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Still from “Panorama of Calcutta” (1899), the earliest extant film of India (screenshot via YouTube)

The British Film Institute (BFI) has digitized and uploaded a major trove of rarely seen films from India, making available for free over 250 films that depict life in its former colonies. The online archive includes the earliest extant footage of the country, dating to 1899, and spans all the way to 1947, the year India attained independence.

Launched early August, the collection is rich and varied, recording everything from scenes of domestic life to busy market streets to extravagant religious processions. Drawn from BFI’s own library, they range from travelogues to home movies to documentaries. Over 100 are on YouTube, with the rest available to viewers in the United Kingdom via BFI’s streaming service.

It’s important to note, though, that those behind the camera were largely amateur British filmmakers, including many political officers such as Basil Gould, and that many of these videos were intended for Western audiences.

“This is India seen through the eyes of the colonist and often with strongly propagandist intention,” as head curator Robin Baker writes in an extensive blog post about the collection. “There are films aimed at inculcating the one-big-happy-family notion of Empire into schoolchildren in the UK. There are newsreels that demonstrate and celebrate the pomp and bombast of British rule with the clout of a giant sledgehammer. Watching films of racing at Calcutta or Shillong you’d be excused for thinking that there were very few actual Indians in India. And there is spectacle — especially in the films of the 1911 Delhi Durbar — that leaves me both awestruck and horrified.”

Of course, there are also the images that highlight the country and its citizens as exotic, including many scenes of animals and snake charmers. The earliest known surviving film, “Panorama of Calcutta,” is a seemingly innocent recording of daily activity along the riverbank; produced by Warwick Trading Company, however, the footage of people washing clothes and bathing was marketed in a way that emphasized their “otherness.” Its title is also incorrect, as the footage was really shot in Varanasi.

There are a number of films shot by Indians, including previously unseen footage of Mahatma Gandhi, filmed by his grandnephew Kanu Gandhi, during the activist’s famous sojourn in Noakhali in 1947. Another arrives from the celebrated filmmaker Bimal Roy: “Tins for India” (1941), an early, mesmerizing documentary that centers on the manufacture of kerosene cans in a factory. It’s also one of the few uploaded films with sound.

Other recordings of note include an early stencil color film of a Delhi street scene from 1909; a film commissioned by then-Lord Erwin that shows colonizers and Indians having an awkward time at a party; and an epic view of worshippers at Lahore’s Badshahi Mosque from 1933 — filmed, according to Baker, with full approval of the mosque’s authorities.

“Cumulatively, these films offer an extraordinary social and political story of Indian history, seen through the eyes of the film-makers, and putting flesh on the bones of book facts with real people and very tangible places,” Baker said in a statement. “The potency of the films is remarkable and undeniable. They are as close as any of us are going to get to time travel.”

The collection is uploaded in partnership with the British Council as part of BFI’s contribution to the UK-India Year of Culture 2017, a bilateral, yearlong celebration of cultural exchange. Details for many of the films, such as their locations and subjects, are still missing, but Baker hopes that viewers will be able to help BFI solve some mysteries to gradually improve the collection.

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...