Ceylon’s film industry goes all the way back to 1898 when a 55-foot long documentary titled ‘Early Morning in the Ceylon’ was released by the Prestwick Company. The first private movie screening was held at Governor Joseph West Ridegway’s residence in 1901. It was a short film that documented the British victory in the Boer War, the burial of Queen Victoria and the coronation of Edward VII. There were many other English film screenings which were beloved by British expatriates and the elite Anglicized Ceylonese. Around 1903, an Englishman named Warwick Major introduced moving pictures to the island by screening Bioscope films in a tent pitched at the site where the Regal Theatre stands today. Until the 1950s there were several ‘bioscope men’ who had pushcarts where one could watch movies. The vendor would roll the film with a handle while passing it through a light source and a glass that magnified the image and projected it on to a black box. These were monochrome silent films and the vendor would give a running commentary on the film to the rapt audience. In 1931, The American Consul for Ceylon Stillman Eells wrote in Small Island Markets for American Motion Pictures that were touring electric bioscopes which showed films at various town halls at regular intervals with an average audience of about 400 in each location. During the silent film era, a British photographer named A.W. Andrew established a film company named Warwick Bioscope which imported foreign silent films for commercial exhibition.
Madan Theatre Company, an Indian company owned by Jamshedji Framji Madan, one of the pioneers of Indian Cinema, built the first permanent theater in 1903. A second theatre was opened in 1923 at Braybrooke Place and was named the Public Hall. Later it became known as the Empire Cinema. A man named C. Wagner was one of the first film distributors in Ceylon. At a time when there were no Sinhala films he imported Indian films which became popular amongst the moviegoers. In 1929, Madan Company brought down ‘Melody of Love,’ the first talkie. Due to the growing popularity of films, Madan Company extended its business and built more theatres in addition to distributing films. In 1928, Chittampalam Abraham Gardiner, an entrepreneur broke the monopoly held by Madan Theatres by building new cinemas with modern seating and food and refreshement facilities. In addition to his flagship theatre, the Regal, Gardiner also established Ceylon Studios which produced Sinhala films. Majestic Cinema on Galle Road in Bambalapitiya was yet another theatre established by Madan Theatres that was bought over by Ceylon Theatres who started showing popular American movies from the 1930s.
Among the other well known movie theatres, Liberty Cinema at Turret Road, Colpetty was built by businessman Jabir A.Cader in the 1950s and showed movies by Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures. The Savoy Cinema at Galle Road, Wellawatte was also built in the fifties by a man named C. V. de Silva who started had his career by providing entertainment for overseas troops stationed in Colombo during World War II. In 1956 when the musical ‘Rock Around the Clock’ featuring Bill Haley and the Comets was screened at the Savoy, some young lads watching the evening screening got into a frenzy and started dancing inside the cinema and became so boisterous that the police had to be brought in to quell the situation! The Rio Cinema at Slave Island was built much later, in 1965 by a Tamil businessman Appapillai Navaratnam.
Today there are many multiplex theatres in Colombo but the old cinemas still hold the charm of a bygone era.