SAMUEL BOURNE OF BOURNE & SHEPHERD, among the world’s oldest photography studios, was one of the first commercial photographers to capture the lithe slopes and sparse settlements of Shimla, during the early days of British rule. But when he arrived to set up his studio there, in 1863, a year before the town became the summer capital of India, he was not impressed. “I must confess to disappointment on my first view of Simla,” Bourne wrote in The British Journal of Photography. “A mass of apparently tumble-down native dwellings on the top of a ridge, with bungalows scattered here and there on the sides of a mountain covered partially with fir trees, without a single yard of level cultivated land—such was the appearance of Simla at five miles’ distance, and I naturally began to wonder where I would find the series of views for which I had undertaken this long journey.”
Bourne’s impressions subsequently improved. “A further acquaintance with Simla,” he wrote, “has not altogether banished the disappointment it first gave me, yet it is not to be condemned. It has afforded me a considerable number of pictures of a certain class, while as regards the climate, nothing could be finer.” Yet the tension that Bourne gestured at—between the pretty depictions of Shimla as a pleasant getaway location that one might capture on camera; and its challenging reality as an overgrown settlement clinging to a steep incline—dogged the town’s subsequent history on moving film, and has only increased with time.
As a child growing up in Shimla in the late 1990s, seeing its tilted alleys and streets appear on a screen in a darkened theatre was always a moment of joyful recognition. In 2001, when the Bollywood partition drama Gadar was released across India, in Shimla we watched it as much for iconic scenes like Sunny Deol’s uprooting of a Pakistani hand-pump as for the fact that our own town—in my case, my own school—provided part of the film’s backdrop. The shooting occurred over our winter break, and when Deol appeared in the film singing ‘Udja kale kawan’ to Amisha Patel, the attention of every student of Bishop Cotton School was proudly attuned to our games courts and our War Memorial behind him.