Window to past: Rare films from colonial India digitised in UK

Updated on Aug 30, 2017 02:47 PM IST

The British Film Institute has digitised and released on YouTube a collection of travelogues, newsreels, educational films, documentaries and home movies to mark the UK-India Year of Culture.

Screengrab from the film Panorama Of Calcutta, shot in 1899 and believed to be the earliest known surviving film of India in the British Film Institute’s “India on Film: 1899-1947” collection.(Courtesy BFI)
Screengrab from the film Panorama Of Calcutta, shot in 1899 and believed to be the earliest known surviving film of India in the British Film Institute’s “India on Film: 1899-1947” collection.(Courtesy BFI)
Hindustan Times, London | By, London

A film with Calcutta in the title but shot in Varanasi, an early documentary by Bimal Roy and amateur footage of Mahatma Gandhi’s march after the Noakhali riots are among rare films digitised and released by the British Film Institute (BFI) for the UK-India year of Culture.

Produced and presented in partnership with the British Council, the “India on Film: 1899-1947” collection includes the earliest known surviving film of India from 1899, Panorama Of Calcutta. Although the film’s title states Calcutta, the footage shows the ghats of Varanasi. 

BFI head curator Robin Baker said: “Cumulatively, these films offer an extraordinary social and political story of Indian history, seen through the eyes of the filmmakers, and putting flesh on the bones of book facts with real people and very tangible places.”

“The potency of the films is remarkable and undeniable. They are as close as any of us are going to get to time travel.”

One of the films recently unearthed and made available on BFI’s YouTube channel is Indian Durbar (1940), a travelogue shot in Technicolor at Alwar by Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff. 

Screengrab of a scene from Indian Durbar (1940), a travelogue shot in Technicolor at Alwar by Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff. (Courtesy BFI)
Screengrab of a scene from Indian Durbar (1940), a travelogue shot in Technicolor at Alwar by Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff. (Courtesy BFI)

Also digitised is the poetic Tins For India (1941), an early documentary by acclaimed film director Bimal Roy. Unseen for decades, it reveals Roy’s expertise and is considered an early indicator of the humanistic concerns that would become evident in his later work. 

The films and footage were donated to the BFI National Archive from a variety of sources. They include travelogues, newsreels, educational films, ethnographic documentaries, missionary films and a wealth of home movies, many of which have never been seen before. 

Screengrab of a scene from Tins For India (1941), an early documentary by acclaimed director Bimal Roy. (Courtesy BFI)
Screengrab of a scene from Tins For India (1941), an early documentary by acclaimed director Bimal Roy. (Courtesy BFI)

“From everyday scenes of domestic life to celebratory festivals, religious processions, and traditional ritual, these films span Indian society from the ordinary person on the street, rural labourers in the field and the families of the British ruling elite who made India their home, to the very top of Indian society,” the BFI said.

Prakash Magdum, director of the National Film Archive of India, said, “These films are like a kaleidoscope of life in pre-Independence India, shedding light on day-to-day life as well as exotic aspects of Indian society.

“They also take us back to the time when the freedom struggle movement gained momentum. Be it dance, sports, the bazaar, royal weddings, cuisine, festivities, this is a wonderful glimpse into the Indian ways of life.”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Prasun Sonwalkar was Editor (UK & Europe), Hindustan Times. During more than three decades, he held senior positions on the Desk, besides reporting from India’s north-east and other states, including a decade covering politics from New Delhi. He has been reporting from UK and Europe since 1999.

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