‘Tonight At The Empire’ - Cinema And Urbanity In Zanzibar, 1920s To 1960s

Volume 16, Issue 3  | 
Published 03/03/2020

By Brigitte Reinwald

This article deals with cinematographic history in Zanzibar from its beginnings in the late 1910s; and looks at evolving programme patterns and changing audience preference trends during the colonial period and the initial transition years to post-colonial rule. Cinema-going developed during the course of the 20th century to a popular urban resident pastime, all social classes and ‘ethnic’ groups considered.

The remnants of Zanzibar town’s three former cinema theatres, which up to about 1996 were the patronized sites of a favourite pastime, are still visible. The old Empire is now a supermarket, and the Sultana – a name considered inappropriate in the course of revolutionary re-conversions and hence renamed Cine Afrique – that is likely to survive merely as the picturesque façade of a stylish shopping mall now under construction. And finally there is the Majestic, the still-striving-to-survive-modestly venue where Bollywood videos made in India are screened on a regular basis. 

One of the first cinematographic performances in Zanzibar took place one evening in May 1916 at Victoria Gardens, attended by a predominantly European public. Hassanali Adamji Jariwalla, a Bohora merchant in silk and fancy goods who had come to Zanzibar in the late 1890s, invested in cinematographic entertainment as merely a side line at first. However, in the course of the next two decades he became Zanzibar’s foremost cinema pioneer. From August 1916, the date of the first licence accorded to him for a theatrical performance, he managed the Zanzibar Cinema/White Tent in the Mnazi Mmoja quarter, and from December 1916, the Merry Theatre/Alexandra Cinema, both located in one building in the neighbourhood of Mchambawima/ Mkunazini on the same site as the future Empire Cinema. He advertised his product as ‘short-running silent films exhibiting only the best and latest releases from home’, i.e. the United Kingdom. In 1921, presumably induced by the profitable prospects of his cinematographic venture, Jariwalla erected a large cinema palace in what was described as the better part of Zanzibar town: the Royal Cinema.

Others now followed in his footsteps. From about 1917 on, a third cinema was operated in a large corrugated iron sheet building located in Malindi, a quarter close to the harbour, and thus probably in the immediate vicinity of what was to become the Sultana Cinema in 1951. The island of Pemba was not to be left out. From 1928, Hassanali Nazarali Punja operated the Regal Cinema in Wete, followed by the Imperial in Chake-Chake which was run by Soni Narandas Zaverchand, a goldsmith and pawnbroker. 

Hassanali Nazarali Punja’s application ‘to carry on a portable travelling cinema in Pemba’ and to erect a temporary cinema tent was refused by the colonial authorities. The reason was that plantation workers would flock to the shows and neglect their work, especially during the clove season. The clove plantation owners and British administrators shared a common interest in preventing spontaneous gatherings of ‘lower-class’ Africans as this could lead to social unrest. Racial stereotypes were well entrenched and widely accepted. 

When H A Jariwalla liquidated his business in Zanzibar in 1936 and moved to Dar-es-Salaam, he subsequently opened three further cinema houses there. In Zanzibar, the Royal Cinema Theatre was leased in December 1937 to Kassamali Jaffer Hameer, a prominent member of the Ismaili community and he renamed it Majestic. 

In a similar change of hands and name, the Alexandra – renamed Darajani Cinema and managed by a certain Ebrahim Sheikh Esmailji  – was eventually purchased by Sawakshaw H Talati, a joint proprietor of the Dar-es-Salaam registered Indo-African Theatres Ltd, and operated as the Empire from 1940 onwards. Talati also opened the Sultana Cinema in Malindi in December 1951, renamed Cine Afrique in 1964. 

From early on, Africans had a lively interest in the films though Indians formed the bulk of the audience. Although almost all of the 120 odd films imported annually to Zanzibar during the second half of the 1920s were Hollywood and UK productions, it was observed that, ‘there is a noticeable increase in the number of films obtained direct from India’. Many of these represent historical tales and scenes taken from Hindu mythology. As time went on, the popularity of Indian movies soared, that of UK productions dropped and were equal to Egyptian and European films proportions. The first Kiswahili dubbings probably appeared in the late 1950s. Even after the Revolution in 1964, in spite of all the ideological rhetoric, this ratio hardly changed - films from the ‘brotherly socialist’ countries barely reached 7%. 

The early business links between the western coast of India and east Africa developed into more formal organisational features and joint venture activities which provided Indian movies for cinema theatres in Kampala, Mombasa, Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam and Zanzibar. A similar evolution can be observed with regard to Egyptian films. 

Censorship in Zanzibar was practised right from the beginning of the cinematographic era as political authorities worried about the negative effects that films exerted on urban populations from the lower classes. The British Protectorate Government showed a keen interest in controlling the programmes. In spite of the fact that Zanzibari audiences were heterogeneous in their social and professional background, government representatives insisted on implementing a segregated cinema policy that not only ran counter to cosmopolitan cinema-going habits, but also denied ‘African’ audiences the faculties of moral judgement. 

British officials in Zanzibar shared the convictions of their mainland colleagues that African populations needed special teaching in order to develop soundly. Worried about the popularity of ‘useless’ and ‘harmful’ pictures among both urban and rural audiences, they advocated that ‘Africans’ be shown films with an educational goal. So they provided 16mm silent strips produced by the British Film Institute in London, such as Amazing Maize, The Flea, Bug and Louse, Denizens of the Shore or the unavoidable and long-lasting 1928 classic Unhooking the Hook-Worm. Locally produced Agricultural Methods at the Experimental Station of the Agricultural Department and The Work at the Women’s Outpatient Department were tried but needless to say, they were a virtual failure. 

From the research findings it can be concluded that cinema as a favoured leisure activity responded to the widespread desire of the Zanzibari people to express and perform their modern urbanism. While offering themselves as it were fares to areas beyond the shores of the Indian Ocean, the programmes induced them as much, or perhaps even more, to further exploring the waters within its confines. And finally, persevering as they did in their search for pleasure, the Zanzibari people were obviously not prepared to accept the artificial cinema projects subsequent governments presented to them, as they plainly failed to meet their expectations.

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