India On Film: Documentary by Discovery offers remarkable commentary on colonial gaze over India

Ragini Daliya

Jan 28, 2020 14:00:31 IST

To mark the 70th Republic Day, Discovery India has released a documentary titled India on Film, that explores never-seen-before archival footage restored and digitised by the British Film Institute (BFI). The docu features a bygone era, highlighting India’s rich history, society, and culture, from the 1900s to early stages of Independence.

India On Film comprises several short films merged together, made under different productions, which explores India's social scenario and gives a glance of how life was pre-Independence. The 100-minute documentary deftly examines the authoritative gaze and the manner in which the colonisers regarded their subjects. It takes viewers back in time, to the bustling Calcutta streets, to the pompous darbar (coronation) ceremonies, to the Ganges, and to tea parties where the British rubbed shoulders with Indian royals.

 India On Film: Documentary by Discovery offers remarkable commentary on colonial gaze over India

A still from the British tea party, attended by Indian elite as well | BFI

The documentary is also a stark reminder of the struggle forgone.

As the freedom movement gathered momentum, protests were on the rise across the country and it became clear that the British were on the verge of losing their most prized colony. The docu sees Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to Noakhali, captured by his great nephew, Kanu Gandhi. With this level of exclusive access to Gandhi, he was able to capture shots that would elude any other photographer.

The Independence that brought joy and liberation also initiated unprecedented pain with the partition, an event that triggered one of the bloodiest upheavals in human history. Across the Indian subcontinent, communities that had coexisted for almost a millennium attacked each other in a terrifying outbreak of sectarian violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other—an unexpected mutual genocide followed.

Beyond a deep-dive into the protests, Independence struggle and Partition, the short films within the documentary are amateur efforts by Englishmen attempting to give the public back home a glimpse of their lives in India. The films, almost coloured by prejudice for India, carry a slight mocking tone to it. In the film, Indians Washing a Baby, a woman sits on a low coir cot, legs outstretched, bathing an infant splayed on her shins, while another pours copious amounts of water on his head and back. The bath, in an open courtyard, almost feels orchestrated, so Westerners could amuse themselves with primitive bathing rituals. In the film An Indian Village, religious beliefs and superstitions are parodied, almost implying the hold of western superiority.

However, the docu also has films by filmmakers who saw the country in a different light. One such example is of 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. Aesthetic and lyrical in nature, Tins for India, which was produced by Burmah-Shell challenged the perceptions of India for Westerners, highlighting the nation’s entry into industrial revolution after Independence.

India On Film also follows historians and history buffs, including Sunil Khilnani, William Dalrymple, Veena Hariharan, Faisal Devji and Manu Pillai, who contextualise and critique the colonial gaze. The clips and accompanying voice-over by Bollywood actor Rahul Bose are interspersed with present-day footage of common people watching some of the films being projected on a wall. As the film trails on, a cow passes across the screen. Their thoughts on the film majorly go unrecorded, all we can see is vacant eyes and astonishment. In hindsight, these interspersed videos reek of the same prejudice that the documentary is fighting.

However, within these uncomfortable sequences, the film contains vulnerable moments – a Viceroy’s son having a bit of fun at a tea party, British officials enjoying a picnic on the beach in Puri. These imply a more vivid experience of life in the colony.

In Delhi, Great Capital of India, Delhi is shown at the height of religious celebration. The streets swell with street performers, from all walks of life, who entertain the crowd. While the piece showcases beautiful stencil-colour processing, a sequence of Delhi’s grand monument Jama Masjid surfaces on screen. Bose’s voice-over talks about the rituals, explaining that while Muslim men cleanse themselves before offering prayers in Jama Masjid, it has forever been a testament of India’s shared cultures, for the monument welcomes one and all.

A still from Delhi, Great Capital of India | BFI

A still from Delhi, Great Capital of India | BFI

While India On Film surely allows us a fascinating window to the vanished world, glorifying the rise and fall of British Empire, it also a haunting reminder of all the struggles India fought to find its voice.

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Updated Date: Jan 28, 2020 14:01:58 IST