Earlier this year, British Pathé, the news archive set up in the early twentieth century, released its entire collection of 85,000 films to its YouTube channel, an exercise aimed at making its films accessible to a wider audience. These include nearly a thousand films produced in the Indian subcontinent during the last years of the British Raj and the first few years after Independence, which are now available to anyone with access to a computer. In addition to British Pathé, the archives of the British Film Institute and Colonial Film Database have also been made available on YouTube.
In our July 2014 issue, Uday Bhatia took advantage of the now-online archival film from pre-Independence India to go through some of their collections. His piece, ‘Reeling in the Raj’ examined the portrayal of India in early non-fiction film, and he found that “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.” Here are a few of the films Bhatia suggests watching.
From the British Pathé archives
1. Famine in Bengal (1940–1949)
This short film was made in 1943 for the British government. Directed by Bimal Roy, the film was meant to cast light on the famine of that year in which approximately 3 million people perished. As Bhatia notes, “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…).” Although it professedly presents the tragic events that unfolded at the time, some of the scenes do seem staged.
2. Independence Day in India and Pakistan (1947)
Most of the Pathé archival film consists of collected extra footage. Independence Day is an example of one such roll. Disconnected scenes from various events surrounding 15 August 1947 are sewn together, including candid shots of Jawaharlal Nehru, without his topi, reading the paper in his garden and the Mountbattens greeting and mingling with crowds at a fair.
3. Tools for the Job (1941)
This film about India’s contribution to the Second World War begins with a siren going off and lights being dimmed, and the voice-over line, “Every night the principal cities of India go into purdah.” Directed by Ezra Mir, the film was commissioned to highlight India’s industrial progress during the war effort. However, there is no mention of the British Empire on whose behalf these efforts were made.
4. Men of India! (1941)
Another film that talks about Britain’s “comrades across the seas” depicts the Indian armed forces and the skills of various regiments, but in a rather supercilious tone. Bhatia noted at one point that the narrator “cannot resist describing local soldiers unwinding with a spot of dancing as ‘footing it to the strange rhythms of their ancient country.’”
5. The Trouble in India (1942)
This is a newsreel filmed to quell the fear back home in Britain that the Quit India Movement was gaining traction. The narration, while attempting triumphalism, ends up revealing the desperation the British faced at the time to portray that they were still in complete control of the country.
6. Gandhi Is—Here! (1931)
Another noteworthy film, whose full title was “Gandhi is—Here. The Indian Nationalist leader—whose personality is intriguing the whole world, arrives,” depicts MK Gandhi on a trip to Marseilles, Kent and London. Gandhi was accompanied by Madeleine Slade, aka Mirabehn, a faithful disciple. While Gandhi was on some kind of diplomatic mission, the main point of interest in the film seems to have been his sartorial choices as contrasted with the European style of the day.
From other archives
7. The British Empire in Colour
A three-part series produced by TWI and Carlton Television, The British Empire in Colour was sewn together from hundreds of hours of footage from private film collections and government archives some of which had been previously unseen. This is part one of three.
8. Gateway To India—Bombay (1932)
The FitzPatrick Traveltalks was a series of travelogues that ran in US theatres from 1930 to 1954. The more condescending tone of the British-made films is replaced with a more matter-of-fact one in this compilation of scenes from 1930s Bombay. In his article Bhatia points out that although the host, James A FitzPatrick, “generally focused on the positive aspects of his destinations, he wasn’t averse to the occasional dig.”
9. Delhi (1938)
The renowned cinematographer Jack Cardiff worked in India for nine years before his most famous film, Black Narcissus (1947), was produced. One of the first non-fiction films he worked on in India was Delhi (1938). Shot in vivid Technicolor, this film depicted the capital city as it had rarely been seen before. It’s striking to see how little the venues depicted have changed over the past 76 years.