‘Cautionary Tales’, The State of Burmese Cinema in the 1930s

Of all art forms, film has often found itself most susceptible to government censorship. This became clear when I was conducting research for a project on Indo-Burmese relations in 1930s Rangoon. Whilst in the British Library, poring over a very large and exceedingly dry copy of the Burma Gazette (filled for the most part with regional judicial and forestry commission reports), I randomly came across a bi-annual report from the Police Commissioner’s office, showing the activities of the Burma Board of Censors. This provided not only an intriguing insight into the early Burmese film industry, but also the colonial government’s attempt to police the thoughts of its captive audience.

Firstly, the Burmese film industry appeared to be very healthy despite its relative newness, with the first Burmese film having only been released a decade earlier, in 1920.[1] From 1st January to 28th April 1930, fifty-three new films were submitted for certification.[2] Nor was this industry seemingly dominated by a couple of major companies, with over sixteen different studios submitting applications over this period. The vast majority of these films (thirty-six), are classified as ‘Burmese’, presumably indicating their language and the origin of their producers. Certain major Burmese companies included the British Burma Film Company, as well as the Burmese Favourite Company, headquartered in Rangoon at No. 276, 39th Street and Sule Pagoda Road respectively. Together they produced a range of Burmese language films designed for a purely domestic audience, with titles ranging from ‘Thidagu’ to ‘Khemathee’.[3]

What is especially interesting however is the prevalence of Chinese films, comprising 15 in total. Despite being produced by a range of different studios, the most important company appears to have been the so-called Star Motion Picture Company, headquartered in Shanghai. Here the films appear to have been more along the lines of so-called ‘blockbusters’, featuring English language titles such as ‘Three Knights in the Army’, ‘The Young Heroine’, and ‘Knight of Burning Temple’. Importantly however, Chinese English-language films were also permitted even if they were explicitly political, as is clear from the title of one approved film, the ‘Northern Expedition of Nationalists’, produced in 9 parts by the San Bim Film Company.[4]

In light of this, censorship of this cinematic mix appears to have been very light. Every film on the list is approved, with some Burmese films even referenced as having passed the censorship test ‘Without Examination’. Indeed, only one film appears to have been subjected to censorship; a regional Burmese news report where the censors appear to have noted certain particularly graphic scenes, for example ‘The holding up of the bloodstained clothes which are presumably exhibits’.[5]

The evidence from this report therefore suggests that Burma enjoyed an unexpectedly vibrant cinema culture under British occupation, with healthy levels of competition between local and international studios, presided over by a seemingly light censorship hand. It also provides a cautionary tale about how the development of the arts can easily be reversed. With the onset of military rule, all cinemas were nationalised in the 1960s, with the industry instructed to broadcast the ‘march to Burmese socialism’. From a peak of 244 cinemas, Burma in 2011 was therefore reduced to 71 as popularity dwindled, with the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) continuing much of the censorship apparatus of the military junta which preceded it.[6] Documents like this can therefore help to throw the problems of Burmese cinema today into sharp relief.

 

 

[1] Mark Magnier, ‘Myanmar’s once-proud film industry a flicker of its former self’, LA Times (1st April 2013)

[2] ‘Register of Cinematograph Films examined by the Burma Board of Censors, Dated Rangoon, the 15th May 1930’, in the Burma Gazette, Part IV, pp. 945-947

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 947

[6] Aung Kaung Myat, ‘Military Rule May Be Over, But Myanmar’s Film Industry Remains in a Tawdry Time Warp’, Time (22nd August 2018)

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