India in early non-fiction film

01 July 2014

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), shot by Jack Cardiff, is a hodgepodge of pompous narration and stellar cinematography.

Uday Bhatia is the assistant editor at Time Out Delhi.

Keywords: cinema censorship British raj colonialism documentary film filmmaking British Pathé Films Division of India