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Past made present: ‘India On Film: 1899-1947’

This online collection of newsreels and amateur films, made available by the BFI, is a fascinating look at everyday life before independence

A still from ‘Villenour (French India: Territory Of Pondicherry)’. Photo: Courtesy BFI.
A still from ‘Villenour (French India: Territory Of Pondicherry)’. Photo: Courtesy BFI.

There’s a four-and-a-half-minute film from 1914 on YouTube with the unwieldy title Villenour (French India: Territory Of Pondicherry). Though it has English intertitles, it’s a French film: the stencil-coloured images—of palm trees and hand-pushed rickshaws carrying white sahibs—use a process called Cinemacoloris, developed by Segundo de Chomón, a Spanish film innovator who had worked with Pathé Frères in Paris. The last frame is a curious one: a static shot of the white family being fêted and, in front of them and closest to the camera, a “nautch girl" who has just put on a performance.

If this placement was intended as a parting salvo of exoticism, it is defeated by a small miracle. The dancer, arms akimbo, her sari tinted red, stares directly at the camera. After a few seconds, she looks away, but seems to sense that the camera is still on her, and looks back again. Her wary, fascinated gaze seems to take in not only the camera and its operator, but to somehow look across space and time—to regard us, more than a century later, regarding her.

This is one of the titles uploaded by the British Film Institute (BFI) on its YouTube channel as part of “India on Film: 1899-1947". Part of the BFI’s India on Film season, which has been running in London since April, the collection includes newsreels, home movies and short documentaries from pre-independence India. Though a couple of them (notably, three gorgeous Jack Cardiff-shot Technicolor films) were already on the BFI channel, the majority are surfacing for the first time since their initial screenings. “This is the first time a lot of these have been seen, even by our own archivists," says BFI National Archive head curator Robin Baker. “Many were on extremely fragile materials; we had to transfer them to digital before they could even be viewed."

A still from ‘Calcutta, Darjeeling & Bihar’. Photo: Courtesy BFI.

Most of these films are amateur efforts by Englishmen attempting to give the public back home a glimpse of their lives in India. In between the elephants and rajas, though, some turned their cameras on everyday life in India. “I have a particular fondness for the amateur films," Baker says. “Invariably, the best records of all kinds of things are taken by amateurs, because they tend to take more prosaic things, which professional film-makers would never record." What must have seemed boring to audiences then is invaluable now: street scenes, billboards, newspapers, crowded bazaars. There were Indian newsreel companies before 1947, but whatever footage survives isn’t accessible to the public. This makes the BFI films—and the India-related titles uploaded by the newsreel archive British Pathé three years ago—the only real footage we have of life before independence in this country.

Among the handful of professional films is a fourth Jack Cardiff effort, Indian Durbar (1938), filmed in Alwar, and Tins For India (1941), an educational short on the manufacture of kerosene tins, directed by Bimal Roy, who started off with documentaries before embarking on a monumental feature career that gave us Do Bigha Zameen, Devdas and Bandini. But apart from these and a few other titles, what the camera is observing is often far more interesting than the filmic technique. I was most taken with the detailing of daily routine in a 16mm film from 1920, A Day At St Christopher College And School (Madurai); the three-and-a-half minutes of baby elephant madness that kicks off Indian Elephants In The Service Of Man (1938), filmed by the hunter and author Jim Corbett; and the comical ineptitude of the anti-Congress propaganda film The Truth Will Out (1930).

Even in these rough-hewn films, there are reminders of the heady lo-fi innovation that marked the early years of cinema. The Wonderful Fruit Of The Tropics (1914) has some astonishing stencil work, the green of the trees and fruit jumping out of black and white images. My favourite, though, is Wonderful Temples Of India (1916), whose unnamed maker is so proud of a trick effect that he announces it in an intertitle: “A slow exposure picture—hence the ghost-like effect…" In a way, all the images in this collection are ghost-like, spectres from the days when India was yet to assume its true corporeal self.

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