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Around India with a Movie Camera: Film Review Essay by Coonoor Kripalani

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This seventy-two-minute silent documentary film, spliced together and edited by director Sandhya Suri from archival British Film Institute (BFI) clips, cleverly juxtaposes scenes of the daily lives of Indians with that of the activities of the British. Some sections are from news footage, while large parts are drawn from family movies shot by expatriate families, giving the film its greatest value. It provides a firsthand look at how the colonialists lived and how they viewed the empire in India and its people in the first half of the twentieth century.

It opens with a scene shot on the ghats (steps leading down to the river) of Benaras (present-day Varanasi, mistakenly labeled as the banks of the River Ganges in Calcutta!) in 1899, said to be the oldest-known film clip from India. Strikingly, this montage reveals that the city looks pretty much the same 120 years later, with people performing the same rituals on the ghats even in the present. Depictions of everyday life in 1906 are exoticized by showing a baby being bathed, an expressionless little Indian girl being dressed in a sari, and a man holding two leopard cubs, one in each arm. Further along the years, exotic activities recorded range from a performer and his little boy walking on sword blades in Bikaner to what seems like dancers performing at the Hemis Festival in Ladakh to wild horsemen converging on a stranded Englishman in a desertlike area and helpfully towing his car.

Scenes of rural India show, in color-tinted film, ripe bananas being eaten in the fields and men climbing coconut trees to pick coconuts. Other scenes show nautch (dancing) girls in temples performing as a British family undergoes some rituals, while mundane activities like shaving, and socializing conducted on charpoys (a wooden cot with a strung or woven middle), bathing, and cooking in the open are all documented.

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