It was only natural that Benoy was drawn to the transgressive glamour of the cinema hall. Where some saw the seeds of moral decay, he found inspiration.

The miracle of moving pictures was first revealed to the subcontinent in 1896 when the Lumiere brothers dispatched a technician and a small projector from Paris to Watson’s Hotel in Bombay. There, 200 European guests were treated to a dazzling programme of six short films. The Times of India called it “almost the greatest scientific discovery of the age”. Soon, film shorts were being incorporated into live theatrical matinees, and Indian directors were shooting their own silent bioscopes. By 1928, British India boasted 300 movie houses. The most popular films, with their broad physical comedy or red-blooded action, featured the shirtless heart-throb Douglas Fairbanks, the death-defying stunts of Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, the Little Tramp. Fairbanks’s 1924 swashbuckler, The Thief of Bagdad was ‘the most popular film ever shown in India’, a government report said.

British films naturally found an early foothold, but they were subsumed by a flood of American pictures, whose roaring popularity unnerved colonial elites. Hollywood threatened chastity, the family and white supremacy. Yankee films, an Anglican bishop warned, “are of sensational and daring murders, crimes, and divorces, and, on the whole, degrade the white women in the eyes of the Indians.” The Federation of British Industries, unable to compete with US output, warned that American cinema was “detrimental to British prestige and prejudicial to the interests of the Empire, especially in the Dominions which contain large coloured populations”.

Any form of mass entertainment was potentially toxic to the morals and prospects of Indian youth. “As meat is dangerous for the child who is only teething, so are novels, these theatres and cinemas to young minds that are only budding,” the Calcutta prostitute Manada Devi lamented in her autobiography.

Cinema was by far the most powerful “corruptor”, and the essentially Victorian institutions of the Empire struggled to blunt its dazzling influence. But there was no stopping the taboo-busting onslaught. Some 8,832 foreign films were shown in India between 1920 and 1927. Domestic studios, hobbled by poor investment and lousy scripts, produced just 902. And their films had limited appeal; Bengali films, for example, were seen as too crass for fans of the more polished Western movies, while Hindi cinema didn’t excite mass audiences.

Benoyendra imagined himself as a potential saviour of the Indian film business. He believed he could make homegrown movies popular and profitable while recasting himself as a modern maestro – as something more than just one of the thousands of hereditary rulers whose fiefs dappled the subcontinent. The raja believed his transformation would come through the production of sophisticated Indian films that satisfied big-city viewers while toning down the racy bits enough to avoid offending the conservative audiences. “Calcutta productions are mostly ‘all-Bengal’ productions, and being disproportionately beguiled with sex are not workable on an ‘all-India’ basis,” he explained.

Benoy was right that movies produced in Calcutta were considered too vulgar for upper-class Bengalis who preferred foreign films, and for prudish audiences elsewhere in India.

In a 1982 essay, the legendary Bengali director Satyajit Ray recalled his titillating, accidental introduction to vernacular cinema, describing how an uncle brought him to see the 1930 film Kaal Parinaya (The Doomed Marriage) at the tatty Albion Theatre. “The hero and the heroine – or was it the vamp? – newly married, were in bed, and a close-up showed the woman’s leg rubbing against the man’s,” he wrote. “I was nine then, but old enough to realise that I had strayed into forbidden territory.”

Where Calcutta films were too fleshy, early Hindi movies were too bland. “We want better stories either taken from the ancient books or good modern authors,” said Ruby Myers, an Indian Jew who performed under the name Sulochana and was one of the highest-paid film actors of her day. Benoy would have agreed. “Bombay produces extensively, and on an ‘all-India’ basis; but the backgrounds being almost invariably either religion or epic stories, are found deficient by the intelligentsia,” he later said. The Indian middle class was “practically alien to Indian cinema”, he observed. Benoy’s dream was “to work out a production that would suit the Bengal intelligentsia and yet not be divorced from [sic] when tested on an ‘all-India’ basis’.”

For perhaps the only time in his life, Benoyendra’s interests appeared to have aligned with those of the government. Whether he knew it or not, Benoy was echoing the concerns of the Indian Cinematograph Committee, which had spent two years searching for ways to help local studios compete with American imports. If the British government agreed with the committee’s call for financial support to the domestic film industry and Benoy could find the cinematic sweet spot in stories that satisfied both the snobs and the rustics, he could become a modern mogul.

But the committee was also deeply preoccupied with the moral aspects of the industry, and here Benoyendra gave not a damn

Egged on by reformers like the English eugenicist Sybil Neville-Rolfe (whose official statements were later found to be riddled with lies), members of the Cinematograph Committee were keen to excavate testimony confirming their assumptions linking foreign films with India’s advancing moral decay, but the results were both apocryphal and disappointing.

Mrs SA Stanley, a former London policewoman, testified before the committee that the Calcutta Vigilance Association ‘had some evidence that some of the Jackie Coogan films which were shown a short time ago are definitely responsible for one or two small boys who are now incarcerated in the juvenile jail’. (Coogan, America’s original child film star, became famous for stealing scenes from Charlie Chaplin in the 1921 comedy-drama The Kid.) Similarly, the head of the Punjab censor board claimed to know of a youth arrested for theft who “said he learnt the method of stealing the bicycle from the cinema.”

Other witnesses, including those more familiar with real-life crime and punishment, were quick to join the film industry in shooting down these suggestions. “If, and where, crime is on the increase . . . it is largely attributable to the present-day struggle for existence due to extensive unemployment, and the modern resources of civilisation, such as, fire-arms, Motor-cars, and so on, easily available to a would-be criminal,” the Bombay Cinema and Theatres Trade Association said. Sir Charles Tegart, the much admired (and loathed) police commissioner of Calcutta, barely concealed his impatience. “I can only say,” he told the committee, “that I have had no case in which I could definitively say that the crime had been committed under the influence of the cinema.”

“I do not think crime in the Madras Presidency has anything to do with films,” testified B Venkapatiraju, a prominent lawyer. Most criminal suspects, he noted, had never even seen a motion picture. Pressed as to whether he thought depictions of killers, gamblers and strongarm men might inspire real-life villainy, Venkapatiraju was dismissive. “There is nothing of that,” he replied.

“For instance,” the lawyer added, clueless as to what the future held, “we see these Sherlock Holmes films.”

Excerpted with permission from The Poisoner of Bengal: The 1930s Murder that Shocked the World, Dan Morrison, Juggernaut.

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