India on Film: 1899-1947 Includes over 250 recent digital movies available for free through BFI player and BFI Youtube.
In 1999 I decided to spend the end of the millennium living and working in India. I spent most of my time in Dehradun, the gateway to the hill stations of the Western Himalayas and to the pilgrimage sites of Haridwar and Rishikesh. I can think of a few other periods in my life when I lived through them fully or intensely.
After starting work in BFI I was intrigued to discover that a number of films depicting the city are kept in archives. A number of these were filmed by Dr. R. MacLagan Gorrie who, between working at the world famous Forest Research Institute in Dehradun, was a prolific amateur filmmaker, recording his family life, work and travels. Like many home films in India shot in the 1920s and 1940s, Gauri’s films provide records of people, places, and events that no other video record has. And like the most satisfying of them, they are depicted with the curiosity and charm of the world around them.
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I especially like a sequence depicted by Gauri at Paltan Bazaar in Dehradun in 1932. This is where I shop several times each week, where I buy achar (pickles) to season my food and where I buy painted plaster statues of Ganesha and Lakshmi looking at me as I write this. The bazaar still runs like an artery through the city. Bull carts from the Gauri era are now replaced by scooters, but the bazaar’s twists and turns remain the same. It seems some stores haven’t changed much either.
One of the greatest rewards of watching any movie from this period is appreciation – but also disintegration. It makes us feel like we are time travellers. If I had that emotional connection to the Dehradun shots, how would you feel about the families who live there, grew up there or went to school there (including writer Vikram Seth, historian Ramachandra Guha and artist Anish Kapoor)? This was a success BFIBritain on Film’s latest project: people who connect with the places they know and find themselves on a journey into the past. To date, more than 30 million people have watched films from Britain’s Film Collection.
on the occasion of the United kingdom– India Year of Culture 2017 – 70th Anniversary of Independence and Partition – A BFI He digitized 250 films shot in what was then British India between 1899 and 1947 BFI I acquired much of this collection by chance over 80 years. These are survivors of many times the films shot during this period that have been lost due to monsoons, sweltering heat, political upheaval or immigration. The stories they tell may be incomplete, but the movies are great.
It’s impossible to escape the fact that, with a few exceptions – like Tins for India (1941), an early documentary by Bimal Roy, the great director of the golden age of Indian cinema – almost all of these films were shot by British (and a handful of French) filmmakers. This is India seen through the eyes of the colonizer and often with a powerful propaganda structure. There are films that aim to instill the idea of a big happy family about empire in school children in United kingdom. There are newscasts that show and celebrate the splendor of British rule with a giant sledgehammer. Watching racing movies in Calcutta or Shillong, you would be excused to think that there are very few actual Indians in India. And there’s a scene – especially in the 1911 Delhi Durbar films – that leaves me horrified and horrified.
One of my favorite films on the set is Scenes at the Viceroy’s Garden Party in Belvedere (1926). It documents an engineering encounter of high-ranking Britons and Indians, and feels oddly similar to the sharply observed “bridge party” – the bridge of the two cultures – in M Forster’s A Passage to India, written two years earlier. In Forster’s description, and in the evidence for this movie, neither side seems to enjoy the other’s company very much. It is very funny to watch awkward confrontations, awkward silences, and, in particular, what could have turned into a diplomatic incident at a meeting between a British schoolboy and a young Indian prince. Frankly, the film’s documentation lists most of the major British characters. Indian guests remain anonymous.
The Panorama of Calcutta, India, of the Ganges (1899), is the oldest surviving film from India, made in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign. The only problem is that the movie doesn’t show Calcutta (Kolkata) at all, but Varanasi, roughly 700 kilometers to the west. Produced by the Warwick Trading Company, it appears in their catalogs under this title. Perhaps the photographer is confused about his travels, or perhaps the company thought a household name might be more flattering to fans? Whatever it is, we’re stuck with a movie title that’s far from accurate and might say something about colonial attitudes.
The collection is full of unidentified locations and even the names of places we don’t understand yet. A home movie attributed to Cochin and Malarax (1930) is a case in point. Where is Malarax? Was it a remote village? A difference on “Malabar”? Typo or unread font status? We are just beginning to scrape the surface of knowledge about these films. By making it available online, I hope that the expert eyes of Indian and Pakistani viewers will discover people, places and events and contribute to everyone’s understanding.
The home movies are some of the most compelling of the bunch. Not only is it a much more comprehensive depiction of India that has escaped the attention of many professional filmmakers, but it necessarily reveals a lot about the filmmakers themselves. It’s hard not to feel warmth about the Gorrie family, and in particular, the Crasters and The Hunters who portray their lives and sometimes India itself with more than a degree of privacy. These are families who, judging by their film evidence, at least, traveled through India with open eyes, fascinated and compelled to their great, horrific adventure as we watch them. However, there are others, whose primary interest is as historians of the empire or participants in the mass destruction of wildlife in India.
There are other elements in the films that will irritate my Indian friends: the predominance of elephants, cows, snake charmers, and holy men. In other words, the boring metaphors with which the West makes India “alien”. Early professional filmmakers took their cameras to India (and across Asia) in search of the grotesque to thrill European and American audiences with a taste of exotic people and places. Some home filmmakers have done the same, but their films are not a million miles away from those on the phones of modern tourists – or from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) or The Good Karma Hospital (2017-).
There is a clear class polarization in the films, as in Indian society: the very rich, the very poor and not so many of them. Middle-class Indians are relatively seldom shed. The rich were filmed at formal events, and when home movies became popular, they turned on the cameras on themselves (amateur filmmaking was largely the territory of the wealthy). The poor were the easier targets for early filmmakers and still are for the iPhone generations who don’t feel the need to ask before shooting. Sometimes the movies seem intrusive. I was, however, pleased to discover documents which showed that T. Burt’s epic – seemingly intrusive – 1933 film about prayer at the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore was filmed with the full knowledge and consent of the mosque authorities.
These are records from a time when there were very few Hindi films – or what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh. I find them interesting, revealing, and often emotional. There is one movie on the set that I come back to over and over again: the somewhat disturbingly titled A Native Street in India (1906). A camera placed in one fixed position records people walking towards it. The street and town are unknown and unknown, almost without any obvious distinguishing features. It is likely that people walking in the street encounter a camera for the first time. They stared into the lens and came back to us 109 years later. It is a moving and hypnotic experience, connecting us with people who died many decades ago. It’s more powerful than any picture, like the Hindi equivalent of one of the Edwardian Mitchell and Kenyon movies about workers leaving the factory all day.
Cumulatively, the films present the extraordinary social and political story of India in the last decades of the Raj, illustrating biblical truths with real people and concrete places. Sometimes the main players have only episodic roles (Mahatma Gandhi has as much screen time as the young Mary Christer, daughter of a filmmaker). But this alternate history still embodies some of the biggest issues: from India’s contribution to two world wars to the rise of the independence movement and the initiation of the terrible human cost of partition.
I hope this project will encourage others who are providing early representations of India to the film to make them available. Much of the legacy of Indian films has been lost, so it feels like a global responsibility to share what’s left – even if it doesn’t always show the history we might want to see.