IN MAY 1947, Black Narcissus, a Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger feature film about a group of nuns going stir-crazy in the Himalayas, was released in the United Kingdom. The reviews were enthusiastic, and more than a few critics actually believed that the film was shot in India. In fact, the two main locations, a convent and a palace, were sets created in Pinewood Studios, Buckinghamshire, while Leonardslee Gardens in West Sussex stood in for a Himalayan valley. Few reviewers seemed aware—or thought it worth mentioning—that the cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, had worked in India nine years before the film’s release, shooting non-fiction shorts that had the same tinge of heady unreality as Black Narcissus.
By the time of Black Narcissus, Cardiff had a reputation as one of the best colour cinematographers in the business. In 1936, however, he was just another cameraman beginning his career with a little documentary work. He was hired that year by Count von Keller, an émigré from Nazi Germany, and his wife, to shoot a series of ten-minute Technicolor travel films to be distributed by American film studio United Artists. In 1938, the Kellers, Cardiff and the German director Hans Nieter arrived in India. The first film they shot here was A Road in India, an orgy of Orientalist clichés. In the space of nine minutes, it shows an elephant, a “local raja” carried on a palanquin, a snake-charmer and a yogi—all to illustrate what a typical Indian road is like. Superficial as it is, the film is made watchable by the Italian composer Giovanni Fusco’s buoyant score (he later worked on classics such as Hiroshima Mon Amour and L’Avventura) and Cardiff’s cinematography, especially the long, unbroken tracking shot through a village—a camera movement that found an unexpected echo in the village funeral scene in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007).
Temples of India (1938), the second Cardiff–Nieter film shot here, was another hodgepodge of pompous narration and stellar cinematography. After presenting the temples of Varanasi and Belur, the film abandons its main theme in favour of giving its Western audience their money’s worth with “Shiva’s dance of destruction”—Cardiff shoots the bronzed figure of a dancer against a black backdrop in a highly dramatic sequence. The last “temple” on the list is the Taj Mahal, which was to be filmed by night, forcing Cardiff to improvise. “In those days Technicolor film was too slow for night exposure, so I made an attempt at day-for-night photography,” he wrote in his autobiography, Magic Hour (1997). With the help of two poles, wire, plasticine, reflectors and a pale blue filter, he changed “the sunny day into a starry night.”
Cardiff wasn’t the only Englishman exchanging day for night at the time. The British government took a keen interest in how India was portrayed on film, controlling the cinematic image of its colony through films that it commissioned, and also tempering or eliminating criticism in independent films through censorship. Newsreels and shorts were used to bump up army recruitment, play down national crises and sell a positive image to key allies. In the First World War, Germany showed the world how effective a propaganda tool cinema—especially non-fiction cinema—could be. Britain was keen to follow suit, and India, the jewel in the Empire’s crown and an enthusiastic film-going nation from the start, was the ideal place to experiment.
Today, online archival material has given us a chance to see pre-Independence India as it was once seen by the rest of the world. Hundreds of scratchy newsreels, documentaries and amateur films, most of them unremarkable but for the possibility of their containing some vital clue to our social or cultural DNA, can be found on film company websites, in assorted archives, and scattered across YouTube. The British Film Institute’s YouTube channel hosts the Cardiff-Nieter films, as well as some very early documentary footage shot in India: Panorama of Calcutta (1899)—Varanasi, actually—and An Indian Washing the Baby (1906). Harappa Bazaar, a website with a twin focus on the Indus Valley civilisation and the British years in India, collates old Universal and March of Time newsreels about the freedom struggle. Videos presented online by the Colonial Film Database, when they work, include bulletins of the Indian News Parade, the only pre-1947 newsreel series produced in India, and the historical (not to mention hysterical) fiction of The Relief of Lucknow (1912), a retelling of the events of 1857. But the best place to start gazing into the past is the British Pathé archive, which hosts over a thousand India-centric videos, and which recently threw its virtual doors open on YouTube.
THE SOCIÉTÉ PATHÉ FRÈRES was founded in Paris in 1896, just a year after cinema was born with the Lumière brothers’ first film. Charles Pathé and his brother Émile began their careers selling phonographs and peephole viewing devices based on Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope. Later, they developed their own cameras and projectors, and began to produce films. Business was brisk in those early days when moving images on the wall weren’t entirely dissociated from magic. Charles’ particular genius lay in the way he inserted Pathé into every stage of the production and marketing process, from manufacturing film stock and cameras to distributing and screening movies. The company’s famous cockerel logo was everywhere: on cameras and projectors, on the outside of cinema halls and in films themselves. By 1907, as Richard Abel wrote in The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema, 1896–1914, Pathé had agencies in the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia and Central Europe, and had started moving into the colonised areas of Southeast Asia and South Asia, South and Central America, and Africa. “I did not invent the cinema, but I industrialised it,” Charles would later claim.
Pathé’s association with India dates back to the company’s earliest years. At the turn of the century, the company sent a crew to shoot in Calcutta, and in the process inaugurated a long-standing love affair between French filmmakers and the city. Pathé entered the Indian market through a third-party retailer in 1904, selling phonographic and cinematographic equipment, before taking over its own interests in the country and setting up shop in Lindsay Street, Calcutta, in 1907. Advertisements published in the Times of India in the early 1920s point to the breadth of the company’s influence: one notice promotes Pathé projectors as an educational aid, while another claims that using a “Pathé Baby” amateur camera is “easier than ordinary photography and costs less.” In January 1924, Bombay’s Royal Opera House was rechristened the Pathé Cinema. A playbill announced the event, calling Pathé “The best known trade mark in the world.”
The newsreel came into being in 1908, with the launch of Pathé-Faits Divers in France. This collection of short current-affairs bulletins was an astounding innovation for its time. The first radio news broadcast was still 12 years away, and the only other sources of up-to-date news were the dailies. Movie companies treated newsreels as animated newspapers, using broadsheet terms—words such as “journal,” “gazette” and “chronicle”—in naming them. Pathé soon opened newsreel divisions in the United States (Pathé News) and Britain (Pathé Animated Gazette). The first Animated Gazette came out in June 1910, and proved a huge success with British audiences. The trade journal The Bioscope reported that its release had “just about beaten all records for the interest which it has awakened among the great B.P. [British Public]” Two years later, FA Talbot, a science and technology author with a particular interest in cinema, wrote in his book Moving Pictures that the newsreel was gaining traction in Australia, India and other British colonies, as it served “to bring the world’s happenings far more vividly before the public … than can be done in a brief newspaper cablegram or a single photograph published in the pages of the illustrated weeklies.”
British Pathé quickly established itself as one of the world’s major newsreel companies. An intertitle in a 1915 news bulletin placed its viewership at over 20 million. It was to Britain what The March of Time was to America: a newsreel that embodied the personality of the nation, almost to the point of parody. By the time British Pathé stopped newsreel production, in February 1970, it had an archive that stretched from the Edwardian summer to the Prague Spring. Its library subsequently passed through several hands (the recording and publishing multinational EMI, among others), and, in 2002, funds from the UK National Lottery allowed for the digitisation of the collection—some 3,500 hours of newsreels, cinemagazines and shorts. In 2008, British Pathé became an independent archive, no longer part of any corporation. Finally, in April this year, it uploaded 85,000 clips—essentially the entire newsreel collection—onto its YouTube channel. “We wanted to get these newsreels seen in their original form by the public at large,” a spokesperson for the archive said over email. “And the best way to reach them directly seemed to be by uploading everything to YouTube.”
Unsurprisingly, a number of these newsreels concern India; precisely 1,069 of them, by the count of the British Pathé website. These are grouped under categories like “Religion and Politics,” “Historical Figures and Celebrities” and “Lifestyle and Culture”; they include reports on state visits, political meetings, festivals, famines, tea-picking and cricket, among much else. Within this archive, there are glancing or direct mentions of every major event that shaped Indian history in the first half of the twentieth century: the non-cooperation and civil disobedience movements, the Rowlatt Act, the Salt Satyagraha, the famine of 1943, the formation of the Muslim League, Independence and Partition. Look closely, and you also see the seeds of future struggles, such as those surrounding Khalistan or Kashmir, being sown. It’s like watching history unfold—albeit a strange, refracted version of it, a personal story narrated by an unfamiliar voice.
THE FIRST MAJOR INFLUX of foreign newsreel companies into India came with the 1911 Coronation Durbar, a grandiose ceremony organised in honour of King George V and Queen Mary’s visit to the country. Over the next decade, newsreels became increasingly common. During the First World War, with battles to win and soldiers to recruit, the government aggressively promoted the exhibition of British-made shorts and newsreels; films such as The Battle of the Somme (1916)—edited by Charles Urban, who earlier shot the Delhi Durbar in Kinemacolor (one of the earliest colour processes)—and Sons of Our Empire (1917). Film historian BD Garga, in his invaluable From Raj to Swaraj: The Non-Fiction Film in India, writes, “That these propaganda films had clearly been effective was visible when within weeks 290,000 fully trained and equipped troops, 210,000 of them Indian, were on their way to France and Egypt.” By the mid 1920s, newsreel companies like British Movietone, Gaumont Graphic, Fox Movietone News, Metrotone, Universal and British Pathé were covering events in India on a frequent basis.
With the majority of newsreels geared towards Western sensibilities, many Indians were less than enthused. “How much longer do we have to tolerate that half hour of dribbling, drooling nonsense on the screen,” the journalist SA Sabavala complained in The Bombay Sentinel in the mid 1940s. “We are tired of making chapattis, grinning at Generals and firing precious ammunition into the atmosphere. We are tired of incoming and outgoing Viceroys, garden parties and futile conferences.” Though Sabavala’s tirade was aimed at the Indian News Parade, a newsreel brought out by the British government in India between 1943 and 1946, it also happens to be an accurate description of the bulk of India-related clips in the Pathé archive. The sheer number of newsreels featuring both visiting and home-grown royalty, and loyal Gunga Dins in service of king and country, is staggering. It also offers a good indication of what the British public at the time wanted to see of the colony (or, at least, what the newsreel companies thought it wanted to see).
From French Algeria to the US invasion of Afghanistan, imperialist filmmaking has tended to de-personalise the occupied and situate them onscreen in groups, hinting, among other things, at a supposed propensity for mob violence. This grouping is in evidence in several of the Pathé clips, which invariably have the British in close-up, and the Indians—represented by faceless crowds or uniformed troops and servants—relegated to the background. When India is in sharper focus, the subject is usually an example of the locals’ otherness: a semi-naked holy man, a prince, a snake-charmer. Like the Cardiff-Nieter shorts, the pre-Independence Pathé films are happy to paint India as a land of mystery and superstition, being ushered into the modern age by the benevolent British Empire. A typical example is an intertitle from The Country That is India (1933), which reads “Here the faithful—there the beggars—and sometimes the self-inflicted penitent,” the penitent being a sadhu on a bed of nails. Even the positively inclined Men of India! (1941) cannot resist describing local soldiers unwinding with a spot of dancing as “footing it to the strange rhythms of their ancient country.” In an era when feature films made in the West were doing all they could to exoticise India, it’s important to note that non-fiction films weren’t all that far behind.
Thin-skinned nationalists will find plenty that’s politically incorrect, misinformed or just plain irritating in the Pathé clips. Though Pathé was a private company, not a government unit, these newsreels nevertheless mirror the shifts in British policy towards India. There’s the paternal tone of the early years, when people were still calling the British presence in India ‘the Raj’ (With the Duke of Connaught in India, 1921), and the self-deluding attitude towards growing political unrest (Now What’s All This About, 1929; about rioting strikers in Bombay). A dozen or so films glorify the Indian soldier—a vital cog in the Empire’s machinery—but you’ll find few reports in the archive on Indian political meetings, especially ones in which Gandhi participated. (Once-banned footage of the Mahatma can be found on Gandhiserve.org.) There’s the increasingly desperate tone of newsreels such as TheTrouble in India (1942), made at a time when the call for independence could no longer be wished away. Some clips from the mid 1940s show a softer imperialism at work; in Back to the Land (1944), an upper-class Indian housewife is told that the metal chair she wants to purchase will be used to make arms for the country’s soldiers instead. India Takes Over (1947) is a hilariously pompous goodbye: “Britain has fulfilled her mission; it is for India to make her destiny.” Post-Independence clips, from the 1950s and 1960s, finally show an interest in subjects that British-era newsreels rarely touched, such as poverty and local protests.
Nevertheless, the Pathé archive offers a great opportunity to gaze on a living, breathing historical India that few of us today have seen. It is the largest collection of documentary footage from India’s early years that the public has easy, unrestricted access to. We may each thrill to different things—a square cut by the legendary batsman Ranji, or a joint appearance by Gandhi and Chaplin—and that is fine, just as long as we’re on the lookout for revelations. If one accepts Jean-Luc Godard’s maxim that cinema is truth at 24 frames per second, then lying dormant in this archive, waiting to be re-edited, is a fragmented version of India’s journey from the turn of the century to Independence and beyond.
MANY OF THE PATHÉ ARCHIVE VIDEOS are unused B-roll—extra footage of important events, sans narration or structure. Watching these requires patience, but the fly-on-the-wall pleasures they yield are unique. Take, for instance, the lovely, unguarded moments in Independence Day in India and Pakistan (1947), with Jawaharlal Nehru sitting topi-less in the garden, reading the first post-Independence edition of a newspaper in India, then staring straight into the camera and smiling briefly. Gandhi’s Assassin’s Trial (1948) shows Nathu Ram Godse in court, where the atmosphere is surprisingly relaxed, almost jocular. A visibly delighted crowd watches the first ever Republic Day parade in India Becomes a Republic (1948), with Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Rajendra Prasad, C Rajagopalachari and Maulana Azad making cameo appearances. There is also video—the only such footage online—of India’s first general elections. Congress supporters cycle through Delhi’s Connaught Place shouting slogans, and Nehru’s face appears alongside two bulls on a poster. It’s quite touching to see young and old, rich and poor, villager and city-dweller alike line up to participate in what a government-sponsored film of the time called “the great experiment” (or, as the journalist CR Srinivasan put it in Indian Review, “the biggest gamble in history”).
Even when there are written or spoken lines, sometimes one must read between them. Every film made in pre-Independence India—fiction and non-fiction, local and foreign—was subject to strict censorship under the Cinematograph Act of 1918, which gave the government wide-ranging powers. In FromRaj to Swaraj, Garga writes that “any film vaguely suggestive of patriotism or deemed to ‘incite disaffection against the government’ was banned.” While some Indian companies risked sending crews to cover political meetings (the Maharashtra Film Company’s Indian National Congress 1918, released in 1920, offered audiences a chance to “See the late lamented BG Tilak living and moving before you once again”), British newsreel companies were happy to toe the line. Seen today, some of the Pathé films are the equivalent of a tea party being filmed while a riot rages on outside. Prince in India (1921) assures viewers that a recently concluded India tour by the Prince of Wales—later Edward VII—was an all-round success. Actually, his arrival in Bombay was marked by a protest rally at which Gandhi addressed a crowd of 60,000, followed by a massive bonfire of imported cloth. The event was covered by local film companies like Madan Theatres and the Anglo-Oriental Corporation, who were later forced to remove the protest scenes. Luckily, an American newsreel cameraman’s footage somehow got past the censors, and a surviving playbill from August 1921 confirms that The Great Bonfire of Foreign Cloth played for a week at Bombay’s West End and Globe theatres.
The Pathé clips that do discuss local politics rely on the vocabulary of an occupying state. Every effort was made to call protests “disturbances” and riots “scuffles.” TheTrouble in India (1942) informs viewers that the massive demonstrations of the Quit India movement were the work of a few “hooligans and agitators” who “by no means represent the vast majority of India’s millions.” Similar language was used over a decade earlier to describe the death of the freedom fighter Jatin Das, who died September 1929 after a 63-day fast in prison to demand better conditions for political detainees. India... the Empire’s Greatest Problem Today (1930) skips most of the details of Das’s death, instead carrying an intertitle about the “fanatical hordes” that were “martyrising” him. Among much else, it fails to mention Bhagat Singh, a close associate of Das, who conducted his own hunger strike—a protest that lasted a monumental 112 days—in the same jail. The film is accurate in one respect: Das’ death did make him a martyr. His funeral procession in Calcutta brought some six lakh people onto the streets, and catalysed the briefly successful Chittagong uprising of 1930.
"LISTEN TO THE CRY OF BENGAL! See her sorry state! Today, all of Bengal is begging you for food … These streets and houses were full of life yesterday, but today they lie empty and devastated…”
These are the opening lines of a remarkable short film, made by an Indian company for the British government, which somehow ended up in the Pathé archive. Famine in Bengal (Bengal Ki Pukar) was produced in 1943, with the intention of raising relief funds, by the Calcutta-based production house New Theatres, under the supervision of the Film Advisory Board (which re-formed as Films Division after Independence). The
film is a devastating look at the ongoing tragedy of the famine, which ended up claiming at least three million lives. The narrator, speaking in Punjabi, can barely keep the emotion out of his voice as he implores, “Madad karo, madad karo, madad...” (Help, help, help…). Some of the scenes might have been staged, others couldn’t possibly have been. Starving bodies jostle for handouts of free food. Gates and doors are shut on outstretched hands bearing empty bowls. A young boy’s corpse is placed on a stretcher. A woman carries her dead son to a cremation ground. A man walking down the street drops a bowl of food, and a child runs to pick it off the road and eat it. One newspaper reports 68 dead on Thursday; another, 102 on Sunday.
Bengal Ki Pukar is a searing piece of socio-political filmmaking. It’s so haunting that it feels like the work of a skilled director, and, though the credits only mention the production house, it actually is. When the government-run FAB asked New Theatres to make the film, its founder, BN Sircar, put an unknown young man named Bimal Roy in charge. Years later, long after Roy had entered the pantheon of great Indian filmmakers, his collaborator on Do Bigha Zamin and Devdas, cinematographer Kamal Bose, described the experience of shooting the famine as it unfolded to Rinki Bhattacharya, the director’s daughter. “For a fortnight, Bimalda, along with us, went around Calcutta shooting. What we saw was unbearable. People cried for a drop of starch. If anyone dropped a crumb of bread, riot broke out between famine victims. Our coverage was gruesomely real.” One can only imagine the effect it might have had on people in other parts of the country. After it was handed over to the authorities, the film was never shown to the public, probably due to its incendiary nature.
Another fascinating, if guarded, short by an Indian company is Ezra Mir’s Tools for the Job (1941). Also commissioned by the FAB, it resembles the sort of films the Board gained a reputation for making in its post-Independence avatar—ones that highlighted the cultural roots of India andits progress as an industrial nation. Mir’s filmis a lyrical look at a prosaic subject: India’s contribution to the Second World War, which included everything from manufacturing cloth and equipment to supplying troops. The film stresses India’s usefulness to the Allied cause, but makes no mention of the British Empire or of the strong gusts of nationalism blowing through the country. (Compare this with the similarly themed Pathé film War Industry in India (1942), which ends with the words “Out of the land of India come the practical necessities to support the Empire’s will to win.”) In his notes on the film for the online Colonial Film Database, Richard Osborne, professor at Middlesex University, suggests that Mir might have been trying to please one audience too many, leaving the film’s ultimate message ambiguous. Still, the lovely mood lighting, the semi-classical score and the film’s sense of pride in India’s growing self-sufficiency make this a fascinating slice of unconventional wartime propaganda, as well as an indicator of a future aesthetic for Indian non-fiction film. It’s films such as these, made for a home-grown audience by local directors under government supervision, that led Garga to describe Indian documentary as “a war baby, conceived by the British and nurtured by the Indians.”
SUSPENDED BETWEEN BRITAIN’S IDEA OF India and the nation’s image of itself are the American newsreels and short films of the pre-Independence era. British newsreels were taken with a pinch of salt back in the United States. In a 1941 letter, RR Ford, the films officer for the British Library of Information in New York, told J Hennessey of the Home Department in Britain that the “fundamental problem is the unfortunate fact that very little, if anything, that a British person says about Indian affairs is believed here.” Though Britain was a friend and ally, the United States also had a measure of sympathy for another nation attempting to break with its colonial masters. This cautious enthusiasm for the Indian freedom struggle can be seen in one of the American newsreels in the Pathé archive. Gandhi Fast Brings New Indian Crisis! (1932)speaks admiringly of the “frail Hindu leader whose self-imposed hunger strike has stirred millions,” and only then presents, without comment, the British viewpoint, in the form of a statement by Sir Frederick Sykes, then the governor of Bombay.
Another American take on 1930s India appears in the FitzPatrick Traveltalks episodes, a couple of which are available on YouTube. This MGM-produced series ran in US theatres from 1930 to 1954, with host James A FitzPatrick, a producer and narrator popularly known as “The Voice of the Globe,” introducing viewers to various far-flung locations. As with the Kellers’ World Window films, each episode is around ten minutes long. The similarities end there: the Keller films are condescending and reductive, whereas FitzPatrick sounds genuinely curious and enthusiastic about the places he visits. In Gateway to India (1932), he talks about Bombay, the caste system, the cultural significance of tulsi, and the way “the new cuts into the old,” but is just as fascinated by a tiny trained bird doing tricks. His eye for the esoteric (as opposed to the exotic) is also evident in Colorful Jaipur (1932); here, he films a monkey with a rifle, and a near-accident between a camel-drawn carriage and a motorcar. Even though FitzPatrick—described by Time as “a temperamental, blue-eyed romanticist”—generally focused on the positive aspects of his destinations, he wasn’t averse to the occasional dig. In Benares: The Hindu Heaven (1931), he disapprovingly mentions the city’s “unholy holy men,” and the practice of sati.
Besides the films and archives mentioned above, other footage from both private and government archives has also resurfaced over the years in documentaries and on television. Worth watching in its entirety is the remarkable three-part series The British Empire in Colour, by UK production house TWI and London’s Carlton Television. Released in 2002, the film is pieced together from over one hundred hours of rare colour footage of the former British colonies. And no colour footage is rarer than the few surviving minutes from the 1911 Coronation Durbar. The Durbar was a chance for the British Raj to show India off; over £760,000 were spent to ensure that everyone was sufficiently dazzled. Pathé, Gaumont, Urban, Warwick Trading Company and Barker Motion Photography were some of the companies present to record the event. Official access, though, was granted only to Anglo-American filmmaker Charles Urban, who’d helped develop and popularise the Kinemacolor process.
Urban employed five cameramen to shoot the event, including one Reverend J Gregory Mantle, who’d also shot the previous Delhi Durbar in 1903. The resulting film, With Our King and Queen through India, was two and a half hours long, and covered not only the spectacle of the Durbar but also the royal visits to Calcutta and Bombay, as well as scenes of everyday life. It played across England and even in New York in 1912, and was, by all accounts, the world’s first colour (and extended newsreel) blockbuster. “Mr Charles Urban’s work in India is indeed a panorama of extraordinary beauty, and should prove invaluable to the historian,” Glasgow’s Evening Times predicted.
It certainly would have, had the reels not gone missing. In fact, the film was given up as lost until Adrian Wood, an archival film producer on The British Empire in Colour, heard rumours that old Urban reels might be lying in an archive in Krasnogorsk, on the outskirts of Moscow. Wood took a flight to the Russian capital, headed out to the archive, and started examining the films. He came across one whose label described it as showing Indian units fighting on the Western Front in the First World War. “When I examined the film in detail, and looked to see if it had any of the typical Kinemacolor features, I found out that this was no Western Front in France but a fragment of Urban’s film,” Wood told the Czech film journal Cinepur. In The British Empire, we see two out of the surviving 12-and-a-half minutes of Durbar footage—scenes of a military review at Badli-ki-Sarai, with soldiers marching, canons being fired and the 21st Lancers galloping past.
As fascinating as the Durbar scenes, and almost as rare, is The British Empire’s footage from 1947. There’s a magical moment when the first unfurling of the Indian flag on independent home soil is greeted by a perfectly timed, tricolour-mimicking rainbow. (Keen observers will also spot Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first female photojournalist, striding purposefully towards the camera in a later scene.) The seriesalso includes a couple of minutes from the only known colour film of Partition in existence. This footage was donated to London’s Imperial War Museum in the 1990s; the series’television premiere was the first time the public saw colour footage of Indian houses burning and people fleeing by train, by bullock cart and on foot. “The refugee scenes are extraordinary,” the museum’s archivist Kay Gladstone told The Guardian. “The immediacy of the colour makes us respond because we all lack the imagination to see this kind of pain in black and white newsreel.”
AFTER INDEPENDENCE, the new government decided that state-controlled dissemination of news wasn’t such a bad thing after all. In 1948, it reconstituted the Film Advisory Board, which was earlier split into Information Films of India and Indian News Parade and was finally disbanded in 1946 (this might be one reason why we don’t have a properly synchronised camera recording of Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech). The board was now called the Films Division of India, a name that struck fear into the hearts of cinemagoers who just wanted to watch Dev Anand without having to learn about jute farming in Assam first. The government, again following the British example, passed the Cinematograph Act of 1952, which made it compulsory for every cinema hall in the country to show a Films Division short before every main feature. There was even a newsreel called Indian News Review, complete with plumy narration in English.
While the Films Division may not have set imaginations on fire in those early years, it did achieve something tremendously important by placing, for the first time, a realistic picture of India on screens across the nation. Anthropological, social and cultural films, ranging from KL Khandpur’s Feminine Fashions (1950) to Mohan N Wadhwani’s Khujuraho (1956), were especially encouraged. By the mid 1950s, independent companies like the Shell Film Unit were producing lyrical non-fiction shorts like Fali Bilimoria’s A Village in Travancore and Hari S Dasgupta’s The Story of Steel, the latter boasting a script by Satyajit Ray, a soundtrack by Ravi Shankar and camerawork by Claude Renoir, Jean Renoir’s nephew. Directors like Ezra Mir, PV Pathy and A Bhaskar Rao, who’d earlier made newsreels for the British, now worked with Films Division, updating, educating and flattering their countrymen.
Even the outside world was beginning to see India in a less exotic light. Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) wasn’t a documentary, but for the American and European audiences who saw it back then, it may as well have been. Famous directors began to visit and make films about life in the country. Jean Renoir’s adaptation of Rumer Godden’s The River (1951), shot in and around Calcutta, was one of the first attempts by a foreign feature director to capture a more everyday India. Roberto Rossellini turned up in 1957 to make India: Matri Bhumi, a collection of fictional and documentary vignettes that critic Andrew Sarris called “one of the prodigious achievements of this century”. Louis Malle made his own documentary series, the warts-and-all PhantomIndia, in 1969. By then, Indian non-fiction film had also come of age. After a decade and a half of films geared towards nation-building, the mid 1960s and early 1970s saw a series of provocative, inventive films from Films Division directors such as SNS Sastry (I Am 20), S Sukhdev (India ’67) and Pramod Pati (Explorer). Then came the Emergency, and the state-run film unit became, once again, a propaganda tool.
Though Films Division shorts no longer play in movie theatres, a handful of independent feature-length documentaries have managed to sneak into cinemas over the past year or two. One such film was Celluloid Man (2012), Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s tribute to PK Nair, a film archivist responsible for preserving countless classics of early Indian cinema. In a way, the emergence of the Pathé archive and others of its ilk complements Nair’s life’s work. In terms of audio-visual historical record, we now have something approaching the complete picture, with both the actual events and their cinematic adaptations archived. For instance, we have footage of the Bengal famine from Pathé, and a print of Dharti Ke Lal, KA Abbas’ classic 1946 feature film on the catastrophe, sitting in the vaults at the National Film Archive of India, an institution founded in 1964 by Nair. With each passing year, there are fewer living witnesses of Gandhi and Nehru, the freedom struggle and Partition. Soon, we’ll have to depend on these flickering images from newsreels and old 35mm prints for stories of what India was like before Independence.