The year is 1949. The date, August 15. Independent India is two years old, but on news reel number 46 of the Indian News Review there’s no sign of teething trouble. At the London flag ceremony, a dapper Krishna Menon, the Indian High Commissioner, is inspecting the Naval Guard of Honour at Bush House. Women smile shyly in saris and short-cropped hair. In Washington, Vijayalakshmi Pandit is unfurling the tricolour as women sing our anthem in the high twang typical of the period. At a refugee camp in Jammu, the commentator says, “it’s an occasion for bringing Indians and Kashmiris together”, while on Bombay streets, Gokulashtami festivities are on in earnest. There’s sports news too. India’s Gene Raymond is up against Ceylon’s Eddie Gray in a fierce boxing bout – the muscles ripple even on the grainy print – and India wins! Gray is judged “the best loser of the evening”.
Between 1949 and 1974, the first decades of an India living free, dreaming big, and furiously catching up with the world, one thing was constant. Every time you caught a movie at the cinema, a 6-to-12-minute newsreel, the Indian News Review, would play before the main feature. Every Friday, India’s Film Division, a government body, would release one reel of local and international news clippings or one documentary film. Over those years, more than 8,000 films were made, including about 1,800 newsreels.
Each is precious. For those like Anil Kumar, who grew up in a tiny village 22 kilometres from Kottayam, Kerala, in an era before television, a newsreel offered the only glimpses of events as they unfolded. “It was like seeing Nehru, Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Sardar Patel in the flesh,” he says. “It was through these newsreels that we in Kerala saw how our countrymen celebrated Lohri in Punjab, Bihu in Odisha and Pongal in Tamil Nadu.
The reels showed us Kashmir, the Bhakra Nangal dam, bridges and cricket matches that we’d only experienced on the radio. It was our window to the world and our country, and along the way, it captured the essence of a democracy in its infancy.”
Kumar grew up to join the Films Division. His job as the organisation’s distribution and marketing head involves looking after this incredible time capsule of our post-Independence history.
Newsreels reached India early. Featurettes, known as Topicals, showed the Delhi Durbars of 1903 and 1911, political meetings, princely weddings, strikes, the burning of foreign cloth, festivals, Parsi plays, and visits by foreign dignitaries. In the 1940s, when news of the war came via British and American reels, the Indian News Parade aimed to counter the Western bias. Few cared for the local version.
Things changed dramatically in 1948. The new government, seeing film as a key medium of mass communication and education, set up the Films Division (FD). Its aim: to produce newsreels and documentaries that echoed Nehru’s idea of building a unified, modern India. By 1952, every cinema hall in the country was required to screen an FD short before any feature film. Given that most people watched five or six films a year, it meant that a reel about literacy, tolerance, hygiene, development or national achievements would reach a captive audience of about 20 million.
“From the ’50s to the ’70s, the FD had a separate Newsreel division, with a research team that read newspapers and magazines, collated clippings of what they found interesting and discussed them,” says Kumar. “Cameramen, called Newsreel Officers, posted across India would send their feed or await assignments; one call or telegram was all it took to send them running to the spot. In Bombay, the team would edit it all into one capsule.” It didn’t matter if the process took a week or more – who else was there to break the news?
MESSAGE AND MEDIUM
In the UK, British newsreels of the period are a great indicator of what captured the popular imagination then: fashion shows, football matches, royal and celebrity news. In contrast, Indian clips are often dismissed as state propaganda.
Researcher Peter Sutoris, whose book Visions of Development covers the FD’s work during this era, argues otherwise. “Frequently it was possible to detect a tinge of excitement about India becoming an independent country in these films,” he says. The ones about large dams, factories, highways, railways and ports painted a certain aesthetic of industrial modernity. “It was as if the filmmakers were trying to depict industrialisation as a beautiful, virtuous process that they expected the audiences would come to admire as well,” Sutoris says.
It didn’t always work out as intended. Audiences who’d paid for a feature film had no patience for the repetitive preaching and official speeches in the reels. At open-air screenings in the villages, many couldn’t hear them well. “They annoyed me when I was growing up,” says Anil Dharker, writer and onetime head of the National Film Development Corporation. “We had to endure them before we could watch any film.”
Sutoris’s research revealed that people would often be talking, smoking, eating, drinking and socialising while the films were playing. “Often, the cinema would not turn off the lights while showing these films,” he says. “At times newspapers advertised cinema times that included the actual beginning of the feature so that audiences could time their arrival to the cinema to avoid seeing the Films Division documentary/newsreel.”
By 1975, when controls were imposed on the media during the Emergency, the newsreel had already outlived its purpose. Doordarshan beamed the news right into your home, and you could turn it off when you wanted to. “One-week-old news was no longer news,” Kumar says.
Today, while the Films Divison still produces documentary films, their pre-film offerings in cinemas are limited to government public-service announcements.
RESTORING THE REEL
Dharker says that it’s only now, “when I am not subject to them, that I can remember newsreels with any fondness.” Perhaps the rest of India does too. In 2014, eight Indian newsreels were shown outside the country for the first time.
At the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Italy, filmmaker and film restorer Shivendra Singh Dungarpur showcased eight classic 1950s films like Pyaasa, Mother India and Kaagaz Ke Phool. “I wanted to give them an international showcase and the best form of presentation,” he says. To stay true to the period, Singh chose an Indian News Review reel to precede each one of them, selecting ones that focused on entertainment. “They featured President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in Disneyland and Danny Kaye in Delhi,” he says. “People could hardly believe them.”
Today, the best way to see the reels is at the FD’s Archival Research Centre, which in 2013, digitised all of its film material, including every newsreel. The centre looks much like a cyber café, except every search query takes you to the past. Filmmakers, researchers, historians and media students from everywhere drop in.
“It’s too much content to put online,” says Kumar, who says that efforts to create a pay-to-view and pay-to-download library have already begun. Internationally while more and more news footage is made available online (some of the best clips about India are actually from foreign sources on YouTube), newsreel restoration has been on since the 1970s. Governments have been indexing their material for a new generation.
The FD move is a wise one, says Singh. “If everything goes up on YouTube, where will the money for preservation of our films come from?”
With inputs from Anesha George
1895 The news film was created to show news event footage to cinema audiences.
1911 Charles Pathe began making weekly newsreels in Europe.
1926 Films and newsreels were no longer silent. Five companies dominated in America and another five in the UK, competing to show the latest, most exclusive news stories.
1933 The Golden Age of the newsreel began in America. Reels covered the Depression and WWII.
1940s Major American cities had dedicated newsreel theatres, some cinemas even had smaller rooms to screen newsreels all day.
1945 Newsreels fell out of favour after the war and stopped permanently in 1967.