!!",3 the cinématographe was shown for the first time in India on Tuesday, 7 July 1896 at Watson's Hotel, Bombay. There were four showings, at 6, 7, 9, and 10 pm, of six films, and the price of admission was 1 rupee.

On 9 July, the Bombay Gazette published a review of the first screening.4 There was criticism of the room at Watson's Hotel where the films were shown, it being too small to enable the images to be shown life-size. Nonetheless, the response to the films was enthusiastic. Interestingly, Sestier's name is not mentioned: the article states: "Messrs. Lumiere Brothers, who are on their way to Australia, are the exhibitors of this truly marvellous discovery, [...]". In fact, it was some time before the Bombay Gazette published the true name of the exhibitor of the cinématographe. It is possible that Sestier's command of English was not good enough to have enabled him to communicate his own name to the journalists.

Further showings of the same 6 films were advertised for 9 July, again at Watson's Hotel, at the times 7, 9, and 10 pm.5

On the next night, the programme was changed, with six different films being shown.6 The venue was again Watson's Hotel, with the same session times as on 9 July. This programme was repeated on 11 July.7

Sestier managed to secure a better venue, the Novelty Theatre, and immediately below the Bombay Gazette advertisement for the show on 11 July is a notice for three shows there, on 14, 16, and 17 July.7 There were to be two shows each night, at 6:30 and 9:30 pm, with 12 films at each show. There is a short article8 about the new venue that says that the cinématographe will be shown better there. Again, Sestier is not named; "Messrs. Lumiere Brothers" made the decision to move.

On Monday, 13 July there were shows at Watson's Hotel.9,10 Also on this day the Bombay Gazette published a technical note11 explaining (to some degree) how the cinématographe functioned. A picture would be worth several hundred words here!

But the first exhibitions at the Novelty Theatre were abandoned when there were (what appear to have been) problems with the electricity supply and it was not possible to generate sufficient light for acceptable projection.12,13 So the cinématographe show returned to Watson's Hotel. Sestier was only able to get to the Novelty Theatre for a successful show on 21 July.14,15 During that week shows took place at both Watson's Hotel and the Novelty Theatre.

The cinématographe proved to be so popular that Sestier sought and obtained a further lease of the Novelty Theatre from 27 July through to 15 August.16

At the end of July, "Mr. Seister, who is showing the cinematographe each evening", allowed the children of the Scottish Orphanage free admission to the shows.17 Someone on the paper's staff almost had the name correct. And on 30 and 31 July and 1 and 2 August "Professor Lumiere" allowed the boys of the J.N. Petit Parsi Orphanage free admission to the exhibitions.18 Why did the Bombay Gazette, for all their enthusiasm for Sestier's exhibitions, not yet know his name?

The Sestiers were in India at monsoon time, and the weather for most of their first month there had been wet.19 Nonetheless, after a month of showing films, he was still doing good business.20

Following suggestions,21 at the later (9:00 pm) sessions on 11, 13, and 14 August, there were special exhibitions at which there was "suitable music", under the direction of Mr. F. Seymour Dove.22 The Bombay Gazette considered the first of these shows to be "the best M. Sestier has yet given in Bombay".23 At last Marius Sestier was acknowledged by his true name!

The last showing of the cinématographe in Bombay was on the night of Saturday, 15 August 1896 at the Novelty Theatre, at 6:30 pm24 Again, F. Seymour Dove provided musical selections with the films.

On 26 August, the Sestiers left Bombay aboard the steamer Calédonien.25 They were the only passengers listed for Sydney, Australia, though they had to change ship at Colombo, Ceylon [Sri Lanka], where they arrived on 29 August26 and departed on 31 August aboard the steamer Polynésien.27 They reached Sydney on 16 September 1896 (having called at Albany, Western Australia; Adelaide, South Australia; and Melbourne, Victoria). During the trip from Colombo, Sestier gave exhibitions of the cinématographe as evening entertainment on the ship.27

In the week and a half between the last public exhibition of the cinématographe and the departure of the Sestiers from Bombay, it is not known what they did in India. It has been stated that they paid a visit to Poona [Pune], but I have not seen evidence for this.

The following table shows when and where the cinématographe was (publicly) exhibited in Bombay in July and August 1896. All times are pm. Times marked with an asterisk indicate sessions at which music was included in the programme. Note that this was compiled from advertise­ments and reports and may not accurately reflect what actually took place.

July and August 1896
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Watson's Hotel Watson's Hotel Watson's Hotel Watson's Hotel
6:00, 7:00, 9:00, 10:00 7:00, 9:00, 10:00 7:00, 9:00, 10:00 7:00, 9:00, 10:00
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
Watson's Hotel Novelty Theatre Watson's Hotel Watson's Hotel Watson's Hotel
7:00, 9:00, 10:00 6:30, 9:30 7:00, 9:15, 10:00 7:00, 9:15, 10:00 7:00
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
Watson's Hotel Novelty Theatre Watson's Hotel Novelty Theatre Novelty Theatre Watson's Hotel
7:00, 9:15, 10:00 6:30, 9:30 7:00, 9:15, 10:00 6:30, 9:30 6:30, 9:30 7:00
27 28 29 30 31 1 2
Novelty Theatre Novelty Theatre Novelty Theatre Novelty Theatre Novelty Theatre Novelty Theatre
6:30, 9:30 6:30, 9:30 6:30 6:30, 9:30 6:30, 9:30 6:30
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Novelty Theatre Novelty Theatre Novelty Theatre Novelty Theatre Novelty Theatre Novelty Theatre
6:30, 9:30 6:30, 9:30 6:30 6:30, 9:30 6:30, 9:30 6:30
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
Novelty Theatre Novelty Theatre Novelty Theatre Novelty Theatre Novelty Theatre Novelty Theatre
6:30, 9:30 6:30, 9:00* 6:30 6:30, 9:00* 6:30, 9:00* 6:30*

Films shown in India

The numbers in parentheses below are the numbers of the films in the Lumière catalogue.28 Some of the identifications are tentative.

In his first two exhibitions at Watson's Hotel, on 7 and 9 July, Sestier showed the following films:3,5

Entry of CinematographeL'entrée du cinématographe (250 or 275)
Arrival of a TrainL'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (653)
The Sea BathBaignade en mer (11) or Bains en mer (656)
A DemolitionLa démolition d'un mur (40)
Leaving the FactoryLa sortie des usines Lumière aka La sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon (91)
Ladies and Soldiers on WheelsCyclistes et cavaliers arrivant au cottage (247)

At the next two shows, on 10 and 11 July, the following were shown:6,7

Baby's DinnerLe déjeuner de bébé aka Le repas de bébé (88)
Rejoicing in the Market place, Paris? (167)
The Street Dance of LondonDanseuses des rues (249) or Nègres dansant dans la rue (252)
The Diver?
Turning the Soup-plate by TreweyAssiettes tournantes (1)
A Match at CardsLa partie d'écarté (73) or A Match at Trick Track aka Partie de tric-trac (74)

The first shows that were to be held at the Novelty Theatre were to have 12 films, which were possibly all those listed above.

An "entire change of programme" was advertised for 16 July.29 Other films mentioned in Bombay Gazette articles on the cinématographe are:

Old Harbour at MarseillesVieux port (137)
Burning the RubbishMauvaises herbes (64) aka Les brûleurs d'herbes
Watering the GardenL'arroseur arrosé (99) aka Le jardinier
A Foggy Day in London?
The Cinematographe in LondonEntrée du cinématographe (250)
The Serpent? = The Serpentine [Hyde Park (251)] ? or Danse serpentine (765) or ? Trewey's serpentine ribbon
London Girl DancersDanseuses des rues (249)
The PhotographerPhotographe (118)
Champs ElyseesChamps-Elysées (151 or 152)
Paris Cyclists and Equestrians? = Cyclists and Equestrians in Hyde Park
Hyde ParkHyde Park (251) or Entrée de Hyde Park (425)
Sea and Rocks? Gros temps de mer (52)
The Cologne Express?
Parade of the GuardGarde montante au palais Buckingham (257) ? (520)
Practical Joke?
Transformation HatsChapeaux à transformations (105)
Babies' QuarrelsQuerelle enfantine (82)
The Vaulting LessonLa voltige (194) aka La séance de voltige
The Robber Clown? Le gendarme et le voleur (467)
The Landing Stage? (620)

Did Sestier shoot any films in India?

There is no mention in The Bombay Gazette newspaper of any attempt to make a film in or around Bombay. (One would assume that as this were something that had never been done before, it would merit reporting.) There is also no mention of a film taken in India in any newspaper report or advertisement of Sestier's exhibitions in Australia. And today, no film that could have been made by Sestier in India is known to exist.

In the last of film historian Chris Long's ground-breaking series of articles on early Australian film history, he states that on 24 September 1896 a cable was sent by the Lumières to Sestier, who was by then in Sydney:

Impossible obstruction. Negative opened [by] customs. Improve packing.30
(Long's translation.) So it appears that Sestier did shoot films in India – how many and of what subjects it is now probably impossible to know – but they were ruined before they arrived at the Lumière head office.31

Further comments

As no record is known of Edison's kinetoscope, or a copy of it or something similar, being exhibited previously anywhere in India, Sestier's exhibitions were the first times that photographic motion pictures were seen in the country.

Who was the "well-known Bombay resident" mentioned in the first Bombay Gazette review of Sestier's exhibitions?4 In all likelihood it was Arthur Francis Soundy.32 At the time the Sestiers were in Bombay Soundy was head of Soundy & Company, music dealers and piano importers (amongst other activities), as well as proprietor of the Bombay Skating Rink. He was interested in and promoted various entertainments and amusements – eg skating, fireworks, wrestling matches – so it is reasonable to assume that he took an interest in the advent of the cinématographe. He may well also have been instrumental in obtaining the use of the Novelty Theatre for exhibitions there: the 15 July issue of The Bombay Gazette12 specifically mentions his explaining the opening night problems at that venue. And for the Novelty Theatre shows, it was advertised that the seating plan was available at Soundy and Co.'s premises.

Research on the first motion pictures in India is far from complete; in particular other newspapers need to be looked at. I have not been able to access copies of The Times of India for the period when Sestier was at Bombay, and other English language papers from Bombay and other parts of India may also mention the cinématographe. Also, papers in Indian languages from Bombay and elsewhere likely have reports on Sestier's exhibitions. And Sestier's diary and notebooks most likely tell more of the story.

Who were the people who would be expected to go to see the cinématographe? How did the price of 1 rupee relate to that of other amuse­ments and to commodity prices? Who could afford to pay this for entertainment? From 27 July the advertisements for Sestier's exhibitions included the line: "NOTICE.—Reserved Boxes for PURDAH LADIES and their Families.", so, whatever the sources and content of the films, non-European people in Bombay were also encouraged to attend.

References and notes

[1] "Lumières" will be used to refer to any one or more of the brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière, their father, Antoine Lumière, any of their employees or business associates, or their companies.

[2] The Bombay Gazette, 1 July 1896, p.3f.

THE Messageries Maritimes Co's s s Yarra, 2084 tons, Captain LeCoispellier, arrived in harbour yesterday from Marseilles (11th June), with a general cargo and the following passangers:- [sic] [...], Mr and Mrs Cestier, [sic] [...].

[3] The Bombay Gazette, 7 July 1896, p.2a, New Advertisements.

A few Exhibitions will be given
Will be as under:-
1 Entry of Cinematographe.
   Arrival of a Train.
3 The Sea Bath.
4 A Demolition.
5 Leaving the Factory.
6 Ladies and Soldiers on Wheels.
The Entertainments will take place at 6, 7, 9 and 10 P.M.

The advertisement of the same date in The Times of India is almost exactly the same.

[4] The Bombay Gazette, 9 July 1896, p.5b.

OWING to the good offices of a well-known Bombay resident, the public in this city are now having an opportunity given them to see the very latest photographic discovery utilised by the cinematographe. Messrs. Lumiere Brothers, who are on their way to Australia, are the exhibitors of this truly marvellous discovery, which enables a reproduction of human action to the life to be reproduced on canvas. The exhibition is held at Watson's Hotel, but owing to the smallness of the room, the operator is unable to have the instrument sufficiently removed from the canvas to make the figures life-size, and this has the further disadvantage that it makes the actors in each of the scenes move about rather too quickly. The views include the arrival of a crowded train at a railway station with all the animation and bustle that such an event presents; and the demolition of a wall - a work so realistic that the dust is seen to ascend in volumes when the wall finally totters and falls. "The Sea Bath" is another very good scene, the dashing of the waves upon the beach and the antics of the boy bathers both being very realistic. But this is beaten by "Leaving the Factory," which brings a whole crowd of moving humanity on the canvas, and is without doubt the most realistic scene of all. "Ladies and Soldiers on Wheels" is a very vivid representation of the cycling craze, as it can be seen any day in Hyde Park. No one who takes an interest in the march of science should allow to pass by the opportunity that now presents itself to see the cinematographe, an invention which is attracting a great deal of attention at Home.

[5] The Bombay Gazette, 9 July 1896, p.2a, New Advertisements.

[6] The Bombay Gazette, 10 July 1896, p.4a.

[7] The Bombay Gazette, 11 July 1896, p.4b.

[8] The Bombay Gazette, 11 July 1896, p.5b.

THE evening exhibitions of "living" photographic pictures by means of the cinematographe at Watson's Hotel continue to be so well patronised that Messrs. Lumiere Brothers have decided, in response to numerous requests, to engage the Novelty Theatre for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday next. Each evening there will be two exhibitions, the first at 6-30, and the last at 9-30, and twelve views will be shown each time. The decision is a wise one, for the cinematographe cannot be worked to advantage in a small room. The pictures have been well worth seeing, but the science effect will be greatly enhanced when the exhibition is given in the Novelty Theatre, and the opportunity of seeing one of the latest scientific marvels of the age should not be lost.

[9] The Bombay Gazette, 13 July 1896, p.3a, Bombay; To-day.

[10] The Bombay Gazette, 13 July 1896, p.4b.

[11] The Bombay Gazette, 13 July 1896, p.6b, Scientific Actuality; The "Cinematographe" Explained.

[12] The Bombay Gazette, 15 July 1896, p.4f.

AFTER braving the heavy rain that swept over the city at sunset, the audience which assembled at the Novelty Theatre, last evening, to see the effects produced by the cinematographe was doomed to disappointment. To those present who had seen the views at Watson's Hotel, it was evident from the first that something was wrong, as the photographs came up very dimly and uncertainly. After two views had been shown, Mr. Soundy came forward and explained that owing to the damp having got into the instrument it was impossible to proceed further with the exhibition that evening. He expressed the regret of the exhibitors, and informed the audience that they could either have the money returned at the door or could come again another evening. Most of those present preferred to take the former course, but everyone left in a good temper, and were ready to condole rather than blame the unfortunate exhibitors in their experience of the effect of the Indian monsoon on scientific instruments.

[13] The Bombay Gazette, 16 July 1896, p.4f.

THE cinematographe, having had so bad a time of it at the Novelty Theatre, owing to the electric light plant being out of order, has returned to its old love. Its operators will show what it is capable of at Watson's Hotel, each evening, at 7, 9-15, and 10 p.m., and an entirely new programme of photographic pictures is to be given. Arrangements are being made to ensure an adequate supply of the electric light, so there is no fear of a repetition of Tuesday evening's failure.

[14] The Bombay Gazette, 17 July 1896, p.4a.

[15] The Bombay Gazette, 24 July 1896, p.6a.

THE difficulties which beset the production of living pictures by the Cinematographe when it was first placed on the stage of the Novelty Theatre, have now been obviated, and the exhibitions that have taken place in the theatre this week have been quite successful. Amongst the more recent of the photographic pictures presented may be mentioned a view of the old harbour at Marseilles, which no doubt people who are leaving by the Caledonia to-day are hoping to see in reality in less than a fortnight; "a Match at Trick Track,"; "Burning the Rubbish," a process which is participated in by a very attractive young lady; and "Watering the Garden." In the latter scene a boy plays the gardener the trick of treading on the hose, and when the man looks at the plug, removes his foot, and the water is squirted on the gardener's face. For this prank the youth is chased round the garden, and caught and punished. The operatives leaving the factory at Berlin walk out in a way that it would not be seen at Manchester or Bolton, where it is not the custom for the men to leave the female operatives to walk home by themselves. "A Foggy Day in London" and "the Cinematographe in London" are both very good views of the many-sided life of the great metropolis. The Cinematographe will be exhibited again to-night, at 6-30 and 9-30 p.m., the programme being different on each occasion.

[16] The Bombay Gazette, 27 July 1896, p.6c.

BY desire of a large number of residents, who, in spite of bad weather, have gone to see the Lumiere cinematographe, the patentee has obtained a fresh lease of the Novelty Theatre for a few more nights, and we strongly recommend our readers to go and see this living photography for themselves. The electric installation at the Novelty Theatre is more than sufficient for the purpose, a powerful arch having been placed at the entrance of the Theatre also. The 24 views which are exhibited every evening (12 at a time) are all highly interesting, and every one of them excites the enthusiasm of the audience. They include the Serpent ; Arrival of a train ; Sea Bathers ; London girl dancers ; Watering the Garden ; Baby's Dinner ; the Photographer ; Champs Elysees ; Paris Cyclists and Equestrians ; Hyde Park sea and rocks ; the Cologne Express ; Parade of the Guard ; Pratical [sic] Joke ; Transformation Hats, etc. We learn that new views are to be added to the programme each evening.

[17] The Bombay Gazette, 29 July 1896, p.4f.

MR. SEISTER, who is showing the cinematographe each evening, at the Novelty Theatre, has kindly consented to allow the children of the Scottish Orphanage to see his moving pictures free of charge.

[18] The Bombay Gazette, 30 July 1896, p.3b.

THE CINEMATOGRAPHE. - Professor Lumiere, of the Cinematographe, has granted pass for free admission of the boys of the J.N. Petit Parsi Orphanage to his exhibitions on the 30th and 31st instant and 1st and 3rd August.

[19] The Bombay Gazette, 6 August 1896, p.4f:

AFTER many weary days of rain, the sun shone most of yesterday, and scarcely a drop of rain fell. The change was most welcome, for the weather has been excessively gloomy and dispiriting in Bombay for more than a month. Everyone is hoping the break will continue.

[20] The Bombay Gazette, 8 August 1896, p.5e.

ALTHOUGH this wonderful invention has been on view in Bombay for some weeks now it continues to draw fairly good audiences night after night at the Novelty Theatre. The exhibitions are at 6-30 and 9-30 each evening, except Saturdays and Wednesdays, when the exhibition is at 6-30 only. Perhaps one of the most lifelike views is that of "Babies' quarrels," in which two very little girls, tied in their chair, cannot see eye to eye in regard to the distribution of the jam supply. The manner in which the changes of the countenance of the youngsters are transferred to the canvas is little short of marvellous. The arrival of the train - one of the few views which are forthcoming a second time when "encore" is cried - is also very cleverly shown, the increase in the size of the train as it gets apparently nearer and nearer to the spectator being especially noticeable. The "Vaulting Lesson" and the "Robber Clown" both bring to mind the circus ring, while "The Landing Stage" is a very accurate representation of the scene of hustle and confusion which can be observed at any of the numerous landing stages on the scene. Paris shares with London a good part of the views, but phases of rural life are by no means ignored. Twelve pictures are shown at each exhibition, and there is a change of programme on each occasion.

[21] The Bombay Gazette, 11 August 1896, p.4f.

IT has often been suggested that the exhibitions of the Cinematographe might be made even more attractive than they are if they were interspersed with some other form of entertainment. This suggestion has not escaped the notice of the proprietor, who has decided to give three special exhibitions this week, to be interspersed with music, under the direction of Mr. F. Seymour Dove. [At 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday; 20 views at each. 6-30 p.m. exhibitions each evening as usual.]

[22] The Bombay Gazette, 8 August 1896, p.4b.

[23] The Bombay Gazette, 13 August 1896, p.5e.

THE first of the series of special exhibitions of the Cinematographe at the Novelty Theatre, on Tuesday evening, was a distinct success. The selections of music played under the direction of Mr. F. Seymour Dove were appropriate to the views exhibited, and added not a little to the realistic character of the spectacle presented on the canvas. No less than twenty views were exhibited, and the show must be pronounced the best M. Sestier has yet given in Bombay. The second of the series of special exhibitions will take place this evening, and the last to-morrow. The 6-30 p.m. exhibitions will be given each evening.

[24] The Bombay Gazette, 15 August 1896, p.4b.

[25] The Bombay Gazette, 27 August 1896, p.3f.

THE Messageries Maritimes Co's s s Caledonien, 2,093 tons, Captain L Blanc, sailed yesterday for China and Japan, with a general cargo and the following passengers:- [...]. For Sydney - Mr and Mrs Sistier. [sic] [...]

[26] The Bombay Gazette, 31 August 1896, p.5b.

French mail steamer Caledonien, from Bombay, [and 2 other ships] arrived.

[27] The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 1896, p.6h, Arrival of the Polynesien.

[28] Georges Sadoul, Louis Lumière (Cinéma d'Aujourd'hui, 29; Editions Seghers, 1964), pp.157 - 171.

[29] The Bombay Gazette, 16 July 1896, p.4b.

[30] Cinema Papers (Sydney), June 1996 [no.110], pp.42-45, 61: Part 19: Australian Cinema 1894 - 1904.
Long does not give a source reference for the text of the cable.

[31] A version of events which has been much repeated was put forward by Jack Cato in his The Story of the Camera in Australia, and uncritically copied by Eric Reade in Australian Silent Films: A Pictorial History of Silent Films from 1896 to 1929. But Cato supplied no evidence whatso­ever for the story he related. Also, Albert James Perier made a critique (Some comments on Jack Cato's professional photographic "Story of the Camera in Australia") of Cato's book that provides several corrections to Cato's version of Sestier's history.

Cato made the ludicrous statement: "Sestier knew little about processing his film [...]". But Sestier was a professional chemist / pharmacist and so would have had little trouble working with the necessary chemicals to develop film. However, he may not have been expected to develop and make positive prints of films, but simply to send unprocessed reels back to Lyon; the mechanical, rather than the chemical, issues may have been a problem. Nonetheless, Perier corrects Cato on this matter.

Also, Cato states that Sestier was supposed to have been "very disappointed with the reports on his work from Paris". (The Lumières were, in fact, based at Lyon.) Again, no evidence is given; and the "work" was obviously not the content or quality of the films he shot.

[32] Arthur Francis Soundy was born on 6 February 1836 at Crayford, Kent (now part of Greater London), and arrived at Bombay on 15 December 1859. He spent most of the rest of his life there, and died on 2 April 1911. He married twice, on both occasions in London, and had several sons and daughters. Information about him is from obituaries published in The Times of India and The Bombay Gazette (both on 4 April 1911), many articles in The Times of India, and genealogical Web sites.

Copyright © 2010 - 2018 Tony Martin-Jones Film history index Edition 8  (2018-01-06)