The history of Zanzibar Cinemas

The history of Zanzibar Cinemas
Written by Riadh A. Al Busaidi

The history of cinematography in East Africa goes back to 1916 when a performance took place in May 1916 at Victoria Gardens. Towards the end of 1916, an enterprising Bohora merchant obtained a license to carry out ‘theatrical performances’. He started the first cinema in a white tent at Mkunazini/Darajani, the location of what later was to be the “Empire Cinema”. There were shows every night from 9 p.m. showing mainly British films. The program changed on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Tickets used to cost 1 rupee, 8 and 4 annas. This was an expensive pleasure for many people at the time. The ‘white tent’ was replaced by a concrete building and continued to function as ‘Empire Cinema’ until the time I left Zanzibar in 1963. (I do not know if it is still operational or not).

About the same time, around 1917, another cinema started in Malindi, near the habour. It was not a building but it was like a large shed. This changed when in 1951 a Mr. Talali built a proper cinema and named it the Sultana Cinema (see picture 3).

Notwithstanding the above, the first purpose built cinema in East Africa was in Zanzibar, it started in 1921 and was called the ‘Royal Cinema’ (see picture 1). In 1937 due to change of ownership the cinema was renamed the ‘Majestic Cinema’. The ‘Royal’ cinema building was designed by John H. Sinclair, the then British Resident and a trained architect, who also designed the British Residency building, the High Court, and the former Aga Khan Secondary School. Unfortunately the cinema was burnt down due to a fire in the ‘projector room’. It was rebuilt a few years later but the architectural design was changed. The cinema is still standing today but as a dilapidated building (see picture 2).

In short, Zanzibar continued to operate three known cinemas until 1963: The Majestic, The Empire and the Sultana Cinemas.

There was also a ‘Mobile Cinema” which was operated by the Government through the “Sauti ya Unguja” administration. The mobile cinema used to visit different small towns and villages throughout Zanzibar Island as well as showing films at the Old Fort. They mainly screened “news” reels released by the British Colonial Office as well as other entertaining clips. It was an open air theatre and it was free. It was popular and an entertaining service for many.

There was a great demand among Zanzibari audiences for English, Arabic and Hindi action films and musicals. During the 1930s Egyptian films were mainly shown at the Majestic and Empire cinemas but later they were mostly shown at the Sultana Cinema. Musical films of Umm Kulthoum, Mohammed Abdul Wahab, Farid l’Atrash and the comedian Ismail Yaseen were very popular.

H.M. Sayyid Khalifa bin Harub was a regular patron at both Majestic and Sultana cinemas whenever Arabic films were featured. I remember the Sultana cinema had a Royal box for the Sultan and his wife.
From the beginning of the era of cinema, censorship of films was carried out. There were three groups of censors each for English, Arabic and Hindi films. I remember one such was Shaikh Amer Tajo. The Government was worried about the negative effects that films may have on the population.
Around 1928 Wete, Pemba had also opened its doors to a Regal Cinema and Imperial Cinema in Chake Chake. These were basically ‘travelling cinemas’ operated by Indian merchants.

I am grateful to Sh. Nasser Al Riyami who last night asked me a question about the Sultana cinema. He then encouraged me to recollect/write something about cinemas in Zanzibar. Hence the above.
I am sorry I do not have better pictures than these old ones. Maybe some of you have better pictures which you can share.
Thank you.