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.