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India on Film. Photo/Getty Images

Rediscovered documentary footage of India's spectacular history

Restored film shot between 1899 and 1947 turns out to be a remarkable guide to India’s colourful history. 

In 2017, as part of the UK-India Year of the Culture, the British Film Institute presented restored and digitised footage from a precious collection of 300 reels of film captured in India between 1899 and 1947, the year of Indian independence.

The restored clips, still available on the BFI website, are intriguing, but mysterious. Most are silent, so can’t explain themselves – and apart from brief notes on their provenance, there’s no real historical context for them. Where do these films fit in? What do they mean?

That missing context arrives in India on Film (History, Sky 073, Monday, 8.30pm), a two-part documentary presented by Bollywood actor Rahul Bose, with commentary from both Indian and British historians and writers. As historian William Dalrymple points out, moving images illuminate a scene in a very different way to still photographs: 100 years on, we may be far more excited by what’s happening at the edge of the frame, rather than where the camera is being pointed.

Who’s behind the camera is also important. The first episode, “Jewel of the Empire”, features footage shot almost exclusively by early British cinematographers. We see people approaching a static camera in an ordinary, teeming street in a way they would only do if they didn’t know what a camera was. But the images the British were more interested in were those showing the pomp of the durbar, the prince’s court – these were distributed around the globe in newsreels, evidence of the grandeur of the Empire itself. The fact that they were trophy images just encouraged more pageantry.

The second episode, “Hope and Change”, covering India’s path to independence, opens on a reel shot by an Indian film-maker. It doesn’t show ordinary life, but an existence to which most Indians had no access – a garden party staged by members of the Raj and attended by the Indian elite. These were aspirational images, watched by Indians in their own cinemas – and some of the vignettes of social figures in them meant quite different things to audiences then than what we take them for now.

Such is the power of the moving image that by looking closely at the images themselves, India on Film, with its clever editing and lively commentary, emerges as a remarkably accessible guide to India’s social and political history in the first half of the 20th century.

This article was first published in the January 11, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.