A Very Old Machine

The Many Origins of the Cinema in India

By Sudhir Mahadevan

Subjects: Film Studies, Cultural Studies, India And South Asian Studies, Asian Studies, History
Series: SUNY series, Horizons of Cinema
Paperback : 9781438458281, 256 pages, July 2016
Hardcover : 9781438458298, 256 pages, November 2015

Alternative formats available from:

Table of contents

List of Illustrations
Part I: Obsolescence
1. The Nineteenth-Century Indian Techno-Bazaar
2. Traveling Showmen, Makeshift Cinemas: The Bioscopewallah and Early Cinema
Part II: Mechanical Reproduction and Mass Culture
3. Copyright and Cultural Authenticity: The Politics of Mechanical Reproduction in South Asia
4. The Cinema as Mass Culture: The Melodramas of Mechanical Reproduction
Part III: Intermediality

5. The Emergence of Topicality: Snapshot Cultures and Newspaper Photojournalism
6. Politics across Media: The Partition of Bengal (1905) and the Cinematic City
Part IV: Archives

7. The Abundant Ephemeral: The Protocols of Popular Film Historiography in India
8. Postscript
Works Cited

Argues that Indian cinema’s deep nineteenth-century past continues to play a vital role in its twenty-first-century present.


In A Very Old Machine, Sudhir Mahadevan shows how Indian cinema's many origins in the technologies and practices of the nineteenth century continue to play a vital and broad function in its twenty-first-century present. He proposes that there has never been a singular cinema in India; rather, Indian cinema has been a multifaceted phenomenon that was (and is) understood, experienced, and present in everyday life in myriad ways. Employing methods of media archaeology, close textual analysis, archival research, and cultural theory, Mahadevan digs into the history of photography, print media, practices of piracy and showmanship, and contemporary everyday imaginations of the cinema to offer an understanding of how the cinema came to be such a dominant force of culture in India. The result is an open-ended and innovative account of Indian cinema's "many origins."

Sudhir Mahadevan is Associate Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature, Cinema and Media at the University of Washington.


"Sudhir Mahadevan does the impossible in A Very Old Machine … He shows how various technologies that emerged in nineteenth-century India shaped its current cinema." — H-Net Reviews (Jhistory)

"…methodologically and theoretically wide-ranging." — BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies

"Sudhir Mahadevan's A Very Old Machine is a work of great theoretical sophistication and rigorous historical scholarship. A revisionist and definitive treatment of early Indian film, the book shows how prevailing attitudes toward technology, photography, empire, commodity, and mass culture made the cinema a socially and culturally distinct form in India. Drawing on a wealth of primary research, A Very Old Machine fills many gaps. Anyone who wants to know how Indian cinema became Indian will need to consult this book." — James Morrison, editor of Hollywood Reborn: Movie Stars of the 1970s