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.
Coasting the Topography of South Asian Futurisms
As part of Hyperallergic’s Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators, Sadaf Padder presents an exhibition to offer insight into her curatorial process.
I’m a Florida Drag Queen and I’m Scared
I’m truly at a loss for what to do for work and what kind of life I can expect to live.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
An Artist’s Hopeful Vision of the Ocean
Indonesian artist Mulyana crafts a tactile, mystical world in which fish, whales, and coral reefs coexist with sea monsters.
An Introduction to “Afrogallonism”
Serge Attukwei Clottey explores Ghanaian culture and identity through discarded jerrycans and other found materials.
The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation Presents The Feminine in Abstract Painting
Curated by Jennifer Samet and Andrea Belag, this group exhibition in NYC explores the feminine through aesthetics, as opposed to identity or gender.
A Ride With Liz Cohen
Nothing in the artist’s personal biography could predict that she’d one day become a car builder and bikini model.
LA’s Hammer Museum Wants to Be Seen
After two decades of renovations, the museum that calls itself a “well-kept secret” reopens with a mission to be more visible.
NYU Steinhardt Opens 2023 MFA Thesis Exhibitions
Taking place at 80WSE Gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village, Part I is on view from late March through April while Part II opens in May.
AI-Generated “Dope Francis” Fools the Internet
Many thought the picture of Pope Francis in a puffer jacket, created using Midjourney, was the real deal.
1,400-Year-Old Mural of Two-Faced Man Found in Peru
Historians hypothesize that the Moche paintings could represent artists’ attempts to experiment with portraying movement or narrative.
Miniature Worlds: Joseph Cornell, Ray Johnson, Yayoi Kusama
Through small-scale works, this exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York examines Cornell’s prominent role in the lives and careers of Johnson and Kusama.
Louvre Shutters as Pension Plan Protests Intensify
President Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 has sparked widespread demonstrations across the country.
They Managed to Mess Up an Art Heist Movie
There must be a lesson in Vasilis Katsoupis’s film Inside about the vacuousness of the art market or the claustrophobia of exhibition spaces — I just don’t care.