India@70

Working on the BFI India archive meant several moments of ‘open-mouthed astonishment’

India on Film 1844-1947, the British Film Institute’s archive of footage shot in India during the Raj, is a revealing archive of the country’s past.

India on Film 1844-1947 is the British Film Institute’s archive of footage shot mostly by Britishers who lived and worked in India during the Raj. Catalogued and made public this August, over 200 films, some never seen before, reveal life from the coloniser’s perspective, the natives seen through the white gaze. That gaze roamed deep and wide: from walks beside Gandhi to treks into the high mountains of Hunza (a place now inaccessible from India), to the Crown Colony of Ceylon, (now Sri Lanka) the collection is a treasure trove of lost worlds. Some of the films have not been seen for decades – access to them now provides missing fragments in the history of a subcontinent which, after 1947 would never the be same.

In the UK, where knowledge of Empire history and Partition in particular comes mainly from literature and culture (and not so much from the national curriculum), those who have relied on films in the genre of Richard Attenborough, Merchant Ivory or the novels of EM Forster will see the reality behind the technicolour. For British Asians of all generations, the films will show the subjugated homeland of grandparents and great grandparents in all its vast cultural and religious diversity (many of the films are of course, silent – otherwise linguistic diversity would perhaps also feature). For those accessing the archive from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, the films will take on new, different meanings and bring the lives of British intelligence officers, lords and ladies, servants and natives of the ‘jewel in the crown’ into sharp relief.

Play
Madras: Mylapore Tank and Religious Processions (1932).

I had the opportunity to work with the films before the archive was made public. There were moments when I was simply open-mouthed in astonishment at what was on the screen. For example: Frederick Marshman Bailey, who shot a handful of the films, was an explorer – and British special agent. He was born in Lahore and joined the Indian army in 1900. He travelled widely in the Himalayan region, shooting Tibet, Bhutan and Kashmir – always interested in the industrial methods of local people he encountered, in the animal life and market scenes. Perhaps without realising, he captured the exotic lives of his fellow Britishers – the camel races they set up as if jumping horses back home, the open-top cars they travelled in while all around them are donkeys and elephants carting loads. Englishwomen in particular are sometimes seen, their perfect hats and bags in contrast to the indigenous women Bailey was able to film.

Some of the most extraordinary moments come when one realises that he was in the North West Frontier Province and Khyber Pass, shooting footage perhaps even while undertaking spy work as part of the Great Game between Russia and Britain in territory impossible to access today. Other directors in the collection include the missionary films of construction magnate Sir John Laing, and tiger-hunter Jim Corbett, whose personal film Indian Women (1930) is a study in composition – as woman after woman simply stand in front of the camera to be documented.

Play
Wandering Tigers in North India (1935), by Jim Corbett.

My favourite parts of these films show interaction between cultures. On an endless trek to Ladakh (1943), the Englishman hands out cigarettes to his many bearers. In Crafts of Hunza (1937) children watch women crouching on the ground, doing the backbreaking work of beating wool to prepare it for eventual spinning – and then the camera slips to the side, revealing an Englishwoman standing, watching over them.

Monkey Dance (1935) begins with what seems like a group of naked men from Manipur behaving as monkeys – until it becomes clear from the existence of a drummer, the creation of a theatre space using a cane mat and finally, the breakdown of communication between the group, that these are performers, practicing their moves. They line up for the camera at the end, back in their everyday clothes.

Play
Life in Hunza (1937).

Cultural gems aside, the most searing films in the collection are those that reveal areas still affected by Partition-related conflict, such as Kashmir, and those that bear witness to Partition and to the refugee crises it precipitated. The earliest Kashmir film in the collection is a tantalising 28 second glimpse of Scenes from the River Jhelum, shot in 1903. There is 1922 footage shot at the Martand Sun Temple by photographer Randolph Bezzant Holmes, who, while embedded with the British colonial army, also captured military incursions in the NWFP, Srinagar and Rawalpindi.

Play
Srinagar in 1928.

Natural beauty was not lost on these filmmakers, however. Kashmir (1941) begins with a text insert:

The Land whither ye go
Is a Fair Land
Of Hills and Green
Valleys and clear
Running Waters

The film reveals life in Srinagar as one might expect a tourist would capture it – the Dal, with its houseboats and floating vegetable islands; the Shalimar Gardens and the chinar trees – and the trek through an incredible landscape to the ‘sacred cave’ as the film calls it, of Amarnath then up through the barren mountains, to the Kolahoi Galcier. To watch these films there is no sense of the violence to come, making them all the more piercing.

As India and Pakistan reach 70, in Britain, a movement towards a more open national discussion of the trauma caused by Empire and Partition seems to be beginning, with calls for better teaching of that history to be done at school level. The refugee films in the BFI archive have a strong part to play here – they give us the ground reality from a fascinating point of view.

To watch Lahore, Refugees from India (1947) is to see Muslim refugees arriving in carts while the wealthy ship their cars to the new country on open train carriages; the focus is close up but the scale hinted at is epic, and the human stories in every shot too many to encompass. This is a priceless archive for all postcolonial peoples in the UK as well as South East Asia; reminding us of undivided lands, the bonds of shared history and the ways in which we do not want it to repeat.

Play
Lahore: Refugees from India (1947).

Preti Taneja, Leverhulme Early Career Reseach Fellow, University of Warwick, has written the novel We That Are Young.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

Watch Billions Now

2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

Watch Westworld Now

3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

Watch Big Little Lies Now

4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

Watch The Night Of Now

5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

Watch American Horror Story Now

6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

Watch Empire Now

7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

Watch Modern Family Now

8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

Watch The Deuce Now

9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

Available starting October

10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

Watch Rome Now

For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.