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